Stefanie Powers on ‘Hart to Hart,’ Robert Wagner, Natalie Wood, Facing Cancer, and Her Love for William Holden
In a candid interview with Tim Teeman, “Hart to Hart” star Stefanie Powers talks about fame, surviving cancer, her love for William Holden and the mystery of Natalie Wood’s death.
At the beginning of every episode of hit ’80s show Hart to Hart, Lionel Stander’s Max told viewers that Stefanie Powers’ Jennifer Hart was “one lady who knows how to take care of herself.” And that when “Mrs. H” met husband Jonathan (Robert Wagner) it was “murr-der,” because to be a friend of the Harts was a foolish thing. You would likely end up dead. The positive thing: they would solve your “murr-der” extremely glamorously.
Max wasn’t kidding. It is quite something to face Powers’ icy glare as a greeting.
“So, why here?” the 77-year-old actor said grandly, glaring at the bustling interior of a coffee shop in midtown Manhattan one recent morning. I said, yes, somewhere quieter would have been preferable.
“No, I mean, why did you want to meet in person?” Powers said. “I’m not going to tell you anything more in person than I would have said on the phone.” Powers smiled triumphantly, and sat down. She was dressed in all-black, her long, layered red hair now styled into a bob.
Two hours later, Powers had resoundingly proven herself wrong, talking candidly about fame, love, grief, the benefits and burdens of being a 1980s icon, surviving cancer, wildlife conservation, Prince Charles’ many virtues, her good friend Wagner—“RJ”—and her thoughts on whether he had something to do with the death of his former wife Natalie Wood.
After her imperious arrival, I told her about playing Hart to Hart (me as Jennifer) with other kids, riding furiously around on our bikes, when growing up in rural England. Powers remains the only celebrity I ever sent a fan letter to. I was about 9 years old. I sent it to “Stefanie Powers, Hollywood, USA,” and the envelope came back, opened, VIA PARIS! The glamor!
Powers knows the U.K. well, having performed on the stage there a lot in recent years (most recently in London in the play 84 Charing Cross Road). She owns a house and farm on the South Downs, as well as other homes in Hollywood and Kenya, where she oversees the William Holden Wildlife Foundation, which she founded in 1981 in the name of the famous actor and Powers’ great love who died that year.
This month, Powers is in New York City at 59E59 Theaters, starring in One November Yankee (to Dec. 29), a play about three sets of brothers and sisters and the history and power of flight. Powers and Harry Hamlin (L.A. Law star/husband of Lisa Rinna) play each set of brother and sister pairings; their constant scene partner is the carcass of a crashed plane.
Powers is a trained pilot and had an elder brother, Jeffrey, who died in 2013, but “while we can’t help but draw on personal experiences, I became an actor to try and fit in the skin of other characters—and analyze those characters as objectively as I could,” she said. “I don’t look for myself in characters, I look for the character in the character. I would rather play a character than be myself.”
This, she said, was why she enjoyed theater, because “people believe in who you are playing. I loved playing Jennifer Hart. I love RJ. I loved our professional experience together. But Hollywood has a tendency to want to put you in a box because people’s imaginations are limited, which is odd as it is an industry which is supposed to be full of imagination. There is a stigma attached to a certain generation of women who came to people’s attention through glamorous or semi-glamorous roles. Nobody could see beyond that. My life has taken me in many other directions.”
Powers was born Stefania Zofia Federkiewicz in Hollywood to Polish parents. Her mother, Juliana, was born in the U.S.; her father was born in Poland. She had an English nanny, and the family had many European friends, meaning—Powers laughed—that she grew up saying “gar-ahhge,” instead of garage. Her parents divorced when she was very young. Powers remained close to her mother, but not her father.
The man who became her stepfather was a “bigger-than-life character” who bred racehorses; and so began her own love of the creature which led to a long passion for playing polo (and so becoming pals with Prince Charles). Powers said her best friend growing up was a large goat called Rascal. She grew up with a love of dancing, and from age 5 attended ballet class. She was not academic, but she was curious. School seemed too “elementary.” She liked archeology and history.
Ballet became tough at 15, “when I grew very tall and these things popped out of my chest.” But she took classes with Matt Mattox, a dancer whose most famous role was as Caleb Pontipee in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954). “Everybody was mad for him. And he was straight! Gorgeous!” Later, she took classes with the famed Louis “Luigi” Faccuito, who died, aged 90, in 2015.
Her acting life began with almost scooping a role in the movie of West Side Story (1961), even though she was eventually replaced by Carole D'Andrea for the role of Velma. She recalled the grueling 16 dance auditions for the role she performed and the three screen tests for various roles. “I was a minor, and we were all (choreographer and co-director) Jerome Robbins’ whipping boys,” Powers recalled of the three-month process. “We listened to recordings of juvenile delinquents from the West Side of New York, around Lincoln Center, which was nothing like what it is today.”
Robbins, she said, insisted the actors create specific characters, and create relationships within the group; he and directors and choreographers like Bob Fosse and Michael Bennett had similar methods. “I remember being at the original production of A Chorus Line, and people sobbing around me. You really believed and felt it when they sang, ‘I really need this job.’ Today, you don’t believe it: the actors are all so gorgeous, with legs up to here, but nothing inside. When they sing it, you think, ‘You don’t need this job. You can get any job.’”
She is not supportive of the upcoming Steven Spielberg-directed West Side Story movie. “I don’t know why they have to tamper with something. Do you want to redo The Sound of Music? Anyone who does must need their heads examined. Leave the original as it is. It is one of the greatest film musicals.”
Powers said, in her opinion, inclusive, color-blind casting was not appropriate in the new Broadway production or the movie, “because it was not blacks against Puerto Ricans, it was very poor white people, white trash, against Puerto Ricans, who those very poor whites saw as the lowest of the low.”
“I wouldn’t want to see Porgy and Bess sung by white people,” said Powers. “Certain things make sense historically, and when you deviate too much from it it ceases to make sense. Or it becomes another story. So, why redo West Side Story?”
Because actors of all ethnicities should be able to perform on a stage or screen, I said.
“I totally agree. Everybody should have that opportunity. What about women of a certain age?” Powers asked. “We represent a huge minority.”
Has she faced age discrimination? “Oh my God, it’s everywhere. Every time Meryl Streep works, people say that it’s the new age of older actresses. But it’s just that one person.”
Powers recalled the era of supporting actors who made careers out of those roles, including a lot of older actresses. “Nobody writes those roles any more. Everybody between 40 and death is put in the same basket.”
Powers recalled reading a script for a recent role, and initially being told she was too old for it. The producers relented, met her, said they loved her, then told her she was too young for the part. “Talk about discrimination!”
Powers’ film career began in 1963, with her first splash in television the short-lived Girl From U.N.C.L.E. in 1966, which featured a then-groundbreaking female action role. “We had no ideas we were doing anything historically significant. It was never publicized like that. That only came in hindsight.”
But it was Hart to Hart (1979-84) which made Powers internationally famous. She had already appeared in Aaron Spelling’s TV movie, Five Desperate Women (1971), and there were many criss-crossing professional and personal associations between cast and crew.
Hart to Hart typically ended with Jonathan punching out the bad guy, but if there was also a villainess, Jennifer would dispatch her, sometimes using lamps or handbags.
“Let me tell you about that handbag,” said Powers, laughing. “Do you know why Jennifer always had a handbag? Because there was a microphone in the handbag. I had to wear a lot of clothing where there was no room for a mike. And so Jennifer was always carrying a strapless handbag. The Queen has a reason for her handbags. And I had a reason for mine.”
There were nine Hart to Hart TV movies after the TV series ended. It may have seemed glamorous to viewers, especially that dinky private jet they had, but Powers was brought down to earth at a party where she met the Sultan of Brunei’s two wives, who asked to speak to her.
“They said how much they loved the show,” Powers said laughing. “And then they said, ‘We love your little plane. Sometimes we wish we had a little plane like that.’ Because they flew around in a 747.”
The fame the show brought has generally been pleasant, Powers said, as Jonathan and Jennifer (and Max and Freeway the dog) were so wholesome and nice. “I have been able to direct that enthusiasm into wildlife conservation. Hart to Hart fans have been enormously supportive of that. It’s been the greatest gift Hart to Hart has brought to me.”
The Powers-Wagner chemistry zinged on Hart to Hart and many viewers assumed they were together in real life. “I could have analyzed it, but I didn’t want to tempt fate by trying to pin it down,” said Powers. “There was a certain mutual generosity we had, like playing tennis with someone and you get that wonderful rhythm in a rally. There’s nothing like it. With the occasional lob.” She laughed.
Was there ever any romance or flirtation between them? “No. We worked 14 hours a day, and in the course of making this show we both lost our partners within almost 2 weeks of one another.”
Powers is referring to the deaths of Holden first, then Wood.
“We were mid-filming,” said Powers. “We had to go back. We had commitments. It was repulsive. Sometimes we felt we couldn’t do it. We couldn’t go on. I like to think we held each other up, which bonded us as human beings. At the time the last thing I was looking for was a relationship. We had a relationship which was—we still do—that if anything happened to either one of us we would be on the plane to see the one the next minute.”
Powers remains close with Wagner and his wife, Jill St. John. What does she have to say about any involvement Wagner had in Wood’s death on a boat trip to Santa Catalina Island? Is she convinced of his innocence?
In February 2018, Wagner was officially named a person of interest in the case. “As we’ve investigated the case over the last six years, I think he’s [Wagner] more of a person of interest now,” Lt John Corina of LA County sheriff’s department told CBS at the time. “I mean, we know now that he was the last person to be with Natalie before she disappeared.”
“I won’t comment about that. I won’t even bring it up as an issue,” said Powers of the continued cloud over Wagner. “It doesn’t bear discussion. It is a non-issue. What happened happened, and the rehashing of it is generally done by people who wish to get some money from it.”
Powers was married to first husband Gary Lockwood from 1966 to 1972, and was with Holden from 1972 to 1981. She was married to second husband Patrick Houitte de la Chesnais from 1993 to 1999, and was partnered with businessman Thomas Carroll from 2000 to 2014.
Would she say that Holden the love of her life, I asked.
“Yes, it was the strongest relationship in the most compressed period of time,” Powers said. “It was only nine years. It was pivotal in my life, and I was devoted to him in a way I have never been before or since.”
Would she like to be with someone again? “Oh no, I think I’m done,” Powers said.
She has not missed having children, and has never wanted them. “But I certainly have a lot in my life: eight godchildren, six people I am putting through college, and our education center in Africa sees 11,000 students a year, and another 6,000 students through an outreach program. There are enough children in my life. And all the men I was ever involved with had children of their own so it wasn’t even an issue.”
In 2008-2009, Powers was diagnosed and treated successfully for lung cancer (an alveolar cell carcinoma in her right lung).
“I was worried it was going to spread,” recalled Powers. “It changes a lot about your plans. Perhaps the reason I didn’t decide to go back to fight to get back into Hollywood and all these auditions to get back on TV was that I said, ‘Fuck it.’ Why should I do that to myself. Some things become less important, and you realize what is important.” For Powers, this is centered on her wildlife conservation work.
Giving up her smoking habit was easy. “I don’t like to use excuses to avoid having to deal with the tough parts of life,” she said. She has a “great many regular check-ups” to maintain a watchful eye on the possibility of cancer returning. “Something’s gonna get us sooner or later,” Powers said, laughing.
Her mother died the same year she was being treated for cancer. Her brother Jeffrey died in 2013, and a year later Thomas Carroll died. “2014 was a very difficult year,” said Powers. “I lost far too many people who I thought I would live the rest of my life with. I feel bereft of these friendships. No question about it.”
After Hart to Hart, Powers appeared in the (totally bananas and brilliant) mini-series, Deceptions, playing twins. When I asked what she still wanted professionally to do, her answer was cheery and immediate. “(Auntie) Mame. On stage. It’s my favorite piece, and about the most perfect movie [from] every point of view.” A couple of years ago she was in talks to perform it at England’s prestigious Chichester Festival, but those plans came to naught. “I wouldn’t mind doing it as a play or musical, but I know that I am on Jerry Herman’s ‘OK’ list to do a musical. And yes, I would love to go back on TV for all the obvious reasons.
“It’s a sentence without a period—that part of my professional life has not been completed yet. It would have to be something interesting, so I don’t have to recreate an illusion from the past. It’s not to do with Jennifer Hart, but those of us in ’80s television—that era emits some sort of stigma, some sort of glamor, that sticks in people’s minds.”
She loved working with Lionel Stander, who was a Broadway all-rounder, and who had testified during the McCarthy hearings and been blacklisted afterwards. “What a horrible period, a witch-hunt, and we’re close to the same thing now,” said Powers. She is “not a fan of Mr. Trump,” even though she agrees with him on some issues, like making European countries more fiscally responsible when it comes to funding NATO. She believes our politically polarized times began under President Obama, cannot bear the lack of respectful tone in political debate, and is now herself independent. “I loathe party politics.”
Her association with polo led to a friendship with Prince Charles. Powers has strong opinions about him and other royals, including Meghan Markle.
“I think he’s a much undermined and maligned person. He is a very knowledgeable man about many, many areas. He’s very concerned about the environment and about architecture. He feels strongly about things that he is obliged not to say anything about because of his public position. I think he deserves a great more deal more credit than he is given. He’s lovely, witty. I think the general impression, because of Diana, was thumbs down for him and thumbs up for her. That’s what the public does—makes black and white judgments without knowing anything. The public doesn’t know who he is.
“He will make a good king, I think, in spite of the fact he probably doesn’t want it—who knows? He has very big shoes to fill. The Queen is extraordinary.”
Powers thinks Meghan Markle “wants to be a star, which, I’m sorry, is not what she is supposed to be doing. She has made it into Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, or like ‘The Adventures of Meghan in the Palace.’ Britain is outstanding because of the royal family, and when a member of it misbehaves they shorten its viability. Prince Andrew is stupid. Both him and Harry have making fools of themselves in common. Kate (Middleton) is impeccable, she doesn’t put a foot wrong.
“Meghan’s role is not about being a star. Those headlines saying she was Hollywood royalty marrying British royalty... She had a role in a TV show. Please, she’s obviously not a great actress. She’s not gotten into the role she has taken on. Grace Kelly did (when she married Prince Rainier of Monaco), but then she was Hollywood royalty—not a bit player in a minor television series.”
“It’s her job to be Harry’s wife, not change the royal dynamic,” said Powers.
Maybe both Harry and Meghan want to change the royal dynamic, I suggested.
“Then he should get out of the job too,” Powers shot back. “Look at Princess Anne. I love Princess Anne. I know her. She is sensational. She is her mother’s daughter, totally committed to what she does. She has stepped back, and doesn’t make a circus of life whenever she steps out. She’s the real thing. She’s kind of mischievous. She has a wicked twinkle.”
The same could be said of Powers. She claims not to contemplate turning 80 in three years. “RJ is going to be 90 in February, which is insane,” she said, smiling. They both look great. Powers’ dancer’s body, she said laughing, was the result of being hit by a teacher’s stick so many times, with the instruction, “Put your bum in.” Around 40, she had work on her eyes to “suck out” the fat beneath her lower lids.
“It’s the luck of the draw, and maybe sheer tenacity,” said Powers. “Pace yourself and manage yourself, and try to do the best you can. I try to take every day as it comes. I like that (Woody Allen) saying: ‘If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.’”
To reflect the perversity of this maxim, Powers revealed the next six months would be mostly taken up with overseeing the reconstruction work on her Hollywood home, necessitated by a domestically devastating water leak.
But, Mame-like, on she goes. “You don’t have a choice. Sink or swim, I’m never going to be a victim,” Powers said.
In the New York cold, as we said farewell, Powers said gently, “So, now I have a question for you. Did you ever find your Jonathan?” It took a moment for me to realize she was asking about a “Jonathan Hart” to my childhood-Jennifer: the sweetest possible way to ask about my relationship status. It was as if a very old fan letter had traveled from rural England to Hollywood, then mysteriously to Paris, and now, nearly 40 years later, had finally been answered in New York City.