A native of Long Beach, California, Zerbe made his motion picture debut as Dog Boy in director Stuart Rosenberg’s acclaimed Southern chain gang film Cool Hand Luke (1967). Zerbe’s long and eclectic career includes roles in Will Penny (1967); The Molly Maguires (1970), opposite Sean Connery; The Liberation of L.B. Jones (1970); They Call Me Mister Tibbs! (1970); The Omega Man (1971), as Matthias the mutant leader; Papillon (1973), as Toussaint the leper; Rooster Cogburn (1975); The Turning Point (1977); The Dead Zone (1983); and Star Trek: Insurrection (1998).
Zerbe received his Emmy for Best Supporting Actor for the television series Harry O (30 episodes, 1975–1976).