In an opulent Toronto mansion full of sumptuous Persian rugs, hotel tyrant Leona Helmsley and her real-estate magnate hubby, Harry, are engaged in what appears to be the rich-and-famous version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? “Don’t walk away like that when I’m talking to you,” Harry barks. Leona turns and shrieks, “Sometimes I wonder how you became king of anything!” Within minutes, though, she’s suddenly making overtures of peace—and what a peace. “I’d be willing to kill anybody who’d take you away from me,” she coos. “Together we’re immortal. We’re magic.”
Well, no—we’re Suzanne Pleshette and Lloyd Bridges, filming what promises to be a hallmark TV movie of the coming season, CBS’s Leona biopic, Vie Queen of Mean (it airs Sept. 23). And Pleshette is determined to be every inch the queen. “I didn’t want this to be a vanity piece,” she says. “I wanted to go for broke and play Leona totally.”
Totally is right. “Suzanne, like Leona, is very exacting,” says director Richard Michaels. “If Leona wouldn’t have towels that weren’t fluffy”—and, as her Helmsley Palace ads made clear, she wouldn’t—”Suzanne won’t accept them either.”
The fluffy towels must come in handy when Pleshette removes two hours’ worth of makeup at the end of each day’s shoot—the wig (there are three of them, which she has named Patti, Maxene and LaVerne, for the singing Andrews Sisters). a mouthpiece and other touches that age her character from her early 30s to her late 60s. The voice, of course, is distinctively Pleshette’s—a basso-profundo purr that, when raised, could level Trump Tower. Or at least frighten the help.
Bridges’s makeover into Harry is simpler: eyeglasses and mustache. Sometimes, though, it seems that Bridges would just as soon chuck the glasses as look at Leona. “I could never fall in love with a woman like her,” he says, “someone who would treat other people with such little respect. That would be miserable. Aargh!” Definitely not wild about Leona.