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 www.browardcenter.org or www.parkerplayhouse.com.
|Tallulah Bankhead and Stefanie Powers in Die! Die! My Darling|