Valerie Harper Tackles Tallulah Bankhead

Valerie Harper As Tallulah Bankhead i i

hide captionTallulah Bankhead, played by Valerie Harper, takes a bourbon and water — without water — during her recording session.

Carol Rosegg
Valerie Harper As Tallulah Bankhead

Tallulah Bankhead, played by Valerie Harper, takes a bourbon and water — without water — during her recording session.

Carol Rosegg

Tallulah Bankhead is decidedly not Rhoda Morgenstern.

Valerie Harper, famous for playing The Mary Tyler Moore Show's girl from the Bronx, is nominated for a Tony Award for her Broadway embodiment of Tallulah Bankhead in Looped.

Bankhead is the hard-drinking, cocaine-sniffing diva believed to be the inspiration for Cruella de Vil. In Looped, Harper's Bankhead spends hour after hour in a studio with an assistant director, Danny Miller, played by Brian Hutchinson.

The story is based on a real event from the summer of 1965, when an inebriated Bankhead tried to re-record — or "loop" — one line of dialogue for what would be her final movie, Die, Die My Darling.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

Valerie Harper, who already owns a shelf full of Emmys and a Golden Globe, is nominated for her first Tony Award this year, for her performance as the outrageous Tallulah Bankhead, the actress who inspired Tennessee Williams to create Blanche DuBois, but became, late in life, something of a self-caricature. In the play "Looped," Harper's Bankhead spends hour after hour in a studio with an assistant director played by Brian Hutchinson, trying to re-record or loop a less-than immortal line in what would be her final movie.

(Soundbite of play "Looped")

Ms. VALERIE HARPER (Actress): (as Tallulah Bankhead) And so Patricia, as I was telling you, that deluded rector has - he's done something very naughty.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BRIAN HUTCHISON (Actor): (as Danny Miller) He's closed the church to you.

Ms. HARPER: (as Tallulah Bankhead) Of course.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of beeping)

Ms. HARPER: (as Tallulah Bankhead) And so Patricia, as I was telling you, that deluded rectum...

Mr. HUTCHISON: (as Danny Miller) Rector.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HUTCHISON: (as Danny Miller) Rector.

Ms. HARPER: (as Tallulah Bankhead) Well, now, that's what I said.

Mr. HUTCHISON: (as Danny Miller) No, you said rectum.

Ms. HARPER: (as Tallulah Bankhead) Oh.

(Soundbite of beeping)

Ms. HARPER: (as Tallulah Bankhead) But that gives it quite a different meaning, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha.

CONAN: Valerie Harper, best remembered as Mary Tyler Moore's sidekick lady, the star of the enormously successful show "Rhoda." If you'd like to talk with her about Tallulah or Rhoda or her life in show business, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. You can join the conversation, too, on our website, that's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And Valerie Harper joins us now from our studios at New York Bureau. Congratulations on the nomination.

Ms. HARPER: Oh, thank you so much, Neal. It's a pleasure to be with you. I hear you so often.

CONAN: Oh, that's nice of you to say.

Ms. HARPER: Yeah, this is fun.

CONAN: Just listening to you now and listening to that tape, did you smoke three packs of cigarettes every night before you went onstage?

Ms. HARPER: No, no, but I - you know, it's interesting, I was listening to it, it was fun to hear it and to hear Brian - wonderful actor. That was taken at the beginning of the - of our run...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. HARPER: ...in previews. That was the B-roll. And I got my voice much lower. I don't know why I did it. I really got down low later on. I did, and I - it's - I - the acting was okay, but the depth of the voice, our director, Rob Ruggiero kept saying, Valerie, lower, lower. I said, you're a man. He said, yes, darling. Hello, darling. And I said, but you're a man, Rob. I don't have those vocal chords. How low can I go? And he said, as low as Tallulah. I had to stand corrected, so we worked on that. But I don't smoke, no, at all. It's a matter of trusting the mic. I had a wonderful sound system. And the mic inside my wig allowed me to drop my voice. Because I could never in a million years, Neal, project.

CONAN: Project with the...

Ms. HARPER: Because my voice is naturally much higher.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. I understand the genesis of this play was a tape of indeed that moment.

Ms. HARPER: That's correct. Yes, Neal. Lombardo, the playwright, found this 45 minutes of Tallulah actually working in the studio. Someone had turned it on. And for me, for any actor, it was gold because I didn't have to go and look at her performances. I could hear her as she actually sounded in life, yelling at the director, asking a program assistant to please bring her her purse, look for my lipstick, go on in my bag, darling, it doesn't - and she - he - you could hear her speaking.

Of course, they did many, many lines. But Matthew's genius was to take this situation and then cobble a play. Danny is a made-up character, completely - the young film editor who was pushed into doing the work. Actually, the director was there. We changed - he changed a lot of the factual elements and based it on this real event. But having one line -and she can't get to it because she's smoking or drinking or taking a line of cocaine, or getting involved in this young man's life and badgering him, whatever the... She was just extending the time in the studio. And we all know time is golden in a studio.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HARPER: But it did take them eight hours to get the one line that they needed desperately to finish the movie.

CONAN: The movie, "Die! Die! My Darling!"

Ms. HARPER: Oh, I know. And actually, that starred Stefanie Powers. And Stefanie came during previews to see the play and laughed like crazy.

CONAN: The - she says, I think, in the play, I only have six months left. In fact, she had a couple of years left.

Ms. HARPER: She did. She had three. She lived three years longer, yeah.

CONAN: But a part of what she is doing in this play is reminiscing - we forget, she was a great actress.

Ms. HARPER: She really was, Neal. She created that Regina in - Giddens in the wonderful play "Little Foxes" by Lillian Hellman. And then "They Knew What They Wanted," she did in London as a young woman and that became "Most Happy Fella" and other, you know, in different - in play form as well.

And then the other one was "Skin of Our Teeth," which is Thornton Wilder. She created Sabina. So she - those - she always said those were her three favorite, but she did 50 plays. She was the workingest actress of her generation. But I think she cultivated and liked this party girl image. You know, laughing loud and drinking all night and dancing and a having affairs with both sexes, whoever she took a fancy to. She loved that one-of-a-kind, crazy, outrageous reputation. But she was a real hard worker and mainly in the theater.

CONAN: And never missed a show despite the lines - many kinds of lines, including the one where she said, Daddy warned me about men and alcohol, nobody ever told me about women and cocaine.

Ms. HARPER: That's correct. That's her, yeah. And I'm as pure as the driven slush, and all kinds of self-deprecating - she was a major wit and that is why I think - and funny. I think that's why she doesn't have that cloud of tragedy or disaster that, for instance, Billie Holiday has over her reputation or Judy Garland.

Indeed, she was an addict and, indeed, she had tremendous emotional problems at times in her life. But she always seemed to be, when the smoke cleared - laughing and having fun and say, come on, kids, let's have a party for God's sake. Let's dance, let's - you know, there was something very positive in her. And she was free at a very unfree time in America. And I think that's why people loved her. Seemed like Tallulah was our, you know, alter ego, doing what we all were afraid to do in the '50s.

CONAN: The daughter of the Speaker of the House of Representatives.

Ms. HARPER: Oh, yes, that's the great Washington story. She was this incredible, almost vulgar presence, and yet a complete lady, was brought up beautifully in good finishing schools, many of which she was thrown out of. But there was a Alabama bank head in Congress for 60 years straight. It was her grandpappy who was - Captain John, they called him. He was a senator. Her uncle John was also a senator. And her dad was Speaker of the House, not just in the House of Representative but speaker during FDR's time. So they were - she was very political and they weren't Dixiecrats. They were really on the more liberal side of things, trying to bring lots of work projects and assistance for poor Alabamians.

CONAN: Let's gets some callers on the line who want to speak with Valerie Harper. 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. Rick(ph) is on the line with us from Fresno.

Ms. HARPER: Hello, Rick.

RICK (Caller): Hi Valerie, how are you?

Ms. HARPER: I'm just great.

RICK: You know, people always talk about Mary Tyler Moore and Carol Burnett and how progressive they were. And in the back of my mind, I was always thinking, what are you talking about? Valerie Harper is the progressive one.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RICK: And, you know, she - and as I listen to you today, you still have that brassy, salty, sort of like know-it-all in a positive way, way about you that always, as a kid, made me want to know you.

Ms. HARPER: Oh, that's so lovely.

CONAN: And so then this happens a few months ago. My friends bought a home in Long Beach. And lo and behold, in the garage - did you ever own a home in Long Beach?

Ms. HARPER: No, no.

CONAN: You didn't, well...

Ms. HARPER: Not in Long Beach.

RICK: ...lo and behold - okay, well, lo and behold, right by the beach, right down the block from the ocean...

Ms. HARPER: Mm-hmm.

RICK: ...we're going through the garage, cleaning the garage, getting ready to move them in and here's a box of photographs of you. And they are from like Broadway plays and off-Broadway plays. And there's whole box of photographs and you're in every single one of them.

Ms. HARPER: How interesting.

CONAN: I thought I found the Holy Grail.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RICK: And so...

Ms. HARPER: I think you did.

CONAN: And we've agreed not to publish these photographs on the radio in return for a small sum.

RICK: They're great photographs. And most of them you have that headband that you wore, you know, that you're so famous for.

Ms. HARPER: You know, I think it might have been a fan collecting them. Were they were they from newspapers and thinks like?

RICK: No, no, they're original photographs.

Ms. HARPER: Wow.

RICK: So...

Ms. HARPER: Oh, I'd love to see those sometimes.

RICK: Yeah. So I will get your mailing address offline and send them to you but theyre incredible.

Ms. HARPER: That would be great, Rick. I would love that.

RICK: I mean, there are probably 100. And whoever this fan was, it probably was a fan if you didnt live there. I mean, they were very tasteful. There isn't anything risque.

Ms. HARPER: In those days, we weren't doing that. We weren't (unintelligible)...

RICK: Right. Right.

Ms. HARPER: ...like the girls are doing now.

RICK: But anyway...

CONAN: Rick, why don't we put you on hold. We'll get your email address and...

Ms. HARPER: I would love to be in touch with you, Rick, on those. I really would.

RICK: Thank you, Valerie.

Ms. HARPER: It might be somebody from CBS that was in the publicity department, could be that, too.

RICK: Right. Well, keep up the good work.

CONAN: We'll get to your people in touch with her people.

Ms. HARPER: Thanks, Rick. And thank you for your kind words. May I submit to you that who you fell in love with was Rhoda, maybe, you know, rather than Valerie.

CONAN: Well...

Ms. HARPER: But I take it, I'm happy to have the love. Thanks, Rick.

CONAN: Nevertheless, Ive read that you see a connection, a line between Rhoda and Tallulah Bankhead.

Ms. HARPER: Oh, sure, yes. Absolutely, because they were self-actuating people. I also played in another famous woman, in fact several, but Golda Meir (unintelligible). Well, Golda is the other end of the spectrum from Tallulah. But they really took their personage first and that they were women second. And I think Rhoda had this wonderful quality of saying the unsayable, things that Mary Richards would not say because she's too much of a lady or, you know, it's not polite...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. HARPER: ...Rhoda, the New Yorker from the Bronx, would just say it straight out. And that, I think, is what young people liked in Rhoda, Rick one of them.

CONAN: Of the three, I think Tallulah had the best wardrobe.

Ms. HARPER: For By and By, yes, absolutely, without question.

CONAN: We're talking with Valerie Harper, Tony-nominated this year for her portrayal of Tallulah Bankhead in "Looped." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's get Jim(ph) on the line, Jim with us from Fort Mill in South Carolina.

JIM (Caller): Valerie Harper, I can't believe it, this is the second time I've got to speak with you. I love...

Ms. HARPER: Is it really, Jim? Hello.

JIM: I loved you in "Rhoda," just one - each laugh was a little more marvelous than all the others. I saw you in Boston as Golda Meir. And last year, I saw you as Tallulah Bankhead in Washington, D.C. And I didn't...

Ms. HARPER: Oh, yes, at the wonderful arena stage - the Lincoln Theater, yes, I love that.

JIM: I didn't think - at the Lincoln Theater. I don't think you could top yourself. Could you speak about Ms. Bankhead and Tab Hunter, if you know anything about them?

Ms. HARPER: Yes, I do. That was that last Broadway play by Tennessee Williams called "The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore." And Tallulah was kind of playing this character that was quite close to herself, a hard drinker at the end of her times, and Tab was cast in it. I think they re-clashed...

CONAN: For those who don't remember, Tab Hunter was a delicious hunk of beefcake.

Ms. HARPER: He sure was, blonde - and he still is. He came to the play in Pasadena and he didn't want to be introduced but I couldn't stop myself. I said, there's a man here who was, as a young man, worked with Tallulah. And he got up and talked about the terrible time she gave him.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HARPER: But - they did clash, but they did work together. And that was Tallulah's last outing on the Great White Way. And...

CONAN: And...

Ms. HARPER: ...he looks beautiful to this day, Tab, and he's a lovely guy. And I was so happy he came to the play and we got to introduce him to the audience.

JIM: Thank you, Valerie Harper.

CONAN: And...

Ms. HARPER: Absolutely. I love the way you sound. My daughter just graduated from Emerson in Boston.

CONAN: Ha.

Ms. HARPER: And boy, we were just there and it was beautiful. You have a great city.

JIM: I'll say it again, Valerie Harper.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JIM: Okay. Bye.

Ms. HARPER: There it is, I love it.

JIM: Bye-bye.

CONAN: Thanks very much, Jim.

Let's go next to - this is Steve(ph), Steve from Palo Alto.

STEVE (Caller): Yes. Hi. Thank you so much for this program. I have a question that - how do you deal with the anticlimactic period after a production?

CONAN: And we should point out "Looped" has closed on Broadway, so this is that period right now.

Ms. HARPER: Oh, yeah. That was really sad, this particular one, because we really hoped to run. And the vicissitudes of the budgeting on Broadway, you just can't do it. We had to give back a lot of money. Is it Jim I'm talking to?

CONAN: Steve.

Ms. HARPER: Steve, I'm so sorry, yes. Steve, we had to give back, oh, maybe $400,000 because they had bought into June and July. But if you don't have that, you cannot sustain running on Broadway. It costs hundreds of thousands of dollars weekly. So that was the problem, and it was very sad for me. Other times when shows have ended, I have - they come to the end of their life, like "Rhoda," when "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" - actually, I was on my own. I'd done the character for nine years. So that just came nicely to the - its end, and nine seasons is quite something to be proud of.

STEVE: Sure.

Ms. HARPER: I've been - if you're in a show you hate, you're happy that it ends. But most of the time, it's quite bittersweet because maybe it's time to close. But it also - you give up that family that you've built. This one was very painful, but the Tony nomination has acknowledged all of our work, most of all my darling husband, Tony Cacciotti, who did four productions across the country - the one in D.C., in Pasadena and in West Palm Beach, Florida.

So we've been on this about two years, and it actually is an acknowledgement for everyone, the playwright, the director. And we're part of Broadway history now that Valerie Harper was one of the nominees for best actress in 2010. I mean, win or lose, or - it doesn't matter because that's already part of Broadway canon, is that the right term, Neal?

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Yeah.

Ms. HARPER: Yes. It's - we're there. We're not just a ship that passed in the night. We made this one little historic mark, and I'm so happy about that.

CONAN: Steve, thanks very much for the call.

STEVE: Congratulations. Thank you.

CONAN: All right. And just have about a minute or so left, but was there anything, any part of Tallulah that you said, well, you know, I just don't - I don't think I want to go there?

Ms. HARPER: Yes, a few times. Some of her language was so - I thought raw, but I got around it. And when we - and we presented her as she was in life, the F-bomb was all over. And every time I did a show, I'd say don't bring the kiddies to see "Rhoda." And then we had a wonderful, wonderful ticket taker, an older woman kind of chunky and adorable, looked like she could be related to Rosie O'Donnell.

And she'd stop people and say, you know, this show has a lot of bad language. I see your child looks about 11 or something. We said over 12 or 13 was okay. But that was a problem, and then some of the jokes that - he wrote fantastically funny jokes but some of them were so way over the top that we had to kind of finesse them, and I worked on those. And they still stayed in the show, but in a kinder, gentler format.

CONAN: Valerie...

Ms. HARPER: But I loved her and she loved the theater and I felt a lot in common with her as well. And it was fun.

CONAN: We wish you both great good luck on Tony night.

Ms. HARPER: Thank you so much, Neal. It was a joy to be with you and your callers, your listeners.

CONAN: Thank you very much.

Valerie Harper, nominated for a Tony for her Broadway portrayal of Tallulah Bankhead in "Looped." She joined us from our bureau in New York.

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