Powers brings her rich life and career to 'The King and I'

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When a lavish new production of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The King and I arrives at the Hippodrome next week -- its third stop on an 11-month national tour -- theater fans will have a chance to see the work of one of America's more prodigious actresses.

Millions know Stefanie Powers as the glamorous, crime-stopping star of such TV series as The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. (1967-68) and Hart to Hart (1979-84), but in a five-decade career that began in Hollywood at the age of 15, she has also starred in multiple motion pictures (The Interns, McClintock!, Gone With the West), hit TV miniseries (Mistral's Daughter) and international stage productions (Oliver!, A View From the Bridge, The Vagina Monologues). Powers, 62, first played Anna Leonowens -- the British governess to the family of the King of Siam (now Thailand) in the 1860s -- in London in 2002.

One of the entertainment industry's most committed conservationists, she keeps homes in California, in London and in Kenya, where she heads the William Holden Wildlife Foundation, a 1,200-acre animal sanctuary and education center. She calls Holden, the late film star who was her partner for nine years, "the most significant human being in my life."

Last week, she took time to chat with The Sun.

You've been a TV, film and stage actress. Is musical theater a challenge?

As actors, we reinvent ourselves over a long career. When people say, "How do you sing?" I tell them I started [at 15] as a dancer who sang. Singing has just become a bit more prominent.

And I love classical musical comedy and musical theater. If the Broadway musical is the true American art form -- and it is -- The King And I is classical American theater. It's wonderful to be able to bring this extraordinary piece back to the stage in its country of origin.

What do you enjoy most about the play?

The more I do it, the more enamored I am of [Oscar] Hammerstein's words, which are exquisite -- just seamless as they segue from the dialogue in the book to the songs. For a time, Andrew Lloyd Webber brought about the non-book musical, which got theater people off track of the importance of the book. But Mr. Hammerstein? What a fabulous talent; what a gift to all of us.

Are film, TV and stage acting different?

It's all acting. If you're an actor who got into the business to be an actor, you train to be able to do it all. That's the business we're in. There are particular techniques to each, but to me, the most important element, by far, is the quality of a part. I don't prefer one form to another.

How do you feel, looking back, about your big TV roles, like the sleuth Jennifer Hart on Hart to Hart?

It was really a completely different part of my life. At the same time, everything you do as an actor shapes what you do later. I'm happy I had the chance to play those parts.

You've acted with John Wayne, Glenn Ford, even Tallulah Bankhead. How has that shaped you?

It has made my life so much easier. Actors share a common history, a commonality that makes us colleagues. You take a bit from each one. And as you say, I'm lucky. It was a privilege to be around during what amounted to the waning days of the studio system and to work alongside some of the greats of that era.

You've called William Holden the most significant person in your life. Do you still feel his influence?

Well, I was in love with him; every aspect of what he did and who he was fascinated me. We were soul mates. But mostly, he was a wonderful teacher. And what he had to teach, I found interesting, from his knowledge of the African wilderness to [art] and everything else. He imbued me with so many of the things he valued. He passed them on.

That's what we do to each other, isn't it, and for each other? We pass on things that are important to us.

You've played everything from aviators to cowgirls. What interests you about Anna?

I know a great deal about her; I've studied that piece of history [1860s Siam]. I've spent quite a bit of time in [Southeast Asia, where she traveled frequently with Holden]. It's always helpful to have done a certain amount of research. And, in colonial Britain, when a woman's husband died, she was in a difficult spot. She wasn't expected to get a job. Anna does. She's alone against adversity, in a way.

If you don't look into the history -- if you don't do the research -- it's hard to address the present and the future. Playing Anna is a journey into the past.

"The King and I" is at the Hippodrome Theatre, 12 N. Eutaw St., Tuesday through Feb. 13. Tickets, $22-$67, are available at the box office (10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Saturday or 10 a.m.-showtime on performance days); through Ticketmaster (410-547-SEAT), or at www.BroadwayAcrossAme rica. com.

For more theater, classical music and dance events, see Page 34.

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