Saturday, February 23, 2013

An eccentric Tallulah Bankhead is back in ‘Looped’

Tallulah Bankhead was a character. Playwright Matthew Lombardo calls her “the original celebrity bad girl,” an actress who became more famous for her offstage, off-screen antics than for her performances — which, in a few instances, were magnificent.

How bad was Bankhead?

The Alabama-born daughter of U.S. Speaker of the House William B. Bankhead had a thing about clothes: She didn’t like them. On more than one occasion — including her run as Blanche DuBois in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire at the Coconut Grove Playhouse — she would answer a knock at her dressing room door wearing nothing but a string of pearls. She famously did cartwheels while wearing a dress and no underwear. She was bisexually voracious, a heavy smoker and enthusiastic bourbon drinker who swore that cocaine — another of her enduring enthusiasms — wasn’t habit-forming.

“She was far more talented than Bette Davis or Joan Crawford,” Lombardo argues. “But they played by the rules.”

So Lombardo, the author of Tea at Five (about Katharine Hepburn) and High (a play featuring Kathleen Turner as an unorthodox, potty-mouthed nun), wrote Looped.

The play, which lasted for 27 previews and 33 performances on Broadway in 2010, earned a best actress Tony Award nomination for its original star, Valerie Harper. She was slated to star as Bankhead in the Looped national tour, which kicks off at 8 p.m. Tuesday at Fort Lauderdale’s Parker Playhouse. But unspecified health problems caused Harper, who became a famous television face as Mary Tyler Moore’s pal Rhoda, to bow out. In her just-released memoir I, Rhoda, Harper revealed she was treated for lung cancer when Looped was on its way to Broadway, something she had never discussed with Lombardo or director Rob Ruggiero.

So now another familiar TV star, Stefanie Powers of Hart to Hart, will be the woman sporting Bankhead’s wavy hairdo and swearing up a storm in Lombardo’s raucous, funny play.

Though Looped was written with Harper in mind and shaped with her playing Bankhead at three theaters (including the former Cuillo Centre in West Palm Beach) on its road to Broadway, Powers brings a special insider’s perspective to the play, one that Lombardo, Harper and Ruggiero simply didn’t have.

The play’s title refers not to Bankhead’s inebriated state — though in Looped, she’s pretty well pickled — but to a 1965 session in which she had to re-record a line of dialogue for the movie Die, Die, My Darling. In the British thriller Fanatic, Bankhead played a religious zealot who goes off the deep end, trying to kill the young woman who had been engaged to her late son. That almost daughter-in-law was played by a young actress in her first big movie role: Stefanie Powers.

“I wouldn’t call this a comedy,” Powers says of Looped. “She was intrinsically a very daring and funny woman. If the dialogue is funny, it comes out of this extraordinary wit. She was always a bit shocking...I want to channel her as much as I possibly can. It has to resonate in my head.”

“Val’s Tony-nominated Tallulah was wonderful. But we had to craft it and work at the rhythms of how she speaks,” says Ruggiero. “With Stefanie, it’s second nature. She was there.”

Lombardo, who splits his time between New York and Fort Lauderdale, has an affinity for plays centered around strong female characters. He had never had a special interest in Bankhead, an actress whose most notable stage work was in The Little Foxes and The Skin of Our Teeth, and who won a New York Film Critics Circle best actress award for the 1944 Alfred Hitchcock movie Lifeboat. But a chance remark at a party launched Lombardo on the journey to Looped.

A partygoer asked if he had ever heard the story about Bankhead showing up less than sober to re-record this tongue twister of a line from Die, Die, My Darling: “And so Patricia, as I was telling you, that deluded rector has in literal effect closed the church to me.”

The original mistake wasn’t Bankhead’s. A sound guy hit some shrubbery with a microphone, obscuring most of her line. But because of Bankhead’s condition on the day revisited in the play, what should have been a few minutes’ work in a recording studio turned into hours.

“She had these ‘caddies,’ gay men who followed her around and helped her out, and one of them had recorded the session, unbeknownst to her,” Lombardo says. “The tape is 30 minutes long, and she cannot get the line. I listened to it over and over, and it went from a hysterical, laugh-out-loud experience to something else. The drinking, drugs and promiscuity all caught up with her, and she became a caricature of herself.”

Looped is a mixture of fact and creative license. To give Bankhead an opponent, Lombardo created the character of Danny Miller, a film editor who grows increasingly exasperated with the misbehaving star.

“I threw her in a room with someone who was her complete opposite,” the playwright says, “a very conservative, quiet, meek film editor. A sheep.”

Ruggiero says of Bankhead: “She was a woman who lived her life fully, without apology. She was vivid and unedited. The gay community felt a connection to her because of her sense of humor and camp ...We all care what people think of us, but she pretended she didn’t.”

He adds that having Powers as the larger-than-life woman in that room has been enlightening.

“Stefanie shares stories from the movie set. They pop in and out, like an oral history,” Ruggiero says.

Powers was a 23-year-old ingĂ©nue when she made Die, Die, My Darling. She’s 70 now, a woman who can look back on a multifaceted career in movies, TV and on stage; and on a life fully lived, including a romance with William Holden and her own successful battle with lung cancer.

Her assessment of Bankhead, her onetime costar?

“This self-destructive engine that moved her and her personal lifestyle choices were extremely damaging to her artistry. They engulfed her at the end. But the world she came from tolerated great eccentricity in successful people. It was encouraged and enjoyed. It can’t be reproduced in this homogeneous society we have now.”

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Stefanie Powers Talks Tallulah As She Gets Ready for Looped

Stefanie Powers
When Stefanie Powers received the call to ask her if she'd replace an ailing Valerie Harper in the play Looped, Powers was rehearsing another play. She was co-starring with former television actor David Soul in Love Letters in Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

With only two weeks to prepare for Looped, she's steeped in learning her lines and ready for her close up to star as Tallulah Bankhead in playwright Matthew Lombardo's diva vehicle based on a slice of life taken from a real story about the legendary actress.

"I'm brand new into the rehearsal process for Looped," Powers says during a telephone interview — her melodic voice chiming in, so familiar as Jennifer Hart from the television series, Hart to Hart. "I'm most anxious to get started and spend as much time as I possibly can preparing."

It was the end of January when it was announced that Valerie Harper would have to bow out of the national tour of the play, which gets its kick off at Fort Lauderdale's Parker Playhouse on Feb. 26.

Harper was hospitalized during rehearsals for the tour, a role which she originated on Broadway in 2010 and for which she received a Tony Award nomination. When the actress was advised to take a medical leave from the show, Powers was tapped as her replacement and she couldn't be a more likely choice. In the play, Bankhead is called into a sound studio in 1965 to re-record (or "loop") one line of dialogue for what would be her last film, the campy horror classic Die! Die! My Darling, which also co-starred Powers and what would be Bankhead's last film.

"You could say I have an unusual connection to the role. I can hear her somewhere in the recesses of my medulla oblongata. I keep hearing her because I did have that intimate contact with her. But, I still have to approach the role with me as the actor and she as the character," says Powers.

There are other connections including Harper and Powers both having the same oncologist after their diagnoses of lung cancer. It was during preparation for Looped's New York premiere in 2009 that Harper, a lifelong non-smoker, was diagnosed with lung cancer, a revelation that she discusses for the first time in her memoir, I, Rhoda. Harper had the cancer removed along with a piece of her lung. Powers has become an outspoken advocate for early cancer detection. After a friend died of late-diagnosed lung cancer, she ordered herself an X-ray, which showed pre-cancerous cells in her lung. When she was diagnosed in 2009 with malignant cancer, she then had surgery to remove a lobe of her right lung. Power chronicles the cancer battle in her book, One From the Hart.

"Valerie has been such a cheerleader for me taking over this role," says Powers. In a statement released by her publicist, Harper praises the actress. "In my opinion, Stefanie is the perfect choice to take over this role. She is extraordinarily talented and will make one terrific Tallulah."

Powers goes on to describe how she is approaching the role of Tallulah. "My chore is to not just portray someone who is famous for their personality or for the way in which they behaved — she was very much a gay icon and every drag queen at one time or another had her in their repertoire. I want to bring the truth of the character to the role and not the parody of it, and do her justice in trying to capture the real person rather than the exaggeration."

And what does Powers have to say to fans who will be disappointed that Harper is not in the starring role? "I'd tell them that whether they are seeing Valerie's version or my version, they are actually going to see Tallulah, and this wonderful play that Matthew has written. Hopefully that's what Valerie would say, too."

Much of Powers' professional career was spent on television — her first series The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. marked a milestone in U.S. television history in 1966 as the first hour-long series to feature a female in a leading role. And then, of course, there was her most recognized role, which gained her international fame as Robert Wagner's co-star in the long-running Hart to Hart. She's one of those stars, however, that can do just about everything — she's written screenplays, a memoir, and a one woman show, Hart of my Heart, which also spotlights her singing talents in a tribute she wrote about the life and lyrics of Lorenz Hart. In 1991, she performed in the original London musical, Matador. It ran for only three months, but it launched a career for her in musicals. Her portrayal of Anna in The King and I played for nearly two years in London's West End.

The actress has also remounted the musical Sunset Boulevard with a U.S. revival in the works, mining much of what she had learned of the movie from her longtime love William Holden, who starred in the classic opposite Gloria Swanson.

For now, however, her attention is to Tallulah and to bringing a character to the stage that she says she's enjoying exploring and that she believes the audience will appreciate, too.

"There's a lot of humor in this piece, but there's a lot of insight, too, of an extraordinary eccentric, the likes of which will never been seen again. The world today would not tolerate her kind of eccentricity. We've all become so homogenized. So this is a treat for me and for the audience. To step inside this world and to spend a few hours with an extraordinary eccentric such as Tallulah is nothing less than sheer delight."

Looped runs from Feb. 26 through March 3 at The Parker Playhouse, 707 NE 8th St., Fort Lauderdale, Florida. 954-522-5334 or or

Tallulah Bankhead and Stefanie Powers in Die! Die! My Darling

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Stefanie Powers comes to Fort Lauderdale this month in 'Looped'

Stefanie Powers stars as the venerable actress Tallulah Bankhead in "Looped," which opens at the Parker Playhouse on Feb. 26 for a six-day run.

"Looped," which tells the store of Bankhead through a real life incident that occurred in 1965, when the inebriated actress, who was known for her flamboyance, needed eight hours to redub (or 'loop') one line of dialogue for her last movie, "Die! Die! My Darling!"

Though Bankhead dominates the play, the sub-story involves her battle of wills with a film editor named Danny Miller, who was selected to work on that particular sound editing session.

Valerie Harper originated the role in "Looped" received a Tony nomination for it. However, she was forced to step aside following a recent health scare, and gave her blessing to Powers, who actually co-starred with Bankhead film upon which the incident in "Looped" is based.

"In my opinion, Stefanie is the perfect choice to take over this role. She is extraordinarily talented and will make one terrific Tallulah!," said Harper in a statement. "I urge everyone to go out and see this hysterically funny plan and support Stefanie's participation," Harper added.

Powers is best known for starring in the popular television series "Hart to Hart" with Robert Wagner. However, she is also an Emmy Award and Golden Globe nominated actress with a long career in stage and film.

More info: Parker Playhouse