Tallulah Bankhead was a character. Playwright Matthew Lombardo calls her “the original celebrity bad girl,” an actress who became more famous for her offstage, off-screen antics than for her performances — which, in a few instances, were magnificent.
How bad was Bankhead?
The Alabama-born daughter of U.S. Speaker of the House William B. Bankhead had a thing about clothes: She didn’t like them. On more than one occasion — including her run as Blanche DuBois in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire at the Coconut Grove Playhouse — she would answer a knock at her dressing room door wearing nothing but a string of pearls. She famously did cartwheels while wearing a dress and no underwear. She was bisexually voracious, a heavy smoker and enthusiastic bourbon drinker who swore that cocaine — another of her enduring enthusiasms — wasn’t habit-forming.
“She was far more talented than Bette Davis or Joan Crawford,” Lombardo argues. “But they played by the rules.”
So Lombardo, the author of Tea at Five (about Katharine Hepburn) and High (a play featuring Kathleen Turner as an unorthodox, potty-mouthed nun), wrote Looped.
The play, which lasted for 27 previews and 33 performances on Broadway in 2010, earned a best actress Tony Award nomination for its original star, Valerie Harper. She was slated to star as Bankhead in the Looped national tour, which kicks off at 8 p.m. Tuesday at Fort Lauderdale’s Parker Playhouse. But unspecified health problems caused Harper, who became a famous television face as Mary Tyler Moore’s pal Rhoda, to bow out. In her just-released memoir I, Rhoda, Harper revealed she was treated for lung cancer when Looped was on its way to Broadway, something she had never discussed with Lombardo or director Rob Ruggiero.
So now another familiar TV star, Stefanie Powers of Hart to Hart, will be the woman sporting Bankhead’s wavy hairdo and swearing up a storm in Lombardo’s raucous, funny play.
Though Looped was written with Harper in mind and shaped with her playing Bankhead at three theaters (including the former Cuillo Centre in West Palm Beach) on its road to Broadway, Powers brings a special insider’s perspective to the play, one that Lombardo, Harper and Ruggiero simply didn’t have.
The play’s title refers not to Bankhead’s inebriated state — though in Looped, she’s pretty well pickled — but to a 1965 session in which she had to re-record a line of dialogue for the movie Die, Die, My Darling. In the British thriller Fanatic, Bankhead played a religious zealot who goes off the deep end, trying to kill the young woman who had been engaged to her late son. That almost daughter-in-law was played by a young actress in her first big movie role: Stefanie Powers.
“I wouldn’t call this a comedy,” Powers says of Looped. “She was intrinsically a very daring and funny woman. If the dialogue is funny, it comes out of this extraordinary wit. She was always a bit shocking...I want to channel her as much as I possibly can. It has to resonate in my head.”
“Val’s Tony-nominated Tallulah was wonderful. But we had to craft it and work at the rhythms of how she speaks,” says Ruggiero. “With Stefanie, it’s second nature. She was there.”