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As TV's Laura Holt, the chic and cheeky detective who does most of the work on Remington Steele, Stephanie Zimbalist finds the course of true love fraught with peril. When she finally connects with the man of Steele, their steamy clinches are inevitably cut short by shotgun blasts, mad bombers and falling bodies. In real life, Stephanie's road to romance is almost as treacherous. But the problems are much less exotic- the kind most women encounter. She wants marriage and feels ready for it, she says, but finding a partner, a lifetime mate, seems to be the toughest case to crack.
"Where do you find someone like that?" she asks thoughtfully, sipping a cup of tea. She's sitting in the den of her sunny Southern California home, a comfortable room filled with leather chairs, books, stereo and video equipment and an imposing stone fireplace. Dressed casually, with no makeup and her brown hair pulled back in a ponytail, she looks 18, not 27. She settles on the sofa and rests her feet on a table of rough-hewn wood.
"Women still pretty much wait to see who's going to come and sign their dance cards. If I see an interesting man, I sit and wonder if he's going to approach me. If he doesn't, I think, Oh, well, that was that. We've been trained that way.
"We tend to think that women who go after men are piranhas, barracudas, dragon ladies. So we just sit around and wait for someone to knock on the door. I know so many women in this town who are just terrific, and they're still single. Still waiting. And I'm talking about intelligent, warm, funny, caring, talented, affectionate women. I know hardly any single men like that."
Stephanie's precise, boarding-school speech is punctuated often by easy laughter. "When I went to exercise class this morning, the instructor was this guy whose head is so light he's bouncing off the ceiling. He shows up to teach class in a pair of trunks with a big crab over the crotch. You have to laugh at someone like that. But where are the other ones?"
She gazes into her teacup, as if attempting to see the future. "The funny thing is that, no matter how you conduct yourself, whether you're promiscuous and sleep around, which no one should even think about these days, or you just sit waiting for the knock at the door, you're only really in search of one. Just one. But it's real competition, a free-for-all, a melee. I think that if I'd met the right one when I was fifteen, I'd still be with him."
When she's shooting, Stephanie's day begins at 4:30 A.M.; evenings are often devoted to learning lines. That doesn't leave much time to hunt for Mr. Right. "It really comes down to who comes across your path," she says, sighing.
In truth, Stephanie doesn't seem terrifically worried by the difficulties she's been discussing. In fact, she exudes confidence and a sense of herself as a golden girl who accepts a charmed life as her due. That confidence stems from her heritage: Her mother, Stephanie Spalding Zimbalist, comes from a long line of distinguished diplomats; her father is the actor Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.- himself a TV sleuth on the long-running 77 Sunset Strip and The FBI- and her paternal grandparents are the opera singer Alma Gluck and violin virtuoso Efrem Zimbalist.
The family moved to California when she was a baby; Stephanie attended tony but tough private schools. At the all-girl Marlborough School in Los Angeles, she recalls, "I had midterms in seventh grade that lasted three hours. I was interested in diving then, and had some prospects of going to the junior Olympics, but I would have had to drop out of that school. I couldn't have done both- I had five hours of homework every night." Former classmate Robin Bernheim, Stephanie's best friend since fifth grade, recalls that Stephanie used to walk around campus with all her textbooks stacked up on her head until she was severely reprimanded for her conduct. The pair ran not with the social crowd, but with the "intellectuals." "Our bond was our grade-point average," Stephanie says, laughing. In her junior year, she transferred to Foxcroft, and exclusive school in Virginia's fox-hunting country. After graduation, she was torn between studying science at Stanford and acting at Juilliard. She chose acting, with the approval of a family she calls supportive and close. In the case of her parents, that's true physically as well as emotionally; they live just 15 minutes away. Older sister, Nancy Alma, runs a theater magazine in New York, and brother, Efrem III, is chairman of the board of Correia Art Glass, a glass company, which has works on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and in the home of his proud sister. It's curious, Stephanie thinks, that she is the only one of the three to follow her father into acting- and she recalls how that almost didn't happen. After a year at Juilliard, the school told her to take a year off to mature. Stunned and hurt, she returned to Los Angeles and threw herself into singing lessons. As often as four times a week, she made a 150-mile round trip up the California coast to see her voice coach. Stephanie, who has a clear, natural voice and perfect pitch, ultimately decided she liked the lessons but not the practice. She also decided not to return to Juilliard- and to pursue an acting career in Hollywood.
Her confidence and determination restored, Stephanie began making the rounds and landing minor parts on stage and in television; soon she was in TV movies like Centennial and the Emmy-award-winning The Gathering. She was winning a reputation as a quick study and a competent professional.
In 1981 opportunity knocked, but Stephanie was too stubborn to open the door. Her very strong sense of herself made her say no when MTM Productions offered her a series. They asked a second time. Again, she said no. "I didn't want to do a series, any series," she says. "I didn't want to get stereotyped in a character, and I didn't want that frantic kind of shooting schedule. And what about quality control? What if it turned into schlock? You can't just call in and say that you aren't crazy about the script so you're passing on this episode. I said no thanks and went off to South Africa with my pop."
When she returned, the pilot script was lying on her doorstep. She tossed it on the dining-room table and let it sit for three days.
"Finally, one morning I got up about five thirty and read it through. When I was done, I remember thinking that in a couple of years I could be fighting to be window dressing in a panty-hose ad or atmosphere in a dog-food commercial. I called my agent and said we'd better talk."
Even after she'd agreed to do the series, Stephanie wasn't sure she'd done the right thing. When she first met her co-star, the dashing Pierce Brosnan, she thought he was too young for the part; he later revealed that he thought the same about her. Both were anxious, and dubious about the show's concept. "The production people kept saying we were supposed to be a sophisticated couple like Myrna Loy and William Powell, and they'd show us scenes from The Thin Man," Stephanie explains. "Pierce and I were freckle-faced kids. And very nervous. We used to go across the street to a little pub and sit and wonder just what we'd gotten ourselves into."
Stephanie saw the pilot in the spring of 1982- and she hated it. "I find it very hard to watch what I've done," she now says. "But in the past couple of years I've really gotten to like the show." Another of her favorite shows, Cheers, has similar couple chemistry, although it's more Tracy and Hepburn than Loy and Powell. Stephanie says she's glad that Ted Danson and Shelley Long will be allowed to return to the show's original premise and let their love-hate relationship generate sparks. Does this mean that Laura's romance with Remington Steele will heat up next season, as is rumored? "I hope to see more of that sexual tension in the scripts," Stephanie says with a grin.
She'll have her way with at least one of the scripts for the new season; she is writing it, with friend Robin, and finds the process exhilarating. "When you're an actress, criticism is aimed at you. With a script, it's less personal, less threatening. When they say they don't like a line of dialogue, it's not like someone telling you he doesn't like your face. Writing is mentally stimulating; it's like a puzzle that makes you think all the time." The pair hope to try their hands at a TV-movie next.
In a couple of days, both will fly to Connecticut, where the Zimbalists have a beautiful old country house, to work on the script. A framed picture of the place hangs on the den wall. "I've been going back there ever since I can remember. It's the perfect place to write, so secluded and private."
And she's looking forward to the start of this season's filming with special anticipation: The show will be shot on location in Malta, Ireland, England and Monte Carlo. Stephanie has invited her 15-year-old niece and 13-year-old nephew along as her guests.
"Pierce is bringing along his family, and his oldest two should be great company for them. They're all very excited, and so am I." She laughs as she remembers how close she came to giving that part away.
She still has yet to meet Mr. Right, but things could definitely be worse. "Yeah, dog-food commercials. Panty-hose ads," she says, smiling. "I'm very fortunate."
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