Stella Stevens passed away on February 17, 2023 at age 84. We honor this engaging, beautiful, underrated star by reposting Tony Macklin’s probing interview with Stella from 2003 (first posted in Bright Lights in 2004).
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In 2003, Stella Stevens appeared at a celebrity convention in Las Vegas, and we were to have an interview afterwards. When the convention was over, I drove her to a local bar and restaurant where I thought we could have some privacy in a booth.
When we entered the darkened bar, she recoiled and cried, “Smoke!” I thought I had taken her to hell.
She was ready to flee, so I drove her to our apartment where my wife Judy gave her a beer and snacks, and without a whiff of smoke she was able to relax, even becoming poetic. Gazing out the window she said, “I see those leaves blowing on that tree, and it just thrills me.” So from smoky bar to Edenic Las Vegas.
After transcription, the interview wound up — with the rest of my Limbo-bound manuscripts — in my bottom drawer. Recently somehow Stellahad seen a copy of an article (unpublished) I had written — “Who Wants to Be an Interviewer?” — and emailed me about it.
Her “Hello” moved me to action. I edited our interview and sent it to Bright Lights. Like Hildy in The Ballad of Cable Hogue, Stella bloomed again in the desert.
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I don’t now where it was — it may have been The Trucker’s Gazette — where you were chosen 27th on the list of “The Sexiest Women” of the last century.
No, no — it was Playboy. That’s considerably better than The Trucker’s Gazette.
Why weren’t you 26th?
Because Sharon Stone was 26th.
You’ll outlast her. This century you’ll outlast her.
This century, I will.
Speaking of Playboy, I taught at a university, and one magazine I had in my bottom desk drawer was Playboy with your spread in it. It wasn’t for naughty purposes; it was for inspiration.
What did the Playboy experience do for your career?
First of all, they lied to me when they told me they would pay me $5,000. I had been dropped from my contract at 20th Century-Fox, didn’t know a soul in Los Angeles, had a child to support, and a photographer and his wife came to me, and he said, “You can get $5,000 if you pose for Playboy. My wife will be there with me taking pictures, and it will be perfectly all right.” So I did it.
You don’t think it was a career mistake, or do you?
Christ, yes! Because then I got a job working on Li’l Abner (1959), so I called Hugh Hefner and said, “I’m sorry, I know I made a deal with you to do a layout, but I don’t want to, because I don’t need it now. I’m working with Paramount — I’m on contract — I’m going to do a film called Li’l Abner, and I don’t want to do this.” And he said, “Oh, no, you have a contract with us. You have to do it.”
Starting your career then, as opposed to today, you didn’t have many options, did you?
I didn’t have any options at all. It was either make that $5,000 or starve. Then when I did it, they paid me half of the money, and if I wanted the other $2,500 I would have to work as a hostess for Playboy parties. I said, “Shove it, I will not!” I truly hate that institution.
So your career didn’t start out exactly as you had envisioned?
When I first started working, my first director was Frank Tashlin (Say One For Me, 1959) who was a writer-director, and I wanted to be a writer-director. All of a sudden I got sidetracked into being a sexpot. Once I was a “pot,” there was nothing I could do. There was nothing legitimate I could do.
How did you keep the complete person alive, or could you?
Obviously the sex symbol and the complete person are in constant conflict. Actually, I do keep it alive in comedy. I’m a comedienne. I always did sexy things for fun, and I had jokes. Like the rain sequence with Dean Martin in the Matt Helm picture The Silencers (1966).
So most of all you consider yourself a comedienne?
A comedienne, an actress. I had to consider myself an actress much more, because no one ever considered me as a serious actress.
You have a little brass to you, like Lucille Ball.
Yes, and I have done serious things, but what I really enjoy is making people laugh. I don’t enjoy making people get a hard-on as much as I do trying to make them laugh. I’ll tell you two stories about Bobby Darin. We made Too Late Blues (1962) together. It was John Cassavetes‘ first major studio film. One story is silly; the other lives on. The first story is when we were doing a scene in which I come out of the bathroom and walk over to him, and he’s sitting on the bed — before we have our affair —, and I take his head and bring it to my bosom. He said to me, “Don’t mess with my hair!” He had a hairpiece, and he was afraid that it would reveal it was a hairpiece. The more glorious story is when I’m standing against the wall in a scene, and he walks over to me and kisses me with this passionate kiss. Well, we kissed and kissed. When he stood back he had an erection this big. The guy on the catwalk noticed it, so everybody on the set knew about it after that. I can’t think of Bobby Darin without thinking of him with a huge erection. That is an honor, you know? To me, and to him.
Stella, that probably happened more than you know. It’s really notable how many great singers you’ve worked with. Dean Martin, Darin, Elvis.
Girls! Girls! Girls! (1962) was not a good experience. I was sent the script by Paramount to read. And I thought, “Hm, he’s from Memphis, and so am I. That’s a good idea to put us together.” So I read the script. I wound up throwing it across the room! I thought, “What a piece of shit. I’m not going to be in this.” I went back to Paramount and said, “I’m sorry, but I’m not going to be in this.” And they said, “Young lady, you are going to do this picture or be put on suspension, and you will not be able to work here or anywhere else — you will not be able to make any money.”
How old were you?
Still a babe, still young. But I was old enough to fight the studio and say, “You’re not going to put me in this piece of junk, and make me the girl that Elvis Presley dumps for another girl. That is not what I had in mind for my career.” Well, they asked me if I would please just reconsider, and I said, “I’ll starve. I don’t care. My child will starve because of you, and we will die because of you, because I will not do this junk.” So they said, please reconsider, and they promised that my next film would be with Montgomery Clift. And I said, “Oh, well, yes. Okay, I’ll do the Elvis picture. It’s only six days’ work, and I’ll just forget about it.” So I did my six days’ work, and said, “Whew, now I’m done with that.”
Bring on Monty.
Montgomery Clift turned out to be Bobby Darin (Too Late Blues). They didn’t get Monty that time — he was too bad off.
You said you were a Memphis girl. Weren’t you really from Hot Coffee or Yazoo City? Or is one the suburb of the other?
Yazoo City. Hot Coffee is Meridian — it’s on the way to Gulfport and Biloxi. We would stop at this place that had a sign that said “Hot Coffee,” so everybody nicknamed it “Hot Coffee.”
Does anybody still call you Estelle?
No, that is my mother’s name. When I changed my name to Stella Stevens with a “v” that was the sea change. I was then an actress with a stage name. I was married to a man named Herman Stephens — some people would pronounce it “Steffens” — and when I was introduced as Stella, I said, “That doesn’t look good with a ‘ph,’ I’ll just make it a ‘v.'” But, hell, they were both better than Eggleston.
You don’t think that is a “star power” name?
“Estelle Eggleston in …” I guess it would be okay in theater.
What actresses have challenged you?
Rosalind Russell, for one, in Where Angels Go, Trouble Follows (1968). She had always been an idol of mine. I had the wonderful role of Sister George, and she was the Holy Mother Superior of the school. I was scared to death that I would do something wrong, and wouldn’t come up to her quality.
You said you wanted to direct.
My favorite director is Vincente Minnelli. I believe he is the most fabulous genius with whom I’ve ever worked (The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, 1962). I worked with a lot of good directors, but he was totally great. The Motion Picture Academy of Arts & Sciences just had an evening of Vincente Minnelli’s work. I went to it, and it had excerpts from almost all his films, but nothing from The Courtship of Eddie’s Father. I thought that was wrong. Another of my favorite directors is George Marshall. He was 86 when I worked with him the last time on Hec Ramsey (TV). Before that we had done Advance to the Rear (1964), the black-and-white wonderful civil war movie — a really good comedy. He was a great comedy director; he could make anything funny. I used to go to Minnelli’s home when he was married to Judy! Oh, my. Judy Garland — I loved her so much. He was the husband of Judy Garland — that was what impressed me. Then I heard of all the films he had done, and I thought, “Oh, my God, I’m so stupid.” I realized what a genius he was.
You also were friends with Cary Grant?
I dated Cary a couple of times, and I loved him dearly. We never had an affair, but we were great, great friends. I remember one time having dinner in bed, served by his house lady who had cooked it, and we had little tables that sit on the bed, and we watched TV, and ate dinner in bed. It was great. I just adored him. He was so sweet. And through Cary I met Doris Day — another one of my idols — on the set of That Touch of Mink. He was working with her. I went to the set to watch, and I’m wide-eyed. He came over and asked, “Are you all right?” I was just — it was Doris Day and Cary Grant! Cary Grant, he was such an idol of mine, I couldn’t entertain the idea of having any kind of sexual relationship with the man. I had this son from my previous marriage, and I had started out hoping to find a nice man to marry. I knew it wasn’t going to be Cary Grant. I was friends with a lot of men — didn’t have affairs. But, of course, they all said I did, which made the “sexpot” reputation grow. So it probably was good for me in a way [laughs]. It was certainly better than having to have sex with them all.
You sound so antiseptic, Stella. Come on, be a little more robust here.
I had other things that bothered me.
You were trying to be a career woman?
All of the distraction was not great, but the publicity was. By the time Paramount got through with me, I was an international star and sex symbol. So then I went to Columbia for five years and did some good films, including El Mal (Rage, 1966) with Glenn Ford out of Columbia with a Mexican studio. Columbia was the last studio I had a contract with.
Glenn Ford was your guy.
I made three pictures with Glenn. He was a wonderful actor, a very sensitive and delicate artist who was a “man’s man.” He had great warmth and humor, a delicate side, and he could touch you, by his mind, a little smile on his face or a wink of an eye. He never overacted; he always was a bit underplaying. I learned that from him — that you didn’t have to push everything and hope that everything was perfect, and fret about it. You could just kind of relax and let it come out, and it would look fine on screen.
In Mexico, you also did Slaughter (1972) with Jim Brown, didn’t you?
In the South there was a big taboo about me, being from Memphis, being in a love scene and falling in love with Jim Brown. A man in the theater in Memphis stood up and screamed at me, “You slut” and walked out of the theater, and all that.
Wasn’t Rip Torn also in Slaughter?
Rip Torn was the most horrible actor I’ve worked with in my entire life. We shared a trailer, and I came out one day, and he was grinning ear to ear, and he said, “Oh, I love to hear you pee.” A costumer with whom I worked on a TV series told me Rip Torn had slapped her in the face while she was dressing him for a commercial.
Ouch. Change of subject. Do you think The Poseidon Adventure is hokey?
Hokey! It has become a cult classic because people loved it, and saw it so many times they knew it by heart, and it was still good again and again. Hokey! The picture is such a phenomenon that more than 30 years after its release it has a fan club. You should come to our luncheon. Ronald Neame is going to be there, and Carol Lynley, and maybe Red Buttons. The luncheons are fun.
Maybe I will. What was your first experience with Bob Altman?
Television. I didn’t know who he was. He had been working in TV, in black-and-white, and his first big thing in color was Bonanza. I was up for it, but everybody said, “Nah, she’ll never get that.” I went to the May Company and bought a little yellow dress, that a girl her age might wear if she dressed up. I went into the office for the meeting. They said, “Hello.” I said nothing. They asked me how I was. I said nothing. I sat. They talked and they talked, and then they got it! That I couldn’t hear them at all. And I got the film that way, because I just played as though I couldn’t hear — she was deaf. I played it well enough in the office that I got the job. The program is on a classic reel that they have put out now. It’s one of the Bonanza Classics. It’s called “Silent Thunder.”
Every ten years Sight & Sound lists critics’ and filmmakers’ lists of the best films of all-time. In 1992 myself and a Japanese critic put The Ballad of Cable Hogue on the list. I’ve heard you had some difficulties with Sam Peckinpah.
Oh, I had problems with him. He came to my house to ask if I would do the film. I had read it, and I said, “Well, there’s not much of her.” In the film she comes back, but in the first script I read, she went away to San Francisco, and you never saw her again. I said, “What have you done? You’ve taken the love of his life and you’ve sent her to San Francisco, and he never sees her again. Come on!” So he brilliantly thought of bringing her back.
Do you know how good you are as Hildy? And how good a film it is?
I know it’s a good film. I was very proud of it. I thought if he could do enough I might get a Supporting Actress nomination. When I saw it, I broke down crying afterwards because I knew he hadn’t done enough, and it wasn’t there.
It was there. You just knew what was left out.
I also know that in the screening of it in Hollywood, right before the scene where I sit at the kitchen table, which is my best scene — where I cry and tell him I’m leaving — the film broke. And everybody talked for a while, and then the film came back on, and then [she makes the sound of loud static]. So, I cried and cried. I knew it wasn’t enough. For me. There’s not a comedy performance of me. We had some comedy in it, but Sam was not a comedy director.
But it’s such a romantic picture. Do you think there’s good chemistry between you and Jason Robards, Jr. on the screen?
Yes, I do. Because I adored him — I loved him. And he loved me — we were sweet, sweet friends. But David Warner, on the other hand, was very strange. He had just come over from England — his first big film in the United States. There was this scene where he was supposed to be leaning on me as I help him into the house, but he wouldn’t touch me — he wouldn’t really lean. And Sam yelled at me, “What are you doing? What’s the matter with you?” He wasn’t really leaning; he was pretending. Actors are not pretenders. We are be-ers. We do not pretend. And he pretended. That did not sit well with me. When you see me trying to throw that pitcher at him, I mean it!
When Sam made you angry, did you ever use that?
I used it one day. I said to him, “Sam, if you really want this authentic, then I don’t want to wear any makeup.” He looked at me and wouldn’t speak. In the morning the makeup artist, of course, put makeup on me. Sam walks past my trailer, and I look at him, and he growls at me, “Take off that makeup, right now!” I had nothing but cold water, and no makeup remover. I had to scrub with cold water. I was so angry and had been crying that in that scene — it was the scene where I had to take off my stuff and put on my nightgown — my face is still blotchy from my crying. The next day I didn’t go to work. It’s the only time in my life of working in film that I haven’t been on the set on time, ready to work. I stayed in bed. I said, “Screw him. I’m staying here, because I’m not going to be treated like that.” I knew he was going to fire me, so I sent word to him to get another size 8 to fit my costumes. I was going home on the next bus. And so he sent me a fuzzy little cat for my bed — a pussycat. That was his way of apologizing to me.
He made pictures his own way. And some of the moments are enchanting.
Yes, moments are great. Other stuff were mistakes, that he didn’t know about, didn’t care about. Like Eddie O’Brien in The Wild Bunch, when he got shot in one leg and he wrapped his other leg. Edmund O’Brien — I liked him very much — directed me in Deadlock (released as Man-Trap, 1961) — with Jeffrey Hunter and David Janssen.
Janssen was troubled, right?
I think he drank too much. He wanted to be Cary Grant, but he really was not Cary Grant.
Despite everything, The Ballad of Cable Hogue is a poem.
For all these years, I was called a sex symbol. I’d rather be called a love symbol. I have to admit, that’s what Hildy was.
The sex/love symbol had a child early, didn’t she? When was Andrew born?
I was 16 when he was born. And when I went out to Hollywood, I missed him so much. I saw a film in which Frank Sinatra sang “High Hopes” — that inspired me to go back and get my baby from Memphis and bring him to California. But my ex-husband came and stole him from me — charged me with Contempt of Court, and took him back to Memphis, lied to him and said, “Your mother doesn’t want you anymore — she’s got too many boyfriends in California. We’ll give you a motorcycle, a pig, a dog, a bunny, a cat, whatever. We love you, and your mother doesn’t.”
How old was your son?
He was three. And so, to this day, Andrew is scarred from that. I went back, 13 months later, having paid $25,000 to a lawyer here, and $25,000 to a lawyer in Tennessee, who met me in Arkansas. Because if I would go into Shelby County I would have been thrown in jail for Contempt of Court. Finally when I went to court, the bailiff thought it was a joke to put the Playboy spread under the glass on the judge’s desk. I’ve had a lot of people do mean things to me. The judge allowed me to have my son certain times of the year, and Andrew always went back to Memphis for vacations. When he was 14, he came back from Memphis and said, “I hate you. I hate California. I hate the maid. I hate your friends. I hate my school. I hate everything.” I said, “Okay. Tomorrow you get on a plane and you go back to Memphis.” I sent him away, because I couldn’t deal with it anymore — all the hatred I had all of his life because of those people. I walked around the house like a ghost for three years, crying. I couldn’t go into his room. But I finally got over it, you know? You get over anything. I just kept on doing what I was doing.
How did you guys hook up again?
I’m not sure we’re “hooked up” now. We speak. We’re civil to each other, and we’ve worked together. We have made peace because of my grandchildren.
You’re presently writing and directing?
That’s what I always wanted to do — direct. Fernando Lamas taught me his secret of how to direct the big stars. He said, “Stella, it is so easy, look at this.” He held up his hand, closed his fist except for thumb and forefinger. He held it in front of him, and he shut one eye. “This means ‘bigger.'” He closed his finger to about a half inch above his thumb. “This means ‘smaller.’ That’s it, Stella,” he said. “That’s all there is to it. You’ll be great, kid.” As he walked off he stumbled and said, “Oops, I tripped on my dick.” He was so funny.
Did you learn anything from Jerry Lewis on The Nutty Professor (1963)?
He took time to teach me how to direct a movie. And Walt Kelley, the cinematographer, taught me all about lighting. That was 1960, wasn’t it?
‘63, ‘73, ‘83, ‘93, 2003. It’s taken me 40 years to be able to do this. It’s not difficult to direct — it’s difficult to get a job directing.
You did direct a movie in the ‘80s. The Ranch (1989).
I took that job on a six-page outline, with two weeks of preparation, with a budget that was supposed to be a million dollars Canadian. But they were making two films, and they used up too much money on the first one, and it ended up 12 minutes short. I was left with about $850,000 Canadian, which is like $500,000 U.S. I made the film, and brought it in on time, on budget. But no one else ever asked me to make a film with them. I used to write a lot of stuff, and it never got made; I never even submitted it. But I was always practicing, practicing. Now this western inspired me.
It’s three westerns, isn’t it? The first one is Hard Ride.
It’s a mini-series, a trilogy, for a pilot, for a continuing one hour series. My writer said to me, “Would you like to do a director’s rewrite?” I said, “If I do, I’ll have to have credit with you.” So we have 50-50 credit on it. And on the other two — Hard Ride II and Hard Ride III — I have screenplay credit, and he has story consultant. I do intend to direct the trilogy.
What is the status of the funding?
I have a possible partner who is seeking matching funding to what I have for each picture from the New Mexico film commission.
But Stella, you’re deciding to direct the western at a time when the genre is almost over.
There’s a very important fact you should know about me. I will not give up on myself or what I want. I’m stubborn.