Bus Stop, Dean Martin, Eli Wallach, Elvis Presley, Golden Globes, Jean Harlow, Jerry Lewis, Marilyn Monroe, Montgomery Clift, Peter Bogdanovich, Playboy, Sex Symbols, Stella Stevens, The Ballad of Cable Hogue, The Blue Angel, The Nutty Professor, The Poseidon Adventure
Actress Stella Stevens died in Los Angeles on Friday, February 17th, 2023, aged 84.
She was born Estelle Eggleston in Yazoo City, Mississippi, in 1938. Her family moved to Memphis, Tennessee when she was four years old. At sixteen she married electrician Noble Herman Stephens (rather like the erstwhile Norma Jeane Dougherty, who had married at the same age.) They had a son, Andrew, but the marriage did not last, and Stella found work as a department store model.
While attending Memphis State University, she played Cherie – the role made famous by Marilyn Monroe – in a stage production of William Inge’s Bus Stop, earning a glowing review from a local newspaper. “I’d dyed my hair golden from dirty brown,” she recalled (see here.) “Someone saw me and said he’d introduce me to the people from Twentieth Century-Fox if I could raise the money to get to New York.” After a screen test in New York, she moved to California.
Despite making a strong impression with just one line in Say One for Me (1959), and an uncredited bit part in a remake of The Blue Angel – a film originally intended as a Monroe vehicle, until May Britt took the lead role – Stella was dropped by Fox six months later. Fortunately, she was picked up by Paramount and appeared in a musical adaptation of the popular comic strip, Li’l Abner.
In January 1960, Stella was Playboy magazine’s Playmate of the Month. Although posing nude didn’t hurt her career, ex-husband Herman used it against her in a long-running battle for custody of their son. Nonetheless, she was later ranked 27th among the magazine’s 100 Sexiest Movie Stars of All Time – with Monroe, Jayne Mansfield and Raquel Welch making up the Top 3.
Stella was proclaimed New Star of the Year at the 1960 Golden Globes, alongside starlets Angie Dickinson, Tuesday Weld and Janet Munro. (Marilyn won the Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy award for Some Like It Hot that year.)
She worked on television in Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Bonanza, before her next movie role in the ‘neo-noir,’ Man-Trap (1961.) She agreed to appear in Too Late Blues, the jazz-themed 1961 feature debut of acclaimed filmmaker John Cassavetes, after being told that Montgomery Clift would play the lead, but he was replaced by singer Bobby Darin.
Initially excited to work with fellow Memphian, Elvis Presley, in Girls! Girls! Girls! (1962), Stella changed her mind after reading the sub-par script, but had to accept when studio bosses threatened to fire her on the spot. The film is best remembered for Presley’s hit song, ‘Return to Sender.’ “He was someone you could talk to,” she told Film Talk. “Since I wasn’t too fond of the film myself, I asked him why he did this kind of movies. He pondered and said, ‘Don’t knock success, Stella.’”
Following the tragic death of Marilyn Monroe, Stella was briefly touted as her successor. When a diner at the Brown Derby restaurant asked if anyone had told her she looked like Monroe, Stella replied: “No, but my mother does.” Next, she appeared in Vincente Minnelli’s The Courtship of Eddie’s Father (1963), one of three films with leading man Glenn Ford, before landing her signature role as a co-ed cutie in The Nutty Professor.
“Jerry Lewis had told the bosses at Paramount he wanted to cast the most beautiful ingénue at the studio – or something like that – so I got the gig,” she recalled. “At that time, the most popular actress to play that kind of role was Marilyn Monroe … A lot of people tell me I’m very good in the film. That’s because of Jerry’s assistance in moulding my character. I was scared to death, because I didn’t know what to do.”
Like Monroe and other sex symbols of the era, Stella’s talents were often undervalued. “I wanted to be a writer-director,” she told Michael G. Ankerich in 1994. “All of a sudden I got sidetracked into being a sexpot … You might think it elevates someone to call them a sexpot, but it does not. It’s a derogatory term. It’s hard, after that, to just come up to being a human being.”
Among her later Sixties films were The Silencers (1966), a spy spoof starring Dean Martin, the first in his ‘Matt Helm’ series. They were reunited in another comedy, How to Save a Marriage and Ruin Your Life (1968), alongside husband-and-wife team Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson. “I am basically a comedienne, I always have been,” she told Skip E. Lowe. “The sex [in my films] has always been ‘comedy sex’ … I like the pacing of comedy, the excitement of it.” She played against type as an activist nun at odds with Rosalind Russell in Where Angels Go Trouble Follows, a lesser-known sequel to Ida Lupino’s The Trouble With Angels.
She was cast at Glenn Ford’s request in a Mexican-American thriller, Rage (1966.) In one scene she bathes in a barrel, recalling Jean Harlow in Red Dust (1932.) Stella had previously been mooted for an unproduced Harlow biopic. In 1970, she played warm-hearted saloon girl Hildy in Sam Peckinpah’s The Ballad of Cable Hogue, one of her best-loved films.
She joined an all-star cast in the Oscar-winning disaster movie, The Poseidon Adventure (1972.) Later that year, she appeared in Stand Up and Be Counted, which popularised Helen Reddy’s feminist anthem, ‘I Am Woman’. When Stella shot an interracial love scene with Jim Brown for the blaxploitation movie, Slaughter, she received hate mail from filmgoers in the South.
By the mid-1970s she was working mostly in television, although she made a notable appearance in Peter Bogdanovich’s Nickolodeon (1976.) She had a terrific fight scene with Lynda Carter in the first episode of Wonder Woman, and also took parts in the pilot episodes of The Love Boat and Hart to Hart, plus guest spots on Newhart, Fantasy Island, Murder She Wrote, and Magnum P.I.
In the 1980s, she played recurring roles on three prime-time soap operas: Flamingo Road, Santa Barbara, and General Hospital. One of her later parts was in a 1996 adaptation of Truman Capote’s true-crime classic, In Cold Blood. She directed a feature-length documentary, The American Heroine (1979), and The Ranch, a 1989 TV movie starring her son, Andrew Stevens, who became a successful screenwriter, producer and director in his own right.
Stella also joined Sandy Denny for an all-female revival of Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple; starred in a horror flick, The Granny; and co-wrote a novel, Razzle Dazzle. “I don’t really feel like I’ve been successful yet,” she told the Vancouver Sun in 1998. “I’m still waiting to be discovered. I see myself as a work in progress. I keep trying to work and improve, and do things I’m proud of.”
In 2020, her partner of nearly 40 years, guitarist and music producer Bob Kulick, passed away. Suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease, she spent her final years in a care facility. Stella Stevens is survived by her son and three grandchildren.
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