Shocked by Their Show's Demise, Robert Wagner and Stefanie Powers Ponder ABC's Sudden Change of Hart

updated 05/21/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/21/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Oh no!" sobbed the Tonight Show studio audience when Johnny Carson broke the news. "We were stunned and shocked," acknowledged Robert Wagner, who got the word via telephone while dining with girlfriend Jill St. John, his mother and her parents at his Pacific Palisades home. "As traumatic as your house burning down," confessed Stefanie Powers, who was shooting a TV miniseries in Paris when the ax fell. "I'm still recovering," says their co-star Lionel Stander. "After five years even the best of marriages needs a shot in the arm. Does that mean you throw the whole thing out?" asked Esther Shapiro, the outspoken co-creator of Dynasty and a longtime Wagner friend. "Whatever happened to real commitment?"

In L.A. boardrooms and in living rooms around the country, a lot of people were posing that same question. During a week that saw both the unveiling of ABC's fall prime-time schedule and Walter Mondale's surge toward the Democratic presidential nomination, a floundering Senator from Colorado was not the only victim of Hart failure. Abruptly—and, to many, inexplicably—ABC yanked the plug on its long-running comedy-adventure series Hart to Hart, consigning it to the network scrap heap along with fading has-beens such as Happy Days, That's Incredible! and Fantasy Island and limping never-weres such as A.K.A. Pablo, Oh, Madeline and Blue Thunder.

The summary execution of Hart to Hart suprised some industry insiders as well as the public. ABC was being deluged with thousands of letters from outraged fans. Many were upset at the dissolution of Wagner-Powers' high-living TV marriage, in which Powers shared equally in the show's derring-do. Some, enamored of Hart to Hart's chic settings and glamorous fantasy, expressed dismay at the network's decision to replace the series with Jessie, a police drama starring Lindsay Wagner, set on the mean streets of a so-far nameless Western city. "More gutter than glitter," sniffed one trade-paper writer.

Wagner himself was disappointed at the unceremonious dumping. "I think we could have been written out with the taste, dignity and style the audience responded to," the actor said. "But they drilled us out the door after five years. I'm not bitter, just very sad."

ABC has not yet commented on Hart to Hart's demise. But the show's slippage in the ratings from a 32 share in 1982-83 to a 26 share this season against NBC's copycat Remington Steele and a succession of blockbuster CBS miniseries such as George Washington and Master of the Game, apparently convinced the top brass that Hart was suffering from hardening of its arteries. "When we were meeting with [ABC entertainment president] Lewis Erlicht, he clearly said that they were going down to the wire on [whether to renew] Hart to Hart," says the show's executive producer, Leonard Goldberg. "He said that it was a 50-50 proposition. Maybe they felt that a new show would do better, but the stakes are so high these days."

But all may not be lost for Hart to Hart. NBC and CBS reportedly are considering transplanting it into their own schedules; and if that fails, repeats of the series will at least survive in syndication. In the meantime both Wagner—who as co-owner earned some $2 million a year from Hart—and Powers, who made $50,000 per episode, have devised their own inimitable methods of recuperation. Powers, never at a loss for projects, kept busy in the City of Light, filming Mistral's Daughter for CBS (scheduled to be aired next season), and preparing for a "summit meeting" with her agent. Wagner promptly took off for his chalet in Gstaad, Switzerland with St. John (whose own series, Emerald Point, N.A.S., was just canceled by CBS). From there he planned to jet to Rome for daughter Kate's 20th birthday, then to Sicily to receive an award at the Taormina TV festival, consummating the trip with a three-week tour of the Continent. Already deluged with offers, it seems unlikely he'll be away from the tube for long. "Wagner is one of the entertainment industry's greatest natural resources," says Shapiro. "But he can only offer a network his talent and his vision. He can't make the blind see."

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