Lynda Carter Plays Rita

updated 11/07/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/07/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

Sure the slinky, strapless gown helped. So did the ankle-strap heels and those elbow-length black gloves she peeled off as if an exposed forearm were an erogenous zone. But Rita Hayworth didn't become Hollywood's erotic queen in the 1940s because of what she wore. It was the way her wide eyes took the camera and held it, the way her auburn tresses fell around her creamy shoulders, the way her dancer's body could turn a simple bump and grind into a siren call.

That was the Rita Hayworth who seduced the entire U.S. Army in World War II, whose pinup was pasted to the nose of an A-bomb over the Bikini Islands. She was a bombshell. "One of a kind," says former manager Judy Ault. "I don't think anybody could portray her."

Lynda Carter is trying in Wednesday's CBS movie, Rita Hayworth: The Love Goddess. Carter, the Wonder Woman of the bulletproof bracelets, is a bombshell herself. But the Love Goddess? The 32-year-old star has appeared on Vegas stages, in her cartoon-character series and in Maybelline commercials. She is beautiful, of course, but she lacks that certain aura. "It's like a stevedore coming in to play Rita," rants James Hill, Hayworth's fifth and last husband.

Rita's friends are upset that her life has been turned into a TV B movie. "I don't want to see it," says Glenn Ford, her former Beverly Hills neighbor and sometime co-star. "It would upset me. I want to remember Rita as Rita." Her former lawyer, Leonard Monroe, protested publication of the John Kobal book on which the movie is based. And, says Ault, "Rita always told me that she didn't want a movie made of her life." But Rita is powerless to protest. Today, at 65, she is secluded in a Manhattan apartment (page 112), suffering from Alzheimer's disease, helpless and senile.

"I tried to reach her because I wanted her blessing, but I could not get through to anyone," claims Lynda. "I knew I'd be subject to a lot of criticism for the part. But I really, really wanted the challenge. I tried to show how she might have felt inside, how she dealt with her husbands." Rita's friend, publicist Gloria Luchenbill, comes to Lynda's defense. "I know both ladies," she says, "and when you look around, who else would play the part? She has that same quality of shyness and naiveté that Rita had."

Whether Lynda, with her chipmunk cheeks and squinty eyes, can look like Rita is debatable. Whether she can act like Rita is another matter; she can't. But she does seem to understand Rita. For their similarities go far deeper than their peachy skin. "We both had Hispanic backgrounds," says Lynda, whose mother was of Mexican heritage. "We were both in show business at an early age," continues Lynda. "We both sing and dance. We were both married to our managers." They both had man problems. "Lots of women in the industry want to be loved," Lynda says. "They want to be accepted by men as the women they are." Rita never was. For a while, neither was Lynda.

Hayworth's life was dominated by studio boss Harry Cohn, who died in 1958, and by the five men she married. In the TV movie, first husband Ed Judson, 22 years her senior, changes her name, has her hairline raised by electrolysis and then sends her out on dates with other stars ("pimping," the Cohn character charges in the movie).

Carter had her Svengali, too. In 1977, the year after flying onto the tube in her Wonder Woman series, Lynda married agent Ron Samuels and handed her career over to him. He ran it and her, and shared in their reported $3 million annual income until 1982, when Lynda divorced him, splitting the fortune 50-50. "It was the first thing in my life that failed," she says. "It failed because it was based on work." A close confidante is less diplomatic. "He was a tyrant," she says. "Every cent he made was off her back. He was so controlling he really held Lynda back."

But Carter may be luckier than Hayworth. She has a new man, a knight in gray flannel. He is 36-year-old Robert Altman (no relation to the movie director), a wonder-boy Washington lawyer who is a partner in former Defense Secretary Clark Clifford's top law firm, where he helped his boss defend former Budget Director Bert Lance, and recently took over a chain of banks for Saudi investors. He didn't fall in love with Lynda for her fame. Before they met at a dinner party last year, he'd never even seen Wonder Woman.

When they started dating, there was just one problem: 3,000 miles. He lives in Washington, she in L.A. "I must have flown around the world 10 times to see her," says Altman, who by now can recite L.A.-D.C. airline schedules. "Handling the distance is not easy, but Lynda's talents are flourishing, and I certainly don't want her to give up her career." He has a front-row seat at her nightclub shows, from Vegas to Atlantic City. She's thrilled meeting political heavies in Washington; he gets a kick out of seeing Christie Brinkley and Cheryl Tiegs backstage with rollers in their hair. It is a love affair that's working—though neither of them talks of marriage.

Carter's childhood was not so bizarre and vaudevillian as Hayworth's. Rita was born Margarita Carmen Cansino, the daughter of a Spanish flamenco dancer and a Follies girl.

Lynda was born into "middle, middle, middle-class Arizona," the daughter of a furniture dealer and a housewife who divorced when Lynda was 10 years old. "My mom got herself together and went to work in a Motorola factory so that she could take care of us," Lynda remembers. "She taught me more than anything to survive in a dignified, honorable, gracious way."

At 12, Rita was on the road, performing in Mexican nightspots with her flamenco-dancing father. At 15, Lynda was singing weekend gigs in a pizza parlor, and by 17 she was playing the Reno-to-Vegas lounge-act circuit. "I thought I was on the top of the world," she says, "making so much money—$400 a week." The next year Lynda chickened out of her plans to try for a screen test when a theater manager told her, absurdly, that, at almost 5'9", she was "too tall and too pretty for Hollywood." So she became a beauty queen, Miss World-U.S.A. 1973. Finally, at 25, she was chosen to be TV's full-time Wonder Woman.

Since that show ended in 1979, Carter has been trying to find a niche. Hayworth would have understood her predicament. Rita was discovered by a talent scout and got her first big break in 1939 in Only Angels Have Wings with Cary Grant. In the following years—in films like You Were Never Lovelier with Fred Astaire and Cover Girl with Gene Kelly—she played beautiful girls-next-door. But in 1946, as the seductress in Gilda, her roles got hotter—and so did her personal life. By 1952, when the TV movie ends, she'd gone through three husbands—Judson, Orson Welles and Prince Aly Khan (whose family has protested to CBS his treatment in the movie). Soon after, Cohn brought in young Kim Novak to replace Hayworth as Columbia Pictures' resident siren. Rita made a few stabs at a comeback (Pal Joey, Separate Tables), but she finished her career playing aging beauties in B movies.

In self-defense, Carter is trying to diversify. She is working on a new variety special and plans to make an NBC series with Loni Anderson, in which they both play detectives. Carter is also managing her own career these days. "Four years ago, people laughed at me when I went to Vegas," she says. "They said, 'Give me a break—Wonder Woman sing?' Now I'm accepted as an entertainer." John McMahon, who signed Lynda to her new series, agrees. "We consider her a major show business act," he says.

To prepare for her part as the Love Goddess, Lynda not only learned to tap-dance and donned a rust-colored wig with a widow's peak, but also watched a half dozen of Rita's 60 movies and read the many books about her. But it seems that she's learned more than how to play Rita. She's learning how not to live like Rita. And Altman's helping.

"My life has changed since I met Robert," she says. "I feel a sense of security with him that I've never known before. He offers advice, but only when I ask. I think, finally, I'm finding my own life."

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