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Valerie Harper on Playing Tallulah Bankhead, a Mugging on the Rhoda Set, and Sitcom Bawdiness of Yesteryear

The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Rhoda star Valerie Harper, now 70, recently got done playing Golda Meir in a one-woman show; she’s moved on to a character significantly more debauched, if no less legendary. Harper appears as stage and screen star Tallulah Bankhead in Looped, which chronicles the life of the infamous libertine through the story of a recording session for her final movie, 1965’s Die! Die! My Darling! (the show is now in previews at New York's Lyceum Theater). Harper talked to Vulture about learning Bankhead's yell, the infamous Rhoda subway scene, and whether the Jay-Conan fracas brought back bad memories of her own NBC troubles.

How do you go about smoking and drinking onstage?
I was never a smoker in real life, so I’m afraid to inhale because I might start coughing and screw up the next line. I drink water that’s dyed to look like Scotch.

Bankhead was one of the first Hollywood train wrecks.
The difference between Tallulah’s problems and the Hollywood bad girls of today is that some of them are just famous for being bad, and they can’t do a damned thing acting-wise. Tallulah, on the other hand, never once missed a show because of her addictions, even though she was an alcoholic who popped pills and did cocaine. There was a joy and fun about her until the end. One of her famous lines was, “Daddy always told me about men and alcohol. He never said a word about women and cocaine.”

How did you research Bankhead’s offscreen personality?
An interview she did with Edward R. Murrow was wonderful, because she’s speaking as herself in real life and you can hear her yelling off-camera to the director, asking for a drink or a light.

Your TV shows were tame compared with this play about a woman born in 1902.
On ­Rhoda, they wanted my husband, Joe, to wear a pajama top when we were doing love scenes. They finally let him take it off as long as the audience saw him get into bed wearing pajama bottoms so they didn’t think he was completely naked underneath.

I was watching an episode of Rhoda on DVD recently — the classic one where she has to ride the subway to her own wedding because Phyllis forgets to pick her up. Do you have any memories of filming that scene?
One was that the purse I was carrying was mine in real life. The other is that while we were in the station shooting, a guy came barreling down the stairs during the second or third take with blood all over his suit and tie because he’d just been mugged. When I went over to try and help him, the wardrobe lady almost jumped over the turnstile because she was afraid I’d get blood all over my white wedding dress.

What’s your take on Betty White’s recent resurgence?
Betty White never left, but when you’re in your 70s and 80s it’s a different story, because worrying about being too old sort of levels off and you can be the mom or the crazy aunt who can let it all hang out. I think drama and comedy are pretty much all the same, and the issue is whether or not you have a sense of humor.

Did the recent dust-up between Jay and Conan on NBC cause you to have any flashbacks to when the same network fired you from your sitcom Valerie back in 1987?
It’s another classic example of a network making a huge mistake, and I feel sorry about both guys having to go through that even though they’re coming out on top. However, I can’t say it made me think about what happened to me, mainly because it was so long ago and we’re all now friends. It’s sad, of course, but it happens all the time and you survive. I mean, it’s not a measure of who you are — it’s the circumstances. And I’m much more concerned about the millions of other Americans these days who can’t afford to make their car payments and feed their children because they’ve lost their job. You have to put it in perspective, and in my case, my career went right on.

Photo: Patrick McMullan