Stella Stevens, Hollywood Bombshell Who Yearned for More, Dies at 84

Stella Stevens, whose turn as an A-list actress in 1960s Hollywood placed her alongside sex symbols like Brigitte Bardot, Ann-Margret and Raquel Welch, but who came to resent the male-dominated industry that she felt thwarted her ambitions to be more than a pretty face, died on Friday at a hospice facility in Los Angeles. She was 84.

Her son, the actor and director Andrew Stevens, said the cause was Alzheimer’s disease.

Ms. Stevens was among the last stars to emerge from Hollywood’s studio system, an arrangement that guaranteed her work but, she often said, also limited her creative aspirations. She won a Golden Globe in the “most promising newcomer” category for her role in “Say One for Me” (1959), a musical comedy starring Bing Crosby and Debbie Reynolds, but felt coerced into joining the cast of “Girls! Girls! Girls!” (1962), an empty Elvis Presley vehicle.

Like Ms. Welch, who died on Wednesday, Ms. Stevens was ambivalent, if not outright indignant, about being cast as a Hollywood sex symbol. She described herself as introverted and bookish, and she sought to work with auteurs like John Cassavetes, who cast her as the female lead in “Too Late Blues,” his 1961 drama about a jazz musician (played by Bobby Darin).

”I wanted to be a writer-director,” she told the film scholar Michael G. Ankerich in 1994. “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.”

She worked with many of the top directors and actors of the 1960s. She starred as the love interest of the title character, a timid college professor who undergoes a personality transformation, in “The Nutty Professor” (1963), which Jerry Lewis wrote, directed and starred in; “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father” (1963), a romantic comedy directed by Vincent Minnelli; and “The Silencers” (1966), a spy spoof starring Dean Martin.

In between, though, she had to take a series of mediocre roles in mediocre movies, and critics came to view her as a star who was perpetually kept away from realizing her full potential.

Two exceptions came in the early 1970s: She acted opposite Jason Robards in “The Ballad of Cable Hogue” (1970), a comic western directed by Sam Peckinpah, and as part of an all-star cast assembled for “The Poseidon Adventure” (1972), joining Ernest Borgnine, Shelley Winters and Gene Hackman in an overturned ocean liner.

By then her sex-symbol days were fading, and Ms. Stevens hoped to have the time and reputation to become a director. But female directors were almost unheard-of at the time, and her attempts to get support for what she called “a marvelous black comedy” that she wanted to make met repeated dead ends.

“Every man I’ve gone to for four years has smiled at me and then double‐crossed me,” she told The New York Times in 1973. “Every man I’ve talked to in every office in this industry has tried his best to discourage me from directing. They don’t want me to find out it’s so easy because it’s supposed to be terribly hard.”

Stella Stevens was born Estelle Caro Eggleston on Oct. 1, 1938, in Yazoo City, Miss., though she often told interviewers she was from a town called Hot Coffee, a nearby community. Her agent said anything sounded better than “Yazoo.”

Her father, Thomas, worked for a bottling company in Yazoo, and her mother, Estelle (Caro) Eggleston, was a nurse. When Stella was still young, they moved to Memphis, where her father worked in sales for International Harvester.

Stella dropped out of high school at 15 to marry Herman Stephens. They had one child, Andrew, and divorced in 1956. (She later changed her surname to Stevens because, she said, it was easier for people to pronounce.)

She returned to school after the divorce and earned a high school diploma. She enrolled at Memphis State College, now the University of Memphis, with plans to become an obstetrician.

She also took up theater. A role in a college production of William Inge’s “Bus Stop” brought an invitation to audition in New York, and by 1959 she was in Los Angeles, on a three-year contract with 20th Century Fox.

She finished three movies in six months, including “Say One for Me,” but the studio dropped her soon after. With a young son to feed, she took an offer from Playboy to pose nude for $5,000. After the shoot, she said, Hugh Hefner, the magazine’s publisher, would pay her only half and told her that she had to work as a hostess at the Playboy Mansion to earn the rest.

Before the photos ran she signed a new contract, with Paramount. She asked Mr. Hefner to cancel the magazine feature, but he refused, and she appeared as Playmate of the Month in the January 1960 issue, a few months before winning her Golden Globe.

“People don’t realize how horrible men can be toward a beautiful woman with no clothes on,” she told Delta magazine in 2010.

Her relationship with Playboy remained complicated. Despite her anger at Mr. Hefner, she posed nude for the magazine two more times. She then sued Mr. Hefner and Playboy in 1974, citing several instances of invasion of her privacy, but the case was thrown out because the statute of limitations had expired.

In 1998, Playboy named Ms. Stevens 27th on its list of the 20th century’s sexiest female stars, just behind Sharon Stone.

In addition to her son, Ms. Stevens is survived by three grandchildren. Her longtime partner, Bob Kulick, died in 2020.

Despite her career’s post-1960s fade, Ms. Stevens remained eager to work. She turned to television and had roles in some 80 episodes over the next four decades. Most of them were guest appearances on shows like “Murder, She Wrote,” “The Love Boat” and “Magnum P.I.,” though she was also a member of the regular cast of several shows, including the soap opera “Santa Barbara.”

When she did return to film, it was often for soft-core erotic thrillers and campy horror movies, like “Chained Heat” (1983), in which she played a prison warden, and “The Granny” (1994), in which she played a wronged grandmother who comes back to life to get revenge on her scheming family.

She eventually did get into the director’s chair, for “American Heroine,” a 1979 documentary, and “The Ranch,” a 1989 comedy starring her son. She also wrote a novel, “Razzle Dazzle” (1989), which featured a thinly fictionalized version of herself.

“I don’t feel 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.”

Danielle Cruz contributed reporting.

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