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Stefanie Powers plays Tallulah Bankhead at Hippodrome

MoviesTallulah BankheadStefanie PowersRobert WagnerDavid Soul

Here's a cool example of what-goes-around-comes-around:

In 1965, a British-made thriller called "Die! Die! My Darling!" hit the movie houses. This study in strangeness and sadism starred the indelibly foggy-voiced, deliciously irreverent Tallulah Bankhead in her last film. She plays Mrs. Trefoile, a religious fanatic who keeps a tight rein on her country house and her suspiciously loyal servants.

Obsessed with the recent death of her son, Mrs. Trefoile is only too happy to welcome as a guest her son's former fiancee, the decidedly worldly Patricia Carroll. That role showcased an appealing young actress, barely out of her teens, named Stefanie Powers.

On Tuesday, Powers will be on the stage of the Hippodrome starring as Tallulah Bankhead in a play by Matthew Lombardo called "Looped," which revolves around a post-production incident in the making of — yes— "Die! Die! My Darling!"

"I guess when you live long enough, things do come full circle," said Powers, 70. "The play is very funny, and really captures Tallulah's rapier wit, which she never missed any opportunity to demonstrate."

The original star of "Looped" since its premiere in 2008 in California was Valerie Harper, whose version of Tallulah was subsequently seen at Washington's Arena Stage and, for a very short run in 2010, on Broadway.

Harper, who earned a Tony nomination for "Looped," was scheduled to reprise her Tallulah for a national tour of the play this winter, but she became ill during rehearsals and had to return home to California.

UPDATE March 6: When this story about Stefanie Powers was published last weekend, all that was officially known was that Valerie Harper had to leave the production of "Looped" in January for medical reasons. Now, People magazine is reporting the 73-year-old actress has inoperable brain cancer and has been given about three months to live.  

Powers, whose extensive stage and screen credits include co-starring with Robert Wagner in the popular TV series "Hart to Hart" (1979-1984), was about to leave for the Persian Gulf to tour in the play "Love Letters" with David Soul — of "Starsky and Hutch fame" — when the producers of "Looped" approached her toward the end of January.

"I never thought I'd be in a play like this one," Powers said. "And I didn't have a chance to dig into the show. Maybe that's for the best."

Even without a lot of time to prepare, the actress certainly made a strong impression with the playwright from the first rehearsal heading into last week's tour-opening performances in Fort Lauderdale.

"Stefanie knows Tallulah better than anyone on the creative team," Lombardo said. "And she brings an objective eye to the project. She has helped make it a richer, deeper play, in my opinion."

Lombardo has done some revision on the script since its Broadway appearance, but the basic scenario remains. The play finds Bankhead trying to record an awkwardly phrased line of dialogue — the process is known as looping — for a brief scene in "Die! Die! My Darling!" that had been shot outdoors.

The playwright has heard a tape of the actual session in the sound studio.

"There are 30 minutes of this tape where she never did get it right," Lombardo said. "She was so coked up and belligerent. They ended up using a wide shot instead of the close-up they planned on because they just couldn't match her lips to the recording."

Although the real Bankhead struggled in that studio to dub in a few lines, the playwright needed only one to give "Looped" its context, and provide a springboard for vivid humor and insights into the brilliant, spring-loaded actress.

The other main character in the play is a film editor (played by Brian Hutchison), who locks horns and wits with the star.

"These two people who encounter each other end up being quite touched by one another," Powers said. "That's what makes good drama. There has been some license taken with the play, but I don't think it suffers from that, nor does Tallulah's reputation."

Powers was in the scene that contains the line that gave Bankhead so much trouble, but the two actresses did their looping sessions separately ("Stefanie recorded her lines without a hitch," Lombardo said).

Some accounts of "Die! Die! My Darling!" indicate that Bankhead, then 63, was not particularly kind to Powers on the set. (Bankhead died three years after the filming and is buried in Rock Hall on Maryland's Eastern Shore, next to her sister.) But the star of "Looped" only has kind words for the show business legend.

"She was quite something," Powers said. "She had not been very well before getting to England, but by the time filming started, she got all her gumption up and was in rare form. Tallulah and I became friends, to the extent anyone my age could with someone that many generations older."

It must have helped that Powers arrived in England to begin filming in 1964 fully prepared for the encounter.

"Times were different," Powers said. "[Young actors] were required to know the people who were famous before we were born. So Tallulah wasn't a mystery to me. Now, people are not embarrassed that they don't know anything. They have no sense of embarrassment of their ignorance."

In the movie, Bankhead's beyond-puritanical character has a fit when she sees Powers' character wearing red lipstick, the devil's color.

"After we made the movie, every time I was in New York I would go to see Tallulah," Powers said, "and she always tried to get me to wear red lipstick. It was so cute."

Even with all of those personal connections, Powers did not take lightly the business of recreating Bankhead's unmistakable sound and style.

"She became a gay icon," Powers said, "and the subject of many female impersonators and outrageous portrayals. I'm sure she traded on that. In approaching her, one has to find a fine line between authenticity and not being a caricature."

For Lombardo, there is no doubt that Powers has hit the right spot.

"Her Tallulah is very different from Val's, which was wonderful," Lombardo said. "Val's was crafted and muscular. Stefanie's is more organic. And it's eerie how much she sounds like Tallulah. Stefanie really channels her."

tim.smith@baltsun.com

If you go

"Looped" opens at 8 p.m. Tuesday and runs through March 15 at the Hippodrome, 12 N. Eutaw St. Tickets are $38.05 to $101.90. Call 410-547-7328 or go to ticketmaster.com.

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