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Powers That Be

In a life marked by one great love and a staggering loss, Stefanie Powers emerges as a woman of uncommon strength.
Paul Chutkow
From the Print Edition:
Michael Richards, Sep/Oct 97

(continued from page 1)

A year later, she was further exposed to cigars, in a very different environment. "I was in England, and after dinner everybody smoked cigars, including the women, and I thought that was pretty racy," Powers says. "And once again there were these lovely little cigars. In this particular instance, the cigars were made for this family, and the women had these very delicate, long thin cigars and they were sensational."

Smoking cigars at that age was emblematic of a deeper rebellion; in this same period, Powers left high school and set out on her own. "I was working when I was 15," she recalls. "My life didn't start until I was 15. Until then, all I could think about was freedom. All I could remember was longing to get an automobile, to be free; longing to get a horse, to be free. My life, up to then, was rather undistinguished."

Dancing professionally, she hoped, would pave the way to the freedom she craved. But it didn't work out quite that way. "I auditioned for the movie version of West Side Story," she says. "We rehearsed for about three months, at the Samuel Goldwyn Studio. I was a dancer, one of The Jets. I guess I was the only minor, so they let me go."

Powers had not studied acting or drama in school, and she had never even considered going into acting. But at the Goldwyn Studio, while still a teenager, she caught the eye of actor-director Tom Laughlin, who asked her to read for a part in a movie he was developing. Powers landed the role, and though the film, Among the Thorns, reached only a few theaters when it was released in 1960, she committed herself from then on to acting. She went to acting classes at 20th Century Fox, MGM and Columbia, hoping to land a contract with a major studio. Her first break came unexpectedly, in an episode cut straight from the cloth of Hollywood folklore.

"I was late for class at Columbia Studios one day and I was running through the halls wearing these unusual sunglasses," she recalls. The sunglasses were a gift from American race car driver Lance Reventlow, who had brought them back to Powers from a race in Monte Carlo. "In those days, anything that was fashionable on the Riviera would eventually take two years to get to the West Coast. So I was wearing these goggles, these funny little sunglasses, and I ran smack into this man who was wearing the same sunglasses. I mean I literally smashed him and he said, 'Where'd you get those glasses?' And I said, 'Well, my friend Lance Reventlow brought them to me from Monte Carlo. Where'd you get yours?' [He said,] 'I was in Monte Carlo. So what do you do?' 'I'm an actress and I'm late for class.' 'Are you any good?'

"I was 16 years old and I was as cocky as anything, so I said, 'Sure! And what do you do?' 'I'm a director. Why don't you come see me? I'm doing a movie here. My name is Blake Edwards.'" Powers did go to see the celebrated director and Edwards ended up casting her as Lee Remick's younger sister in Experiment in Terror. The movie did not do very well, but it helped Powers land a contract at Columbia, while she was still a cocky teenager.

Over the next half-dozen years, Powers appeared in 15 films, among them The Interns and McLintock!, starring John Wayne. Working at Columbia in the closing years of the star system enabled Powers to learn the craft and work and play alongside such giants as Remick, Wayne, Glenn Ford, David Niven, Maureen O'Hara and Lana Turner. She co-starred with the great Tallulah Bankhead in Die! Die! My Darling!, with Bing Crosby in the 1966 remake of Stagecoach, and in 1974 with Helen Hayes in Herbie Rides Again. Powers also polished her skills in the theater, with roles in Under The Yum Yum Tree, Oliver!, My Fair Lady and Annie Get Your Gun. In this period of youthful apprenticeship, Powers fell in love with actor Gary Lockwood; their marriage lasted seven years.

It was television that turned Powers into a major star. In 1966, she left Columbia to star in the lead role as April Dancer in "The Girl From U.N.C.L.E.," which ran for a year on NBC. After a 10-year hiatus from television came a five-month run, in 1977, with "The Feather and Father Gang," on ABC. These performances paved the way for what would become her signature role, as Jennifer Hart, Robert Wagner's wife and fellow sleuth, in "Hart to Hart." The series began in 1979 and ran for five years, becoming a huge hit in America and abroad. She and Wagner became devoted friends along the way, and after the series they reprised their roles in a number of made-for-TV movies. They also teamed for several successful tours in the play Love Letters.

"It's been fabulous," Powers says now, contentedly puffing on one of her favorite cigars, a Pleiades Venus. "It's also been horrifying. Because an actor's life is highs and lows. The minute we finish a picture we're depressed--all of us. Take Henry Fonda. My ex-husband was doing a movie with him, and we were all sitting on the set--they had just finished shooting for the day. We were all talking about what we were all going to do next, because the picture was winding down. And someone said, 'What are you going to do, Henry?'

"'I don't know,' he said. 'I'll probably never work again.' And everybody was paralyzed. I mean, here was this great actor, convinced that he would never work again. But it's the truth; we all think that. It's the most insecure existence in the world."

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