RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Some people are so famous, they're known by one name alone: Oprah, Angelina, Barack. Once upon a time in America the names Tallulah and Rhoda were one name legends. Tallulah was the real life name of stage, screen and radio actress Tallulah Bankhead. Rhoda was the spunky TV character Valerie Harper played on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and its spin-off, "Rhoda." Now Tallulah and Rhoda have become one in the play "Looped." And NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg has one word for Valerie Harper's portrayal of the larger than life Tallulah Bankhead - it's a hoot.
SUSAN STAMBERG: In the mercifully forgotten 1965 film "Die, Die My Darling," Tallulah Bankhead spoke these words…
(Soundbite of movie, "Die, Die My Darling")
Ms. TALLULAH BANKHEAD (Actress): (as Mrs. Trefoile) And Patricia, as I was telling you, even though that deluded(ph) rector (unintelligible) closed the church to me.
STAMBERG: In the play "Looped," Valerie Harper as Tallulah has problems with the line.
(Soundbite of play, "Looped")
Ms. VALERIE HARPER (Actor): (as Tallulah Bankhead) So Patricia, as I was telling you that - oh, balls, who is it again?
Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (as character) It's that deluded rector.
Ms. HARPER: (as Tallulah) Deluded rector, right.
(Soundbite of beeping)
Ms. HARPER: (as Tallulah) And so, Patricia, as I was telling you, that deluded rector has - oh, he's done something very naughty.
Unidentified Man #1: (as character) He's closed the church to you.
Ms. HARPER: Of course.
STAMBERG: Playwright Matthew Lombardo puts Tallulah in a Los Angeles recording studio taping, looping, just 20 words of dialog for the last movie she would make. The looping takes all day, or at least the length of the play, because Tallulah Bankhead keeps fortifying her brief retakes with Scotch, only because there's no bourbon handy, and cocaine.
Ms. HARPER: She was an addict.
STAMBERG: Actress Valerie Harper.
Ms. HARPER: She was an alcoholic, so you see that mean drunk side, some of it, and also her big, generous heart. And fought with her demons all her life, but somehow came out victorious.
STAMBERG: Valerie Harper is a big Tallulah fan, as much for her wit as for her grit. Bankhead was hilariously funny. She had a pocket full of punch lines. Harper says the husky, whisky, ciggy-voiced Tallulah once got a phone call from gossip columnist Earl Wilson.
Ms. HARPER: And he said, Ms. Bankhead - and he had a high, squeaky voice - he said, have you ever been mistaken on the telephone for a man? And she said, No, have you?
STAMBERG: I'm pure as the driven slush, Tallulah said, and there is less to this than meets the eye. Humor got her through, and glamour and talent.
(Soundbite of movie, "Lifeboat")
Ms. BANKHEAD: (as Constance Porter) What's the matter with us? We not only let (unintelligible) our rowing for us, but our thinking.
STAMBERG: In Alfred Hitchcock's 1944 film "Lifeboat," she played a spoiled photojournalist who became noble in a shipwreck.
(Soundbite of movie, "Lifeboat")
Ms. BANKHEAD: (Unintelligible) little fishes. The ocean's full of them, millions of fish swimming around. Well, I would catch some. Where's the fish line?
Ms. HARPER: When she went to Hollywood, they tried made her a second Marlene Dietrich. Big mistake. They should have made her the first Tallulah Bankhead, this Southern bell who went to England, learned how to speak and act for 10 years in her twenties.
STAMBERG: Born in Alabama to a family of Democratic politicians, her father was a member of the U.S. Congress, then Speaker of the House in the late 1930s. Her grandfather and an uncle were senators. Tallulah Bankhead was the toast of London Theater in the 1920s, a big hit on Broadway in the '30s and '40s, she did radio and TV in the '50s and '60s, but by the time she died in 1965, Tallulah was more the first celebrity bad girl than distinguished actor.
Ms. HARPER: Her personality was often much bigger than the role she was playing.
STAMBERG: And so Tallulah grew bored. And when Bankhead was bored, she began acting up.
(Soundbite of play, "Looping")
Ms. HARPER: (as Tallulah) And so, Patricia, as I was telling you, that deluded rectum…
Unidentified Man #2 (Actor): (as character) Rector, rector.
Ms. HARPER: (as Tallulah) That's what I said.
Unidentified Man #2: (as character) No, you said rectum.
Ms. HARPER: (as Tallulah) Oh?
(Soundbite of beeping)
Ms. HARPER: (as Tallulah) That gives it quite a different meaning, ha, ha, ha.
STAMBERG: Valerie Harper listens to the actual tape of Tallulah looping every night after a performance. She also watched all Bankhead's movies, her TV appearances. Harper had a good time preparing to be the naughty, witty, take-no-prisoners, outrageous Ms. Bankhead.
Ms. HARPER: I say: what is like Valerie and what isn't? You know, what mannerisms or way of looking at things? I don't drink at all, and I haven't done drugs and I'm a big square, but I can supplant it. It's brownies and it's pizza that I O.D. on, or crusty Italian bread, you know? So if I have an addiction, it's you, know, that and I'm constantly watching my weight. So you know, you find those places in yourself that are similar to the character.
STAMBERG: In Washington, D.C., Valerie Harper has standing ovations pretty much every performance. And she says audiences really get involved reacting to Tallulah lines like this one.
Ms. HARPER: There's always going to be pain in life, baby. But suffering, that one is optional. A lady said, so true. It was like one of Rhoda's aunts in the second row.
STAMBERG: Harper continues working on Tallulah. The play opened last year at the Pasadena Playhouse. An arena stage production runs through Sunday in D.C. The Washington Times reviewer wrote, What is sad and triumphant about Tallulah Bankhead is how the spotlight has been turned off of her for decades, but she still behaves as if playing to a packed house.
"Looped," starring Valerie Harper as Tallulah Bankhead, is expected to go to Broadway, possibly this fall.
I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.
Ms. HARPER: She's great. I love her. She'll live forever in my heart, opened all kinds of doors for me. I never mind…
(Soundbite of theme to "The Mary Tyler Moore Show")
MONTAGNE: You can hear more Harper on "Rhoda" and see the real Tallulah on TV with Lucille Ball at npr.org.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.