Tallulah Bankhead’s onetime costar plays her onstage
The first indication of trouble came at Christmas. Valerie Harper, the actress best known for playing spitfire Rhoda Morgenstern , first on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” and then on the spinoff “Rhoda,” arrived in New York to begin rehearsals for the comedy “Looped.”
It’s a play that Harper had been attached to since its Pasadena Playhouse debut in 2008. She was nominated for a Tony Award when the show ran on Broadway in 2010. In the play, Harper portrayed actress Tallulah Bankhead in — to put it kindly — the twilight of her years. Based on an actual event, “Looped” centers on a single day when a booze-soaked, pill-ravaged Bankhead stumbled into a recording studio to dub a single line of dialogue into a 1965 film called “Die! Die! My Darling!” The session ran for hours.
Given that Harper had played the brassy Bankhead for two productions, playwright Matthew Lombardo and director Rob Ruggiero expected that she would sail through rehearsals. Instead, they witnessed the beginnings of Harper’s struggle with cancer.
“She couldn’t remember her lines,” recalls Lombardo. “I didn’t want to believe anything was wrong, but we all thought it was the strangest thing. She had done this role over and over, and she couldn’t remember her lines.”
By the end of the first week of rehearsals, Harper was slurring her speech. She was admitted to the hospital, and it became apparent that she would not be able to perform. In March, she revealed publicly that she had been diagnosed with a rare condition called leptomeningeal carcinomatosis, and that she was not expected to recover.
Harper was the only actress to portray Bankhead throughout the history of “Looped,” and Lombardo was devastated not only that his friend was ill, but that he would have to continue the play’s national tour without her. Given that he had already signed contracts to take the play to theaters around the country — including the Cutler Majestic Theatre, where it runs Tuesday through May 5 — his only option was to recast the role.
Enter Stefanie Powers. Yes, that Stefanie Powers. The actress, best known for her five-year run on the 1980s detectives series “Hart to Hart,” opposite Robert Wagner, may not seem like the most obvious choice to replace Harper. But Lombardo and Ruggiero thought otherwise.
When they were developing the play at Pasadena Playhouse in 2008, Powers came in as a contender for the role. But, she said, there were still details to be worked out at the time she read the script, and she passed on the project. This is when Harper was hired.
Powers, it happens, has insight into the role that no other actress can claim. When she was in her early 20s, she costarred with Bankhead in “Die! Die! My Darling!”
“There were so many unusual connections between Tallulah and myself,” Powers said by phone from Kenya, where she has a home. “I don’t know how frequent it is that somebody winds up playing the role of an actor who they worked with, but it certainly is part of the unusual nature of my getting this job.”
Shot in England, the movie was one of many 1960s camp films where actresses of a certain age were brought in to play either the victim or the villain. In “Die! Die! My Darling!,” Bankhead’s character, Mrs. Trefoile, holds Powers’s character, Patricia, captive in a decrepit country house. The movie was not exactly Bankhead’s finest work.
“I haven’t seen it in years,” Powers said. “It took a year for it to actually be edited and released, probably because it wasn’t terribly good. It was a little overdone. I haven’t seen it in a long, long time. All I remember is the overacting.”
Powers appears in the scene where Bankhead stumbles through her line. In fact, Powers’s character is the object of that line: “And so, Patricia, as I was telling you, that deluded rector has in literal effect closed the church to me. . .” This is the dialogue that later took Bankhead hours to record in a sound booth.
“I can’t tell too many stories about her, because they’re not really fit for print,” Powers said. “But she was razor-sharp in her wit, and she was highly intelligent, even at that stage in her life. She had acquiesced to becoming this caricature of herself, but there was nevertheless an extraordinarily talented human there, and one who shot herself in the foot on many occasions.”
There are further connections to Powers and “Looped.” As a teenager, Powers — a Hollywood native — was an usher for a play starring Bankhead. And then there is Harper. Powers said that she and Harper not only have shared a friendship, but were both operated on for the same kind of lung cancer by the same surgeon, within a week of one another.
“It was not the most idyllic circumstances to get a job from someone you adore who is stricken with this damn disease,” Powers said. “And in a life-threatening way. So this is more than just another job.”
Despite the fact that she was brought in on short notice, Lombardo said Powers immediately picked up on the nuances of the character and has even suggested changes to the script to make her Bankhead more authentic.
“She brings this thing with her that none of us could ever bring, this personal relationship,” Lombardo said.
The playwright, who also penned “High” and “Tea at Five,” was inspired to write “Looped” after hearing about a tape in circulation of an inebriated and belligerent Bankhead attempting to record the line for “Die! Die! My Darling!”
Lombardo got his hands on it.
“It’s hilarious, and I listened to it over and over,” he said. “But the more I listened, the less funny it was. Here was a woman who is at the end of her career. The drinking, drugs, and promiscuity have pretty much brought her to her demise. And when I realized all that, I realized I had a play.”