Robert Wagner & Stefanie Powers Look Back on ‘Hart to Hart’ 40 Years Later
When they met, it was murder! At least, that’s how gravel-voiced butler/cook/chauffeur Max famously described the relationship between his wealthy employers, amateur detectives Jonathan and Jennifer Hart, in the opening credits of Hart to Hart.
And 40 years after stars Robert Wagner and Stefanie Powers solved their first crime on the ABC caper (that suspicious suicide was murder!), the sizzle hasn’t fizzled. During a joint phone call — she in her part-time base of London; he in Aspen, Colorado, where he lives with actress wife Jill St. John — they excitedly finish each other’s sentences and laugh almost nonstop. (“We talk quite regularly,” Powers admits. “We also email and send each other dirty jokes.”) No wonder audiences tuned in to five seasons with the unceasingly affectionate jet-setters, their dog Freeway, and ever-reliable Max (the late Lionel Stander).
Wagner, 89, and Powers, 76, haven’t slowed down: She is prepping the Delaware Theatre Company play One November Yankee with Harry Hamlin; Wagner will be returning to NCIS as Anthony DiNozzo Sr. But first, the pair, along with executive producer Leonard Goldberg (Blue Bloods), share their Hart memories exclusively with TV Guide Magazine.
Good Idea, Great Casting
In the late ’70s, ABC execs approach Goldberg and partner Aaron Spelling — the pros behind such network hits as Charlie’s Angels and Fantasy Island — about doing a high-style comedy-mystery. Goldberg sells them on a dusty Sidney Sheldon script called Double Twist, but it needs work. Enter Goldberg’s friend, Tom Mankiewicz, a James Bond screenwriter (Live and Let Die, Diamonds Are Forever), who repackages the script under the title Hart to Hart. All that’s left is casting the Mr. and Mrs.
Goldberg: We did inquire with Cary Grant’s representation. The answer was no. We agreed that the closest to him was R.J. Wagner. He’s a very good-looking guy, has an easy charm about him, and could handle that comedy.
Wagner: I became a producer as well. Tom and I agreed at the very beginning that Stefanie should be Jennifer Hart. I had worked with her on [the 1968–70 series] It Takes a Thief and thought she was terrific. But there was opposition from the network. [Other names floated: Lindsay Wagner, Suzanne Pleshette, and Kate Jackson.]
Goldberg: It had to be a grown-up, not a kid. We did ask [Wagner’s wife] Natalie Wood. But there was some feeling that audiences didn’t want to see a husband and wife playing a husband and wife. She was a movie star as well. “Mank” [Mankiewicz] convinced her to take a small part in the pilot as a Southern belle.
Powers: I was supposed to do a play [Cyrano de Bergerac]. But then there was a newspaper strike in New York, and no one wants to open anything new. [A lack of ads or reviews could spell doom for a show.] It was the best piece of luck I ever had.
So in Love
In 1979, Mr. and Mrs. H, as Max refers to them, are introduced in a two-part pilot. Suave Jonathan is CEO of Hart Industries (its fancy office door handles are shaped like the letter “H”), and warm, well-coiffed Jennifer is a freelance journalist. They cross paths with diamond thieves, blackmailers, kidnappers, and murderers, assuming fake identities and trying to dodge fists and bullets along the way. But their love story is always front and center. (There should be a drinking game keyed to every time one calls the other “darling.”) Ratings for the new series are … decent.
Powers: You don’t want to hope too much for something to click. Yes, we were picked up. But the feeling of how much do people love those characters? We didn’t feel that until we went out into the world.
Wagner: Do you remember, Stef? We did about six shows, and I walked into your dressing room and you had tears in your eyes and said, “Do you think it’s going to be good? What are we doing?” We loved doing it but were very anxious.
Powers: We’d get negative notes back [from the network] like, “They should have a baby and maybe there should be an affair.”
Wagner: The jealousy was brought up so many times! It was always a fight. But we felt very strongly that our relationship be positive.
Goldberg: We told ABC, “They’ve been married X amount of years but they’re still on their honeymoon.” They were nervous. I said, “Don’t worry, it’s only a fantasy. Don’t bring it home to your own marriage.”
Despite a budget Goldberg calls “no different than that for any other show,” the production utilizes an opulent Brentwood estate (in the script, it’s Bel Air) and a string of expensive cars. The Hart household also includes factotum Max, played by six-times-married, once-blacklisted intellectual Stander, and adorable Löwchen pooch Freeway. Any similarities to 1934’s The Thin Man are absolutely intentional.
Wagner: Max was the glue of the show. And Lionel was wonderful. When I met him, he was living with three women. And, uh, they weren’t just washing the dishes.
Powers: The dog was a rescue named Charlie. He was a wonderful, wonderful boy. They couldn’t get him to growl [on-camera] — he was wagging his tail so hard!
Behind the scenes, Wagner and Powers are dealt personal tragedies when their respective offscreen partners, Wood and William Holden, both die unexpectedly in November 1981. “It was like two body blows,” recalls Powers, who would later start the William Holden Wildlife Foundation in his honor. Season 3 production is temporarily shut down, but the series doesn’t skip a beat. The sleuths delve into smuggling and espionage and visit destinations from Maui to Athens and London. At its peak, Hart ranks No. 15 for Season 3, then lands at No. 17 for Season 4.
Powers: We worked 14-hour days. Sometimes we would just lose it [due to fatigue]. Double entendres became single entendres. Florence Henderson guest starred [in Season 3’s “Hartland Express”] and we couldn’t keep a straight face. They had to shut the set down.
Wagner: I loved when we went to London [for Season 5’s “Two Harts Are Better Than One”]. The episode was about [Jennifer’s] back life. She was a very self-sustained woman. I asked her to marry me by having a sign drop down on the Tower Bridge.
Powers: Much of the heart-to-heart scenes were written by us — we knew the characters better than everybody.
Hart to Hart, Weekdays, 11/10c, and weekends, midnight/11c, FETV; Daily, 3am/2c–7am/6c, Hallmark Movies & Mysteries; Saturdays, 6am/5c–8am/7c, Cozi TV
This is an abbreviated version of TV Guide Magazine’s latest cover story. For more, pick up the issue, on newsstands now.