“How the hell did you learn all these lines?” actress Stefanie Powers asked her friend, Valerie Harper recently. “She told me, ‘One at a time’.”
Powers could not have anticipated the call she got just a few weeks ago: Harper was all set to star as legendary film actress Tallulah Bankhead in the national tour of Matthew Lombardo’s play, Looped. Harper took the role to Broadway and was nominated for a Tony Award, but would have to bow out of the tour because of illness before the first performances in Fort Lauderdale.
While Powers is best known in the United States for Hart to Hart, an ‘80s television series about a glamorous, rich couple that solved murders, the actress devoted much of her career to the stage and was actually a natural choice to play Bankhead.
Lombardo’s play is about a looping session, in which individual lines from a movie are re-recorded in the studio, that took place for Bankhead’s last film, Die, Die My Darling, and a 20-year-old Powers co-starred.
“It was the first time I had ever met her and worked with her,” recalled Powers. “We became friends, as much as you could given the age difference.”
The young actress knew she was working with a legend, though. In the 1930s, she regularly was cast as the romantic ingénue in the movies. A decade later, Bankhead starred in a very popular radio program — second in ratings only to Bob Hope — and Powers’ parents and their adult friends all listened. And, as televisions became commonplace in American homes, Bankhead moved to TV.
“She was famous and infamous and notorious at the same time,” Powers noted.
Yet, Bankhead sat out nearly two decades before she returned to the silver screen in 1965 for her final movie role in Die, Die My Darling.
The experience working on the film with Bankhead gave Powers a special insight into this role.
“She was a gay icon. Every drag queen did imitations of her and my challenge is not to parody her,” she explained. “This event (in the studio) occurred just after she was diagnosed terminally ill and given six months to live. That becomes very much a part of the underlying subtext.”
Powers called Looped a “very interesting study of this woman at the end of her life, bigger than life, but bigger than life throughout her life. She lived her life in an exaggerated manner, that’s how she chose to live.”
Lombardo’s play takes on a gay twist, too. While Bankhead struggles endlessly with the single line that must be looped, the playwright takes a little license with history, as she successfully helps a young producer deal with his sexuality, a fitting last role for the gay icon.
Following the engagement at the Parker Playhouse in Fort Lauderdale, the Looped tour will move to Baltimore, Boston and Hartford, with dates to be announced.
If You Go
When: Feb. 26 to March 3
707 NE 8th St.
Fort Lauderdale, FL 33304
How Much: $26.50-65.50
More information: ParkerPlayhouse.com