Televisionary: Actually, your friend's thinking of The Girl from U.N.C.L.E., an ill-fated NBC Man spin-off featuring Powers as an American agent teamed with a British operative (Noel Harrison). It lasted less than a year, debuting in September 1966 and going off duty the following August.
However, Hart to Hart was definitely Powers's first hit show, as the one after Girl, ABC's The Feather and Father Gang, lasted only six months or so in 1977. During its August-1979-to-July-1984 run on ABC's schedule, in fact, H2H cracked the Nielsen top 20 more than once even though it wasn't a true ratings powerhouse.
Why the popularity? One theory held that the wealthy, happily married, crime-solving Harts (Powers and co-star Robert Wagner) provided an alternative to the sociopathic, backstabbing rich folk of the Dallas ilk. It was nice to see a married couple that had fun, TV Guide reviewer Robert MacKenzie pointed out in 1979 and it sure wasn't the bland mystery stories pulling the audience in.Either way, Powers was due for a hit. And because she was a consummate pro who generated good will on the set, her co-stars were glad she landed one (never mind that it fattened their wallets, too). "I'm delighted for her at the success of the show. It came at the right time, because if this had bombed she'd have been in real trouble," the straight-shooting Lionel Stander, who played the Harts' chauffeur, Max, told TV Guide in 1980. "When a woman hits 40 in this town, I don't have to tell you what happens. The whole setup is antifemale. It's very tough for women in this racket because the power's in the hands of men."
Yes, it was as was the money. But in Wagner's case, the payday he received from his Hart success and his overall deal with producers Leonard Goldberg and Aaron Spelling was well deserved since the actor was canny enough to drive a hard bargain. It seems that back in 1973, Spelling and Goldberg had a perfect TV-movie script for Wagner and his then-wife, the late Natalie Wood. At least, Goldberg thought it was perfect. But Wagner, who'd already had a hit show with It Takes a Thief and was in the midst of a busy movie career (The Towering Inferno, Midway) wasn't inclined to return to the small screen. So the producers decided to make them an offer they couldn't refuse.
Part of the contract for the TV movie (The Affair, which ended up pulling down decent ratings when it aired) called for Wagner and Wood to receive half-ownership of a new Spelling series if it was set up within a year. And they wouldn't even have to star in it. When the year was nearly up, Goldberg decided to at least go through the motions of pitching a series to ABC to keep Wagner and wife happy.
"I had come up with a terrible concept called The Alley Cats," Goldberg recalled in 1979. "My partner, Aaron Spelling, looked at it and said, 'You ought to be ashamed of yourself.' R.J. [Wagner's nickname, which stands for Robert John] looked at it and said, 'That's possibly the worst idea I've ever seen in my life.' He and Natalie figured, however, that they had nothing to lose.... We figured we had nothing to lose because the idea probably could never work, but in the meantime we were making the Wagners happy."
So they thought. Alley Cats eventually became Charlie's Angels. Needless to say, the Wagners made out quite well. And by the time Spelling and Goldberg developed an old series concept from Sidney Sheldon you did know Sheldon created I Dream of Jeannie and was big in TV before writing bestselling novels, right? into Hart to Hart, they had to give Wagner his choice of co-star (Powers, who'd worked with him on Thief), and dibs on two more development projects.
Sadly, it wasn't all good fortune for Powers and Wagner during the show's run. In November 1981, Powers's longtime companion William Holden bled to death in an alcohol-related accident. Several weeks later, Wood drowned while out on a yacht with Wagner and actor Christopher Walken. Because of the mystery surrounding both deaths, the co-stars became tabloid fodder. But neither was a young, defenseless kid, and Powers certainly stood up for herself.
"[T]he invasions Stef and R.J. suffered were brutal," Tom Mankiewicz, who worked with the two on the series, said in 1983. "I remember one afternoon at Columbia Studios when an absolute toad from a tabloid asked her a vile question linking death and romance. Stefanie bit her lip and turned to him. Her eyes were piercing. 'You know,' she said very calmly, 'I'm a human being, too.' Everyone fell silent and the man walked away."
Sometimes, it seems, the tabloid guys can find their sense of shame.