Friday, October 14, 2011

Stefanie Powers still gets around like The Girl From U.N.C.L.E.

Stefanie Powers was never really a globe-trotting spy, she just played one on TV.

But if she ever decided to become a secret agent for real, she certainly has a lot of the right qualifications. The actress lives in three different countries, speaks seven languages fluently, is a cultural scholar, world traveler, expert horsewoman and talented singer and dancer — all of which add up to a promising resume for any aspiring undercover sleuth. She could blend in almost anywhere.

And some of those attributes were actually incorporated into storylines for “The Girl From U.N.C.L.E.,” the 1966-67 television series in which she played intelligence operative April Dancer, the sexy and resourceful nemesis of THRUSH, an international organization of criminals bent on world domination.

This spinoff of the popular '60s spy series “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” is available in its entirety for the first time on two four-disc sets manufactured on demand by Warner Archive,

Time to reminisce

Powers — perhaps best known for her role opposite Robert Wagner on TV's popular “Hart to Hart” (1979-84) — had not yet had a chance to revisit the “U.N.C.L.E.” episodes when she talked to The Oklahoman.

“I live in Africa as well, East Africa, and I've just returned from there, and I'm looking forward to seeing and reminiscing about these shows,” she said in a recent phone interview from her California home.

Powers' Dancer masqueraded as a high-fashion model while co-star Noel Harrison — son of Rex — posed as her Carnaby Street styling partner Mark Slate in a show that was more of a campy spoof of the then-popular spy genre than its parent program, which starred Robert Vaughn as Napoleon Solo and David McCallum as Illya Kuryakin.

“We were almost polar opposites,” Powers recalled of the two series. “We were sending up all this espionage in a humorous way, hopefully, or a satirical way. And of course they were very serious about it, and NBC was concerned about that. I remember the remark was that they thought that it looked as if we were having too much fun. We were.”

Her most vivid memories of doing the series were of the people she got to work with on “The Girl From U.N.C.L.E.”

“Certainly I remember being shot out of a giant toaster; I do remember that one,” Powers said. “Stan Freberg, as a matter of fact, was the other piece of toast. And I remember working with Peggy Lee. Can you imagine? Peggy Lee, who was the pistol-packin' mama in a bizarre storyline where we wound up in a Western town fully equipped with cowboys and Indians, and she ran the saloon. I mean, what a privilege it was to work with those people.”

Despite the differences in tone between the “Man” and the “Girl” series, there were several crossover episodes.

“Noel went to play on ‘The Man From U.N.C.L.E.' with David McCallum for ‘The Mother Muffin Affair,' starring Boris Karloff in drag,” Powers remembered.

Meanwhile, Vaughn guest-starred once on Powers' show. “Yes. Wearing tights,” she recalled.

Many talents, causes

Powers' linguistic skills (she speaks Polish, being of Polish descent, French, Italian, Spanish, Swahili and “smatterings” of Mandarin and Cantonese), dance training and an early interest in bullfighting were written into episodes of the series. She also learned how to fence for a five-minute fight sequence with sabers.

But she doesn't like to talk about the bullfighting period of her youth, since a relationship with the late actor William Holden taught her the importance of animal rights and conservation. To this day, she still serves as president of the William Holden Wildlife Foundation, a public charity dedicated to the preservation of wild animals, which she helped to found in honor of Holden.

“An ongoing pursuit,” Powers said. “One that has its moments of tragedy, which we're now all experiencing with the advent of the Chinese market demanding rhinoceros horn and ivory. And I don't think enough can be said in the press to encourage people to write letters, complain to their congressmen, to make their complaints known about the increase in poaching of these World Heritage animals, solely and utterly to fulfill the desires of the Chinese market.”

Aside from her philanthropic endeavors, Powers remains active on the stage and is mounting a production of the musical adaptation of “Sunset Boulevard,” in which she plays the role of eccentric ex-silent screen star Norma Desmond. It's a role Gloria Swanson immortalized in the 1950 film version, opposite Holden as down-on-his-luck screenwriter Joe Gillis.

“So my Bill Holden is a wonderful actor called Todd Gearhart,” Powers said. “... There's no one else who could do this (Norma Desmond) role that has that connection (with Holden). So it's really quite a remarkable marriage of circumstance and events.”

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Hart to Hart: Stefanie Powers on the TV Series, Reunion Possibility

Stefanie Powers has had a long and impressive career that has included starring in numerous stage plays and musicals, television shows, and movies. She’s also written books on fitness, authored an autobiography, and released a CD.

While speaking with Powers about the Warner Archive’s release of The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. on DVD, I had a chance to ask her about her most beloved TV role, playing opposite Robert Wagner on Hart to Hart. The series ran for five seasons on ABC before being cancelled in 1984. The characters found new life some nine years later in a series of eight TV reunion movies on NBC. The final movie was broadcast exactly 17 years after the first episode of the series.

Before we get to Hart to Hart, I’d like to ask you briefly about The Feather & Father Gang, a TV series you did with Harold Gould.
Stefanie Powers: Ah yes, my dear Harold. Harold just died last year. What a loss, what a great actor. What was so great about The Feather & Father Gang was that, here were all these wonderful comedians. It employed the most fabulous assortment of comics that were all those… comedians, and oh God, they were sensational. Nothing short of wonderful.

Hart to Hart ran for five seasons, 110 episodes. Anything that immediately comes to mind about your working with, your partnership, with Robert Wagner?
Powers: Oh yes, lots of thoughts, of course. We are still friends — thank God. Unfortunately, we see each other a lot at funerals these days. We’ve lost a lot of our pals from that period, which is very sad and lamentable.

But it was a fantastic privilege and great period of time for all of us. One of those rare things — if you’re lucky it happens once in a lifetime.

Did you actors know, when you filmed the last episode, that that was going to be the series finale?
Powers: No, we had no idea. I was in Paris filming Minstrel’s Daughter which was a mini-series. It was Sunday night. We had been in discussions about starting the next season of Hart to Hart in Paris and doing a couple of shows where Freeway [the dog] falls in love with a French poodle and runs off and something surrounding the fashion world. And those were actively on-going discussions. And that Sunday night, I got a telephone call from Robert Wagner and Leonard Goldberg and Tom Mankowitz, saying that we were not on the fall schedule. And that’s how it happened.

So we felt very much nipped in the bud. And when it was possible, four years later, we began discussions about doing a reunion of Hart to Hart. It came in many forms, it was going to be a movie for television, and then it was going to be a miniseries, and then it was going to be a series… so many different things. And then, finally NBC came up with the idea of doing a mystery “wheel”. Do you remember those things called wheels?

Oh absolutely.
Powers: About four people do remember them. Unfortunately. Not enough people understood what the rotating wheel was all about. And I don’t think that NBC really understood that in order to make something like that happen, you really do have to commit. You can’t just sort of see how it goes. You have to educate the audience that they’re going to see one of four alternating shows each week. When the wheel was invented, it was MacMillan & Wife, Columbo, McCloud, and The Name of the Game. And they all committed to making eight shows a piece. So, for a full year, you could see your favorite shows at least once a month.

But if you’re producing that, you have to commit, you can’t drop shows, you know, and say we didn’t get a rating on that one, so we’re going to drop it and next time we’ll have a new show. They never did really commit to it.

And we were a remake, we were revisiting Hart to Hart so we already had an audience. The other shows were brand new. So, it really was badly conceived unfortunately, but for us it accomplished one thing. We were able to put a period at an end of the sentence a little more gracefully than we were allowed to do when it was cancelled.

In closing, do you have any thoughts about where Jennifer and Jonathan might be today?
Powers: You mean, if we were to revisit them? I have no idea. They didn’t have children so they wouldn’t be grandparents… You know people have frequently asked if we’d want to go back and do another reunion. And, I think we’ve said good night to it. I think it’s had its day and had its moment. I don’t know where we could recapture it or how. It just wouldn’t play the same.

The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. is currently available from the Warner Archive on DVD.

What do you think? Are you a fan of Hart to Hart? Do you have any favorite memories? Would you like to see the Harts reunited once more?