Saturday, December 07, 2013

My life: Stefanie Powers

The American actress talks about her Hong Kong love affair and passion for conservation

I grew up in Hollywood and everybody knew somebody in the movie business, whether a cameraman, an editor or a writer. People's paths were constantly criss-crossing, especially people who were in front of the camera.

My mother loved ballet and always had classical music on. I danced around the house a lot and when I became old enough, she took me to ballet school. What are the chances of having three young ladies in one ballet class who would all wind up being married to the same man? Natalie Wood, Jill St. John and me. Well, I was married to Robert Wagner on screen [in the TV show Hart to Hart] but they were married to him in reality. That's how small the world of movies was in those days, once you were in it you knew everyone instantaneously, so it seemed.

When I was 15, I was the same height I am now - and with tits - so I was absolutely not eligible any longer for ballet. But there was the American School of Dance. There was a bulletin board at the school with notices about auditions for dancers. A friend who was 16, a year older than me, and I used to go off to the auditions. They never look at dancers' faces, they only look at the way you move. The joke between our mothers was that we would always be kept to the end and then the girl with the clipboard would come around to take our details and say, "Wait a minute, how old are you?" We went to an audition for West Side Story. I did 16 auditions and three screen tests and then they said, "Go get your working permit." I was just coming up to 16, I was a minor, so they had to bring a teacher to me on the set. It was the first time I met Robert Wagner, because he and Natalie came on the set and watched us rehearsing. Then they decided it was too restrictive having me around - only being allowed to work for so many hours a day - so I got fired. 

In the meantime, there was a director at the studio we were filming in and he spoke to my mother, said he was doing a movie and gave me a script. I was so nervous, I didn't know what to do and I walked into his office and burst into tears - "I'm a dancer, I'm not an actress, what do you want from me?" And he said, "That'll do." It was an artsy-fartsy film that didn't come out for quite a few years, but because of his friendship with a number of producers in Hollywood, they screened it around and I was invited to attend classes at 20th Century Fox, MGM Studios and Columbia.

One day, running late for class, I pushed open a swing door and swung right into the face of a man wearing the same sunglasses as I was. These sunglasses were the latest thing on the French Riviera. He said, "Where did you get those sunglasses?" "From my friend who was driving at the Monte Carlo Rally. Where did you get yours?" "I was at the Monte Carlo Rally." He said he was a director, Blake Edwards, and asked me to come for a screen test. I did and he gave me the role of Lee Remick's sister in a movie with Glenn Ford called Experiment in Terror. That was the beginning of my contract with Columbia Pictures. I was tied for seven years; in those days if you signed a motion picture contract you were not allowed to do television. So I did three pictures a year for five years and then they sold me to MGM to do a television series called The Girl from U.N.C.L.E.

In the 1960s, when I was doing The Girl from U.N.C.L.E., I met Gary Lockwood at a party. Among other things, he appeared in 2001: A Space Odyssey and I was the first voice of HAL the computer. We went away for a weekend and got married. Then - fade out, fade in - Gary and I filed for divorce and I went to play in a charity tennis tournament at La Costa, a resort in southern California. There was a party for the participants and, uncharacteristically, William Holden went. I'd met Bill before. The first time was at a New Year's Eve party and then, years later, at a bookshop in Hollywood. I was pulling out a book on Kenya and he came up behind me and said, "Are you interested in East Africa?" This time, at La Costa, we clicked.

I had just started seeing Bill in a very circumspect way, he was extremely discreet about his private life, and I mentioned that I was going to Hong Kong to play a charity tennis match. He was very involved with Hong Kong - he had a penthouse apartment on Robinson Road and did two iconic films, Love is a Many-Splendored Thing and The World of Suzie Wong - so it wasn't unusual for him to say, "Let me show you my Hong Kong."

I already had a great friend in Hong Kong - Elaine Forsgate Marden - and as it was a very small place, Bill had met her when she was a child because he knew her family. All of a sudden I was engulfed in this amazing place. I was already in love with him, so it was easy to love everything that he loved and I got the Hong Kong bug as well. Discovery Bay was being developed - it was supposed to be this wonderful low-rise development and I bought a piece of property; it was going to be the last house on the beach in the cul-de-sac. It was a lovely spot. I had it for 14, almost 15 years.

The first time I went to East Africa was with Bill in 1973. He was a remarkable man, involved in conservation before it was a word in anybody's lexicon, and he did extraordinary work creating the Mount Kenya Game Ranch, the first of its kind on the continent - a privately created game reserve for the preservation of species. My involvement in Kenya became greater after Bill died. I created the William Holden Wildlife Foundation to fulfil what Bill had always wanted to do, which was to include the educational component with the conservation work.

I don't live anywhere; I travel between houses and residences. At this stage in my life and career I look for roles that are going to be challenging. I didn't become an actor to be myself, I became an actor to be somebody else and so, to the extent that I can, that's what I look for.

Stefanie Powers was back in Hong Kong to help celebrate The Peninsula hotel's 85th anniversary.

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