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Broadway's new dah-ling: Valerie Harper as Tallulah

Brian Hutchison, left, is Danny, and Valerie Harper

Brian Hutchison, left, is Danny, and Valerie Harper portrays Tallulah Bankhead in Matthew Lombardo's "Looped," now playing at Broadway's Lyceum Theatre in New York. Credit: AP Photo

Mention Tallulah Bankhead to people of a certain age, and they'll grin at the memory of the scandalous film and theater star who joyfully cursed, ran around sans underwear and had bisexual affairs. Bankhead won admiration and awards for films like Alfred Hitchcock's "Lifeboat" (1944) and Broadway plays such as Lillian Hellman's "The Little Foxes" (1939). When she died in 1968, she left a legacy of outrageous stories, many of them true.

Valerie Harper, iconic herself as Rhoda Morganstern in CBS' "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and "Rhoda" in the 1970s, dramatizes one of Bankhead's final efforts in Matthew Lombardo's newly opened Broadway comedy, "Looped." Based on a postproduction audio session to record (or "loop") a line of dialogue for Bankhead's last film appearance in "Die! Die! My Darling!" (1965), the three-person play is equal parts Scotch, cigarettes and withering wit.

Harper, 70, long-married to producer-husband Tony Cacciotti, spoke at a midtown condominium with frequent Newsday contributor Frank Lovece.

What drew you to Tallulah Bankhead rather than, say, Gloria Swanson, Joan Crawford or any of the other great, tough women of early Hollywood?

Or Bette Davis, or Katharine Hepburn - any of them. Tallulah was great fun. And the addictions she suffered - to alcohol, specifically bourbon, to codeine and cocaine - all make for a very tragic thing. However, the overarching thing in Tallulah's life is a sense of wit and fun and "I make no apologies." And she just kept working - she was a working bad girl. Some of the girls today are famous for being obnoxious or outrageous, and they don't do anything. But Tallulah Bankhead was a really marvelous, successful actress. And, unlike Billie Holiday or Judy Garland, that dark cloud of sadness somehow missed her.

Some of the funniest lines in the play are actual quotes.

Yes! One in the play that's hers is, "Cocaine, addictive? Nonsense. I ought to know, I've been doing it for years!" Another, and it's very famous, is, "I'm as pure as the driven slush."

Kathleen Turner did a U.S. tour of "Tallulah" a few years ago. Was there any thought to your doing that instead of this new play?

That was a one-woman show. So was "Tallulah Hallelujah!" . This piece is a real play. And the writer, Matthew Lombardo, got hold of a 40-minute piece of Bankhead's actual looping session, which was gold for me - I could hear her in life. She didn't know being done, so she was talking about her makeup man and yelling about the director . ... She's really confrontational.

The 40th anniversary of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" is coming up.

Mary came to the matinee on Wednesday. She's so adorable; she looks great.

You guys have stayed buddies?

Oh, yeah. She sent me a great little note saying, "I know what theater's like, Val, but let's catch up." She came in from where she lives in Connecticut; she said, "I'm in New York a few times a week," so that's great; I'll get to see her.

You lived in a lot of different places growing up, but you graduated from a performing-arts high school in New York ...

The School for Young Professionals, which is different from PA .

... and later you lived near the corner of Perry and Bleecker streets with your first husband, comedian Dick Schaal.

He's still a great friend. His daughter - my stepdaughter, beautiful Wendy - plays the wife on "American Dad."

I don't know if it'll come through in print, but even just sitting here talking, you are a bundle of energy. At 70, how do you keep it up?

Ruth Gordon played my mom and also played Carlton the Doorman's mother [on "Rhoda"], so I worked with Ruthie twice. Talk about an individual! What a fantastic, singular, personage. And she gave me the best advice about age. She said, "There's a decision we all make: You can choose to get old, or choose to get older." Old is a destination; older is a process. A baby gets older, we're all getting older. So, if you can stay getting older, you don't have to go to "Now I'm old." Some people are old at 40. And it's just a number anyway; you just keep living your life. It's all about aliveness rather than a number.

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