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.”

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