Stella Stevens: Starlets and Stereotypes

“To love, dummy.”

Having done posts on the stars in favorite movies like The Wizard of Oz and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, it occurred to me that I was well on the way to doing as much for another favorite movie, The Poseidon Adventure (see Shelley Winters, Jack Albertson, Red Buttons, Ernest Borgnine, Roddy McDowall, Bob Hastings). The next logical person for me to treat of is Stella Stevens (b. 1938, Estelle Eggleston), not just for the reason of that film, but for other aspects of her career. The Poseidon Adventure being the first film I ever saw in a cinema, I was too young to know that Stevens was sort of stunt-cast in that film by Irwin Allen, and brilliantly so. While she’d not been a literal prostitute like the film’s version of Linda Rogo, she had been a minor Hollywood starlet like the original description of her in Paul Gallico’s novel. She’s rarely such a harpy as she is in Poseidon, however (how could she be?) Later, her career took a psychotronic turn that is like meat and drink to us here at Travalanche.

Stevens grew up in Yazoo City (some sources inaccurately but forgivably say it was the nearby town of Hot Coffee, MS) and Memphis. As for her screen name: her first name is an obvious riff on her given name; her last name is a variation on her married name (she married a gent named Noble Stephens at age 16; it lasted a year). She began acting and modelling as a student at Memphis State College. She was discovered by a press agent from United Artists while modeling in the tea room of Goldsmith’s Department Store in Memphis, Tennessee, who introduced her to producers as 20th Century Fox. No doubt she had a modelling portfolio to assist her in making the sale. She looks a lot like Marilyn Monroe in many of her early photos:

And she was a sexpot. She played a chorus girl in the Bing Crosby musical Say One For Me (1959), her first movie role. The same year she was cast as Appassionata Von Climax in Li’l Abner. In 1960 she was a Playboy Playmate of the Month in 1960 — bold and risky career move. For some, e.g. Yvette Vickers, such a career move could be harmful to a career. But in Stevens case, taking it off just enhanced her portfolio. (She later did Playboy layouts in 1965 and 1968 as well.) Other movies included the Elvis musical Girls! Girls ! Girls! (1962), The Courtship of Eddie’s Father (1963), Jerry Lewis’s The Nutty Professor (1963), The Silencers (1966, a Dean Martin “Matt Helm” outing), Where Angels Go, Trouble Follows (1968, cast against type as a nun), The Mad Room (1969, which we blogged about here), The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970), A Town Called Hell (1971), The Poseidon Adventure (1972), Slaughter (1972), Arnold (1973) with Poseidon costar Roddy McDowall, Las Vegas Lady (1975), Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold (1975), Nickelodeon (1976), The Manitou (1978) with Tony Curtis, and the all-star The French Atlantic Affair (1979).

Frustrated with always being typecast on the basis of her looks, in 1979 she directed and produced the documentary The American Heroine. Since the ’80s she has primarily worked in television — a long list of credits stretching down to 2006. Her official web site is here. Her son Andrew Stevens (b. 1955), also an actor, appeared in such films such as Day of the Animals (1977), The Fury (1978), and The Bastard (1978), and was married to Kate Jackson of Charlie’s Angels from 1978 to 1982. He later became a producer.