Monday, September 26, 2011

Stefanie Powers interview: 'Girl From U.N.C.L.E.' star on the environment

Mad dictators, enemy agents, death rays — these are things the girl from U.N.C.L.E. could protect us from. But the '60s TV superspy would have been no match for the wrath of Mother Nature — nor man's role in exacerbating it — according to the actress who played her: Stefanie Powers.

owers lives in England, but happened to be in New York one recent, fateful weekend.

"I was there for the hurricane, which was a 'non-starter' in New York," the actress says in a call from England.

"That (Mayor) Bloomberg went berserk, closing down the theater. You had a lot of flooding in New Jersey. When a 150-year-old bridge goes down, it makes you wonder," Powers adds, referring to a 156-year-old bridge in Blenheim, N.Y., destroyed in the storm. "You think, well, surely there must have been floods during the 150 years that bridge existed.

"So it's all man-made. It's all human beings developing land that shouldn't be developed. It's all our fault."

Wildlife preservation is a cause dear to Powers — more on that later — who is on the line to talk about her 1966-67 series "The Girl From U.N.C.L.E.," which is available in two DVD sets from the Warner Archive Collection.

Los Angeles native Powers, 68, has many career milestones. She worked with Helen Hayes, Tallulah Bankhead and John Wayne; she was a Disney heroine ("Herbie Rides Again," "The Boatniks"); and co-starred with Robert Wagner in the long-running series "Hart to Hart." Powers feels fortunate to have been in the last wave of actors signed to a studio at the tail end of Hollywood's "star system." Powers was young but, she maintains, experienced.

Recalls the actress: "I had been in a ballet company; I worked for (choreographer) Jerome Robbins. I had worked in a couple of movies when I was put under contract to Columbia. But I was a teenager. And I was a real teenager, not an overly sophisticated teenager, and certainly not a teenager the likes of which we have today.

"So you might say I was wide-eyed by comparison to the teenagers today, who are exposed to so much more, and who begin a 'physical' life — even though they're not emotionally stimulated — much earlier than we did in those days."

Powers is asked if she learned anything from Hayes and Bankhead, who are considered two of the greatest actresses of the theater.

"I learned something from everyone, because I had the privilege of working with so many extraordinary people," Powers says.

"I think one of the most important things I realized was their humanity — that while these people were consummate professionals, they were also human beings. Most of them were extremely generous as actors. Not one of them ever refused to be off-camera, if I was on the other side (of the camera). That's not only when I was the star of the show — that's even when I was the supporting player.

"Back then, even the movie stars were actors, and everybody was a human being. Today, everybody's got a phalanx of bodyguards just to walk around the corner, you know? It's really quite such a hype, that it's very difficult to understand that you could actually walk up to John Wayne in a restaurant, as people frequently did, right in the middle of his meal and say, 'Oh, excuse me, Mr. Wayne, but I think you're wonderful.' And he'd stand up and say, 'Well, that's really kind of you.' "

Powers played the daughter of Wayne and Maureen O'Hara in the 1963 Western comedy "McClintock!" Was the "Duke" a teddy bear to Powers?

"I would never call him a teddy bear," she says with a laugh.

"Everybody on that set was part of the John Ford/John Wayne extended family. It was very much a familial feeling on that set."

Three years later, Powers was sought to play April Dancer, the title secret agent in "The Girl From U.N.C.L.E.," a spinoff of "The Man From U.N.C.L.E." starring Robert Vaughn and David McCallum.

"I was under contract at Columbia at the time," she recalls. "They had done a pilot of the show with Mary Ann Mobley playing the girl from U.N.C.L.E. and Norman Fell, the comedian, playing her assistant. But they (the studio) didn't like the chemistry.

"I was in England working when I got the message that my contract had been sold; MGM bought me out of my contract to do 'The Girl From U.N.C.L.E.' Because I was in England — with the 'mods' and 'rockers' and Carnaby Street and all of that 'swinging '60s' stuff happening — I thought it would be interesting to bring that into it."

Powers was behind the casting of a British actor to play April's partner-in-spying.

She recalls: "I'd read an article about Noel Harrison, Rex Harrison's son. I thought it would be interesting if we could have a kind of mid-Atlantic couple, in keeping with the fashion that was going to hit America full-swing, and did, with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and all of that stuff that came from England in the 1960s. Fortunately, we were able to get Noel. That's how it started."

In contrast to "The Man From U.N.C.L.E." — the acronym stood for United Network Command for Law and Enforcement, by the way — "Girl" had a decidedly comedic tone.

"That was one of the points of it," Powers says.

"Our producer (Douglas Benton) was also a writer. He loved kind of crazy comedy. He was a great devotee of the great comedians. He's the one who set of the tone of the show. It was markedly different from 'The Man From U.N.C.L.E.' It was satire. Because that half-hour series with the cartoonesque characters — 'Batman' and 'The Green Hornet' — had already been on. He loved that. He incorporated a bit of that into our show, which was adorable, I always thought.

"But it irritated NBC, who thought we looked as if we were having too much fun. That was their big criticism."

As April, Powers wore the latest fashions ("I brought a lot of them from England") and drew on her experience as a dancer to perform her own stunts.

"I did most of them," she says, "until I got hurt. There I was, jumping off of things and explosions and all. But I was injured during one, and we had to shut down for a few days. So I was not allowed to do some of the hairier stuff after that.

"I have really fond memories of some of the episodes, although it was my first experience in television. Unbeknownst to me at the time — because it was never made an issue — it was groundbreaking in its way because it was, in fact, the very first hourlong television series starring a woman. Isn't that something?"

(Powers' information may be correct. Barbara Stanwyck received special star billing in "The Big Valley," but Richard Long was top-billed.)

"Girl" lasted for one season; "Man" was canceled the following year. Powers appeared in the Disney films and much episodic television before being cast in "Hart to Hart" alongside her old friend Wagner (whom friends call "R.J."). Powers says she remembers the 1979-84 series "with great affection and nostalgia," and credits its success to producer Tom Mankiewicz, who died last year.

"Today, unfortunately, of the nucleus that created the show, R.J. and I are the only ones left standing," Powers says.

"Unfortunately, we just lost Tom Mankiewicz, who was our director, writer, creator. Although the idea of the show was to have the couple mimicking a bit of 'The Thin Man' series of films, which was (series creator) Sidney Sheldon's idea, 'Mank' changed a great deal of it and brought it into the characters that they became. He introduced the dog, he introduced the butler, he introduced this repartee that R.J. and I, I suppose, became so successful with. That show is still loved and talked about all over the world."

Powers first became interested in wildlife conservation when she became the girlfriend of actor William Holden; Powers established the William Holden Wildlife Foundation after the actor's death in 1981. In Powers' opinion, you need look no further than the tragic aftermath of Hurricane Irene to see that rampant development needs to be curbed.

"We are losing our environment so rapidly," Powers says.

"The world that our children will inherit is going to look substantially different, very quickly, than the world we have today. It's alarming. I was reading the Royal Geographical Society's report on the loss of the ice fields in Antarctica, where species of shrimp and other marine life have appeared that have never appeared in those waters before, because of the change in temperature. That's not a joke.

"We have to stop thinking about ourselves so much and start thinking about the environment. We have to change."

"The Girl From Uncle: The Complete Series, Part One" and "Part Two" are $39.99 for each four-disc set, manufactured on demand. To order, visit

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