Stella Stevens, who starred with Elvis Presley in “Girls! Girls! Girls!” and with Jerry Lewis in “The Nutty Professor” as well as in disaster film “The Poseidon Adventure,” died Friday in Los Angeles. Her son, Andrew Stevens, said she had been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. She was 84.
“Girls! Girls! Girls!” (1962) was one of the more generic Elvis films— there wasn’t all that much for Stevens to do — but Variety was keen on her performance in 1963’s “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father,” starring Glenn Ford and Shirley Jones in the story of a widower who’s romantically interested in one woman while his son wants him to marry another: “Stella Stevens comes on like gangbusters in her enactment of a brainy but inhibited doll from Montana. It’s a sizzling comedy performance of a kook.”
In “The Nutty Professor” (1963) or any other Jerry Lewis film, one might expect the female lead to blend into the background, but the New York Times praised her: “It’s about a shy gargoyle of a college chemist who brews a miracle mixture, becomes a bland Casanova (periodically) and finally reverts to his shy original self and a pert, smitten blonde student, neatly played by Stella Stevens.”
Assessing 1966’s “The Silencers,” the first of the Matt Helm spy spoofs, in a 2010 review, the Watching the Detectives website said: “The cast is also amusing to watch, with Dean Martin excelling in the part of the reluctant hero … and Stella Stevens as the clumsiest femme fatale to ever bumble her way across the screen.”
In “Where Angels Go, Trouble Follows” (1968), a sequel to keen Rosalind Russell-as-nun comedy “The Trouble With Angels,” Stevens played a hip, streetwise nun who spars with Russell’s not-to-be-trifled-with character, the Mother Superior of a girls’ school.
In Sam Peckinpah’s 1970 Western “The Ballad of Cable Hogue,” starring Jason Robards as the title character, Stevens put her own stamp on the material: “Cable pays no attention to his appearance until he meets the bountiful Hildy, the town prostitute,” Roger Ebert wrote. “But she’s not just any hooker, mind you, or even the proverbial one with the heart of gold. Stella Stevens makes Hildy an altogether individual woman, perhaps the first Women’s Libber west of the Pecos.”
Though she was part of a large ensemble in 1972 disaster-film classic “The Poseidon Adventure,” which also starred Gene Hackman, Red Buttons, Carol Lynley, Roddy McDowall, Shelley Winters and Jack Albertson, Stevens managed to make her mark in the film about an ocean liner that sinks.
Despite the enormous success of “The Poseidon Adventure,” it ultimately did not boost Stevens’ feature-film career, and she was soon transitioning to B movies as well as to TV movies and guest appearances.
She did, however, get to have fun as the villain in “Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold” (1975). Cleopatra, an undercover federal agent played by Tamara Dobson, is “on the trail of two other narcs who have either been killed or kidnapped by the dreaded Dragon Lady, who is played by Stella Stevens with such venomous relish you’d almost think she was enjoying herself.”
Stevens also had a supporting role in Peter Bogdanovich’s somewhat misbegotten “Nickelodeon” (1976). In 1982 she played the corrupt captain of the guards in the women’s prison exploitation picture “Chained Heat,” starring Linda Blair, and she subsequently appeared in a number of low-budget horror films and thrillers.
Stevens produced and directed two films, 1979 documentary “The American Heroine” and “The Ranch” (1989), which starred her son, actor-producer Andrew Stevens.
She also appeared in movies featuring and or exec produced by Andrew Stevens, including “Popstar” in 2005.
Estelle Caro Eggleston was born in Yazoo City, Mississippi. When she was 4, the family moved to Memphis, Tennessee.
She was married to electrician Noble Herman Stephens from 1954, when she was 18, until their divorce in 1957. (The union produced son Andrew.) She attended Memphis State College, where she became interested in acting and modeling; she was discovered while performing in a college production of “Bus Stop,” and 20th Century Fox offered her a contract.
Stevens made her film debut in 1959’s “Say One for Me,” starring Bing Crosby and Debbie Reynolds; she was named most promising newcomer – female (along with three others) at the Golden Globes as a result of this appearance, but Fox dropped her contract. Paramount picked her up after she was signed to play Appassionata Von Climax, a sexy siren alongside Julie Newmar’s Stupefyin’ Jones, in the feature adaptation of the Broadway musical “Li’l Abner,” and the part, though not requiring much talent, got her noticed.
In January 1960 Stevens was Playboy’s Playmate of the Month (she was later featured in Playboy pictorials in 1965 and 1968, and on the magazine’s list of the 100 Sexiest Stars of the 20th Century, Stevens appeared at No. 27).
Stevens saw her movie career begin to hit its stride when she starred opposite Elvis in “Girls! Girls! Girls!”
Her television work in the 1970s included the “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” TV movie sequel “Wanted: The Sundance Woman” (1976), starring Katharine Ross. In 1980 Stevens tried series-regular television for the first time with the prime-time soap “Flamingo Road,” set in a small town in Florida and also starring Morgan Fairchild and Mark Harmon, among others, but the esteemed (for what it was) NBC series was finished after 38 episodes in 1980-82.
She subsequently guested on “Newhart,” “Hotel,” “Highway to Heaven,” “Night Court,” “Magnum, P.I.,” “In the Heat of the Night,” “The Commish,” “Highlander,” HBO’s “Arli$$” and “Nash Bridges.”
Stevens also appeared in the TV movies “The Dukes of Hazzard: Reunion!” (1997) and “Tales From the Hollywood Hills: A Table at Ciro’s” and did a 66-episode run on daytime soap “Santa Barbara” in 1989-90 and recurred on “General Hospital” from 1996-99 as Jake.
She also worked on stage occasionally, including in a touring production of an all-female version of Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple” in which Stevens played the Oscar Madison character and actress Sandy Dennis played the Felix Ungar character.
A supporter of animal rights, she contributed her time and resources towards cat adoptions. She also raised horses and llamas at her ranch in Twisp, Wash.
Her partner of nearly 40 years, rock guitarist Bob Kulick, died in 2020.
She is survived by her son, Andrew Stevens, a film producer, director and actor, and three grandchildren.