Stella Stevens, Starlet of the Sixties and ‘Nutty Professor’ Actress, Dies at 84
Stella Stevens, the screen siren of the 1960s who brought sweet sexiness to such films as The Nutty Professor, Too Late Blues and The Ballad of Cable Hogue, has died. She was 84.
Stevens died Friday in Los Angeles, her son, actor-producer-director Andrew Stevens, told The News84Media. “She had been in hospice for quite some time with Stage 7 Alzheimer’s,” he said.
Shining brightest in light comedies, the blond, blue-eyed actress appeared as a shy beauty contestant from Montana in Vincente Minnelli’s The Courtship of Eddie’s Father (1963), portrayed a headstrong nun in Where Angels Go, Trouble Follows! (1968) opposite Rosalind Russell and frolicked with the fun-loving Dean Martin in two films: the Matt Helm spy spoof The Silencers (1966) and How to Save a Marriage and Ruin Your Life (1968).
Stevens also starred opposite Elvis Presley in Girls! Girls! Girls! (1962), a movie she said she detested.
Her signature role, however, came in The Nutty Professor (1963), produced, directed, co-written and starring Jerry Lewis as the nice but nerdy Julius F. Kelp, a college chemistry professor who invents a potent cocktail that transforms him into swinging ladies’ man Buddy Love.
Her character, the coed Stella Purdy, finds herself attracted to Love but also sees something in Kelp.
“I am basically a comedienne, I always have been,” she said told Skip E. Lowe in a 1992 interview. “The sex [in her films] has always been ‘comedy sex.’ A lot of the serious dramatic roles I’ve played, I’ve thought to myself, ‘Oh God, they were dreary.’ I like the pacing of comedy, the excitement of it.”
Stevens, though, did stand out in dramas. She convinced jazzman Bobby Darin to abandon his idealistic dreams in John Cassavetes‘ Too Late Blues (1961) and played whores with hearts of gold in Rage (1966) and Sam Peckinpah’s The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970), respectively.
In the classic disaster film The Poseidon Adventure (1972), Stevens endured a damp, grueling shoot as Ernest Borgnine’s determined ex-streetwalker wife, performing many of her own stunts.
Stevens, who appeared three times in Playboy magazine, had an explicit love scene with Jim Brown Slaughter (1972) — some moviegoers in the South did not approve of their coupling — and fought a fierce battle with Tamara Dobson in Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold (1975).
A self-described tomboy, Stevens said she liked to get physical — witness the great Knock-down, drag-out fight she had with Wonder Woman (Lynda Carter) on the first episode of the ABC series in 1975.
Estelle Carol Eggleston was born an only child on Oct. 1, 1938, in Yazoo City, Mississippi. She and her family moved to Memphis, Tennessee, when she was 4, and she spent a great deal of time in the movie theater behind their home.
She married a classmate, Herman Stephens, at age 15, had her son when she was 16 and got divorced at 17.
A department store model, Stevens (she adopted a version of her married name for her stage name) appeared in a production of Bus Stop while attending Memphis State and got a great review in the local newspaper. Dick Powell directed her in a screen test, and she signed with 20th Century Fox, making $250 a week. She was supposed to portray Jean Harlow in a biopic, but the movie did not get made until years later.
Stevens did make her film debut as a chorus girl in Say One for Me (1959) — sharing the Golden Globe for most promising female newcomer with Tuesday Weld, Angie Dickinson and Janet Munro — and then attracted attention as Playboy‘s Playmate of the Month for January 1960.
The magazine shoot was something she said she always regretted (though she would appear again in Playboy in 1965 and ’68). “I had been dropped from my contract at 20th Century Fox, did not know a soul in Los Angeles and had a child to support,” she said.
The nude photos were also used against her as she fought for custody of her son in a yearslong battle with her ex-husband.
Playboy, though, certainly didn’t hurt her movie career. Paramount signed her and cast her as the mistress Appassionata Von Climax (played by Tina Louise in the original Broadway production) in Li’l Abner (1959).
She played a deaf mute on a 1960 episode of Bonanza directed by Robert Altman and starred as the nymphomaniac wife of Jeffrey Hunter who seduces his ex-Marine pal (David Janssen) in the heist film Man-Trap (1961).
She told Tony Macklin in a 2004 interview that making Girls! Girls! Girls! with Elvis was not a good experience.
“I was sent the script by Paramount to read. And I thought, ‘Hmm, 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!” she recalled. “I thought, ‘What a piece of shit.’
“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.’ “
She agreed after Paramount told her she would get to star opposite Montgomery Clifton in Too Late Blues — Cassavetes’ first studio film — but he was replaced on the film by Darin.
Her movie résumé also included Advance to the Rear (1964) — one of the three films she made with Ford — The Secret of My Success (1965), Synanon (1965), Sol Madrid (1968) with David McCallum, The Mad Room (1969) with Shelley Winters, the women’s lib-themed Stand Up and Be Counted (1972), Peter Bogdanovich’s Nickelodeon (1976), Chained Heat (1983), The Long shot (1986) and Blessed (2004).
On television, Stevens starred as Lute-Mae Sanders, the owner of a bordello, on the 1980-82 NBC primetime soap. Flamingo Roadand played a hooker named Beverly Hills in the horror film Mom (1991). She also had stints on the soap operas Santa Barbara (as Robin Mattson’s meddlesome mother) and General Hospital.
Stevens desperately wanted to direct later in her career but found that overcoming her reputation as a “sex pot” to be too daunting. “This has been a detriment to people taking me too seriously,” she told Lowe.
She did manage to direct her son in The Ranch (1989), and he directed her in The Terror Within II (1992).
Stevens lived for more than a decade on a ranch in Washington state and had a romantic relationship with Bob Kulicka guitarist and music producer who worked with Meat Loaf, Lou Reed, MotorheadDiana Ross and Kiss, from 1983 until his death in 2020. (Kulick’s brother Bruce was in Kiss.)
Survivors also include her grandchildren, Amelia, Aubrey and Samuel.
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