From Hookers to Grannies: An Interview with Stella Stevens

Hold onto your life jackets!  Hollywood just celebrated the 40th anniversary of the release of The Poseidon Adventure (1972).  Stella Sevens, Carol Lynley, and other cast members gathered in Hollywood late last month to reminiscence about the classic disaster film.

Stella in The Poseidon Adventure.
Stella in The Poseidon Adventure.

The recent reunion brought to mind the interview I did with Stella Stevens at her home in Beverly Hills in December 1994.  I had the interview set up before I got to town. When I arrived at her home at 2 p.m. on the dot, I rang the bell.  I knocked and knocked — and knocked!  I gave up with disappointment, and drove up Coldwater Canyon and into the Valley.  I called from a pay phone (we didn’t have cellphones then) to leave Stella a message that I had been there.

“Where are you?” she asked.

“I was there,” I said.  “I ran the bell and knocked.”

“I didn’t hear you, dear.  I was in the back getting ready for you.  Can you come back?”

I did, and we spent a good part of the afternoon talking about her long career in Hollywood.

In my recent book, Mae Murray: The Girl with the Bee-Stung Lips, I wrote that Mae was the ideal image of a movie star in the 1920s.  Stella Stevens fits my image of what a movie star was supposed to look like  in the 1960s — blonde, sultry,  and drop-dead gorgeous!

Stella Stevens: My vision of the ideal 1960s movie star.
Stella Stevens: My vision of the ideal 1960s movie star.

Several weeks later, after I’d returned home, Stella sent me a can of chocolate gourmet coffee she had served during my visit, as well as a jar of her calamunda conserves.

I got together with Stella several more times on my treks to Los Angeles.  Once I took Charlie to meet Stella.  He was gaga, as he had been an admirer since The Poseidon Adventure.

Michael, Stella, and Charlie at Stella's Beverly Hills home.
Michael, Stella, and Charlie at Stella’s Beverly Hills home.

Later, Stella and I met up at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel for some event.

Stella and Michael on the town ...
Stella and Michael on the town …

We’ve kept in touch over the years, mostly by exchanging Christmas cards.

Three of Stella's Christmas cards.
Three of Stella’s Christmas cards. You can tell that Stella is an animal lover.

Our interview was originally published in Films of the Golden Age.  Here’s how it went.


From Hookers to Grannies: A Chat with Stella Stevens

by Michael G. Ankerich

Stella Stevens is struggling to find words to describe her latest film role, that of an 85-year-old grandmother who returns from the dead to avenge her death.

“It’s the most fun I’ve had on a film in years,” she tells me as we sit in the den of her Beverly Hills home in early December 1994.

This vague description, however, isn’t exactly how Stella feels about her part; it’s not adequate for one who is known for being so outspoken and uninhibited.

Dressed in a form-fitting exercise suit and looking as curvaceous and gorgeous as ever, Stella pulls the words from her racing imagination and leans forward on the edge of the sofa as she emphasizes her point.

“This film for me was like an orgasm, after all these years of just being called maybe the best thing in a bad picture.”

I should be shocked, but don’t forget the “O” word comes from someone who knows the value of shock treatment, of raising eyebrows, of saying just what she thinks. After all, didn’t she pose nude for Playboy in 1960 and announce once she was running for President of the United States? She also reportedly arrived at an awards show clad only in a transparent negligee and told an inquisitive interviewer that fans should pick up a copy of Kama-Sutra to get an idea of what she does in her private life.

Stella in The Granny.
Stella in The Granny.

The Granny, she reminds me, is the first film in years in which she has the title role, and that it is an unusual role in that it appears to be a recent trend that is shifting Stella Stevens’ career from sexpot to character roles.

In addition, Stella retains a more than casual integrity in the film’s impact on her career, particularly after a psychic reading more than 25 years ago.

While in England in 1970, just after The Ballad of Cable Hogue wrapped, Stella was told by a fortuneteller reading her Tarot cards that she would be remembered for a film in which she would replace another actress originally cast, but who, because of illness, would have to abandon the project. “I waited throughout the 1970s, through the ’80s, and it gets to be 1994. I get a call from my agent who tells me they had cast Shelley Winters in a film, but that she developed a case of the shingles and couldn’t do it. That’s how I was cast in The Granny.”

Whether the film, being dubbed a comedy-horror, will have the impact Stella thinks it might, the film can only enhance her budding cult-figure status, which has been nurtured by The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970) and such exploitative films as Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold (1975) and Chained Heat (1983).

In reading Stella’s entry in film encyclopedias, she appears to have been a successful working actress for 35 years, not bad when you consider the average life of a career is less than a decade. What is not recorded in the entry, but is apparent when she opens up to you, is the pain stemming from her struggle in trying to make people understand what Stella Stevens is really all about.

After a failed teenage marriage, which produced a son, actor, director  and producer Andrew Stevens, Stella moved, much to her parents’ objection, to Hollywood, where she embarked on a movie career. They, along with her hometown of Memphis, Tennessee, practically disowned her when she did the Playboy layout.

The results of appearing in the magazine firmly established her as a sexpot (a term she despises) in the eyes of Hollywood and stunted her deep-rooted ambitions for directing films.

She believes her association with Playboy, which resulted in several lawsuits over the years and to no end of ill feelings with the magazine, closed more doors than it opened.

Stella in Rage.
Stella in Rage.

Her talent, however, could not be denied. She displayed an early comedic  flair as Appassionata von Climax in Li’l Abner (1959), and she proved herself a dramatic actress in Man-Trap (1961) and Too Late Blues (1962). She relished the opportunity of working with Jerry Lewis in The Nutty Professor (1963), but loathes everything associated with Girls! Girls! Girls! (1962), which she insists she has never seen.

Rage (1966) established her as the whore with a heart of gold, and by the time she played Hildy in The Ballad of Cable Hogue, she had almost perfected the art. She is memorable in The Poseidon Adventure (1972) as the ex-prostitute wife of Ernest Borgnine and in two films considered controversial in their day: Stand up and Be Counted (1972) and Slaughter (1972).

Stella in The Poseidon Adventure.
Stella in The Poseidon Adventure.

In the late 1970s, her film appearances decreased. She worked extensively in television throughout the 1980s, notably in made-for-TV films and on such series as Flamingo Road and Santa Barbara.

On her own, she wrote, directed, and produced a full-length documentary. While the experience was rewarding creatively, the film did not spawn her long-anticipated directorial  career — she waited another 10 years before being handed the megaphone.

Now in her late fifties, Stella insists there are many untapped resources yet to be discovered in her. True, she has been successful, but Stella Stevens is clearly agitated these days that Hollywood has not made better use of her talent. Her goals are clear: she wants to direct, to write, and to act. She has written a children’s musical, which she hopes to direct, and is working on a novel and cookbook.

“I guess you could say I’m still waiting to be discovered,” Stella says in all seriousness. Determination and stubbornness are legendary in the actress. Don’t look for Stella Stevens to rest easily in the annals of Hollywood history. She is a modern woman, constantly reinventing herself, taking inventory of her potential and turning her talents into action. Keep an eye on her, but don’t stand in her way.

“I’m one of the most stubborn and determined people I have ever known, not mean-spirited, but spirited enough to fight the elements or the odds against me,” she says.

Stella Stevens was born Estelle Eggleston in Yazoo City (not Hot Coffee), Mississippi. While references differ over her year of birth, she insists it’s 1938. The Egglestons moved to Memphis when Stella, an only child, was four.

She lived behind a movie theater growing up, and says she practically lived there, seeing every film over and over. Although she thinks she had film making on her mind since she saw Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs as a child, she didn’t take it seriously; her aspirations were to be a writer.

Growing up alone, because both her parents worked, Stella became aware of responsibility early on. She learned to cook and run the household, and she says she was old enough to be on her own by the time she was 12.

When she was 15, she married her childhood sweetheart, Herman Stephens; at 16, a son was born; and at 17, the couple divorced. Although her marriage failed, Stella had high hopes for herself.

She returned to night school, earned her high school diploma and entered Memphis State College, declaring an English major. During her first year of college, she joined the drama group, stumbling upon an opportunity that changed her life forever.

On stage at Memphis State University in Bus Stop.
On stage at Memphis State College in Bus Stop.

Stella: I remember thinking, thank God, I am looking for something I could become interested in that wouldn’t peter-out. After some time in the drama group, I tried to change my Southern accent to proper English, so I wouldn’t sound so Southern.

Michael: How did your peers react to your changing your speech?

Stella: Everyone in Memphis laughed at me, thinking I was uppity, that I thought I was better than everyone else and wanted to talk a different way. But, I saw it as my only way out. Besides being a housewife in Memphis for the rest of my life, I don’t know what else the alternative was. I didn’t seem to have one.

Michael: The alternative you discovered was acting.

Stella: Yes! My destiny was either New York or Hollywood. Because of Andrew (just a toddler then), the thought of going to New York and trying to be in the theater there seemed like a horrible, grungy life. I could just picture myself in a hovel in Greenwich Village. It was one or the other, or it was to stay put in Memphis forever.

Michael: Did your parents support your ambitions of being an actress?

Stella: No, they did not! They had the attitude that I had to get it out of my system, that I was a bit crazy to do it. They were concerned about me. My mother said she hoped I would fail in Hollywood and would come back to  Memphis where I belonged. I was encouraged to have better sense and stay home in Memphis, but I couldn’t do it.

Stella in How to Save a Marriage -- And Ruin Your Life
Stella in How to Save a Marriage — And Ruin Your Life

She arrived alone in Hollywood–she didn’t know anyone there, with only the hopes of securing a contract with 20th Centruy-Fox and possibly playing Jean Harlow in a biographical film the studio was considering. The Harlow project didn’t materialize then, but Fox was interested in Stella.

Dick Powell directed Stella’s screen test, a scene she had written from a Harold Robbins novel, 79 Park Avenue. Her efforts earned her a six-month contract with Fox.

Michael: What do you remember about Dick Powell and the screen test for Fox?

Stella: Dick Powell told me that he loved making the transition from actor to director, because he wouldn’t have to hold his tummy in any longer. I remember that wonderful smile of his and his dimples. He was just the most gentle and sweet and funny man in person.

Michael: What work did you do in that six months with Fox.

Stella: I worked for four months on Say One For Me (1959), however, no one told me to pick up a work card, so no one eve knew that I worked. At the end of the six months, they looked through everyone’s cards and it didn’t show that I had worked a single day. So, they dropped me.

Not long after  Stella was back on the lot with a photographer doing a photo shoot, when she passed director Edward Dmytryk and the assistant director she’d worked with on Say One For Me. She was soon called back to the studio for a small part in Dmytryk’s remake of The Blue Angel (1959).

Stella’s performance in the two films went virtually unnoticed. It was her next role, that of Appassionata von Climax, in Li’l Abner (1959) that caused Hollywood, especially Paramount, to take notice. The studio, on the basis is her strong performance, signed her to a five-year contract.

With her career skyrocketing, Stella should have been soaring. She was, however, suffering miserably. For months, she had been embroiled in a nasty custody battle that questioned her fitness as a mother. At one point, she defied court orders and “kidnapped” Andrew from Memphis and brought him to live with her in Hollywood.

Stella and son Andrew
Stella and son Andrew

That episode, which grabbed national headlines, was eventually resolved (with her gaining custody), but only after legal battles with her ex-husband and headlines like, “I Stole My Baby” (Modern Screen), October, 1959.

Those battling her in Tennessee believed Hollywood was no place to raise a child. Their case only strengthened after Stella’s nude layout appeared in Playboy. An editorial in the Memphis newspaper called the layout, Stella’s “mistake.”  She responded at the time, “It was my decision and mine alone. If it was a mistake, I’ll learn from it. If it was not, I’ll profit from it.”

Her appearance in the magazine, as it turned out, caused her years of grief and eventually led the two parties to court. Her relationship with the magazine soured quickly over her fee. She contends she only received $500 of the $3,000 promised her. The remainder was to be earned as a hostess at Playboy parties. Later, she says, Playboy officials reprinted the photos on trading cards with her wrong birth date and place.

Michael:  Is Playboy still a bad word after all these years?

Stella: It is a bad word. It’s a disappointing word, because I’ve never done business with anyone who has so overtly lied to me and tried to take advantage of me.  It happened to me so many times. It’s like, fool me once shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.  Fool me three times, I’ll a fool. I kept trying to give them a chance to treat me nicely, but they never did. It’s just sickening.


Michael:  Looking back over these years and weighting the advantages and drawbacks it has had on your career, was it a mistake for you to do the layout?

Stella:  It was a double-edged sword. It did as much harm as it did good. To try and have a career as a serious actor after being in that magazine was very difficult. To try and become a director has taken me over 30 years, something that other people with far less talent have done far sooner. They did not, however, start out as sexpots. That starting point (as a sexpot) is so far below level. You might think it elevates someone to call them a sexpot, but it does not.  It’s a derogatory term.  It’s hard, after that, to just come up to being a human being. When “Sesame Street” first came on the air, I begged to be able to do the alphabet–anything.  They would not allow me on there. I wasn’t allowed in certain magazines. I was blackballed from anything decent after that.

Michael: What was the public’s reaction to the layout?

Stella: It’s like I was overloaded with horrible fan mail that was gross, obsessive, and horrendous. It turned me off to fan mail so much that I wouldn’t answer it for years. That has changed and I get very nice mail but I still have a deep-seated aversion to opening anything that comes in.

Michael: In the beginning of your career, you worked with some of the industry’s finest directors, people like John Cassavetes, Norman Taurog, Vincente Minnelli, Jerry Lewis. Did you realize then the valuable training you were getting?

Stella:  Yes! I wanted to be a director even then and every director I worked with taught me more and more, with the exception of Norman Taurog, who taught be how to not behave on the set and how not to act as a director.

Michael: Let’s talk about some of the films you made. In Man-Trap (1961), you play the juicy role of a nymphomaniac  the alcoholic wife of Jeffrey Hunter who seduces his ex-marine buddy (David Janssen).

Stella and Jeffrey Hunter in Man-Trap.
Stella and Jeffrey Hunter in Man-Trap.

Stella: Nina (the character) made quite an impression at the time. It was the total opposite of what I was. I was such an introverted, bookish sort of person who wanted to learn to become a good writer and here was this woman who was a nymphomanic, which I was intrigued with.  Some of the most fun parts I’ve played have been nymphomanics.  It was very risque at the time.

Michael: Edmond O’Brien, the veteran actor, was sole-directing for the first time.

Stella: Yes, and I liked him a lot. He was a nervous man.  He had good ideas and was so energetic and so excited about doing it. I believe he did a really good job with the film.

Michael: Girls! Girls! Girls! (1962) gave you good exposure, didn’t it? You worked with the veteran director Norman Taurog, and the King of Rock himself, Elvis Presley.

Stella:  I don’t know whether it did or not. I’ve never seen the picture. I swore to my dying day I would never see it, and I never have.

Michael: What were the problems with it?

Stella: In the first place, I didn’t want to do it, and I told the studio I didn’t want to do it. They threatened to put me on suspension, but promised me that if I would do it, I would get a film with Monty Clift. So, of course, I said I would do the film.  They bribed me with Monty Clift. It was a very disastrous experience for me. They knew I didn’t want to do the film and they treated me very badly, the worst I’ve never been treated on a film.

Girls! Girls! Girls!
Girls! Girls! Girls!

Michael: It’s funny that you criticize Norman Taurog. At the time, he said you were the best comedienne to hit Hollywood in 1o years.

Stella: I thought that anyway, and I didn’t need him to tell me. What I remember is him screaming at me at the top of his lungs in front of the cast and crew because I accidentally had a can of hairspray emptied onto my head while the hairdresser was styling my hair, all this making me late to the set. As I was walking toward him to apologize for being late, he screamed at me, “Young lady, when I say 9:30, I don’t mean 10:00; you get here on time.” It embarrassed me in front of everybody.

I’ve never been talked to or treated like that. Also, a lot of things went wrong with the music, including the fact that they gave me a rehearsal disk of a record, which played from the inside out, instead of from the outside in. My machine didn’t play those, so I didn’t get a chance to rehearse. The next morning, I had to lip sync the song and I hadn’t ever heard it. While I’m standing by the piano struggling to get through this, I asked the choreographer what I am to do while I lip synched the song. He stands there and shaking from side to side, says, “Just do the twist.” I said, “Thank you very much.”

Michael: Was Elvis sympathetic to your situation?

Stella: No, he was not! He was drunk and whatever else he was, but he was not sympathetic. He was drunk in Hawaii and on the set when he sang “Return to Sender,” or at least acting like he was and telling me he was. He was drinking Hawaiian Rum Punches, and they punched him just about out. He was also showing me what he called his Bible, his book of color plates of every pill and capsule ever made and sold by pharmaceutical companies. Drinking and taking pills seemed to be his main interest.

Michael: You got through the film thinking you would get a chance to working with Montgomery Clift.

Stella: That film turned out to be Too Late Blues (1962) with John Cassavetes directing. I love the film and consider it one of my best parts. I didn’t squawk about the part.  Bobby Darin was wonderful in it–he was a very good actor, but it was not Montgomery Clift.

Stella and Bobby Darin in Too Late Blues.
Stella and Bobby Darin in Too Late Blues.

Michael: Darin is the jazz musician who falls in and out of love with your character, a vocalist, who, dealing with the entanglements, eventually falls into prostitution. Cassavetes enjoyed delving into the psychology of human relationships.

Stella:  Yes he did, and so did I, because I was originally from the theater and thought all this meant something, showing all this behavior we did. I thought it had a greater purpose, and he seemed to feel the same way.  I wanted to work with him again.  I begged him to please make a movie where I could work with Gena Rowlands. Nothing ever came of it. I loved him and wanted to work with him again, but he made movies, and if he had ever wanted to work with me, he would have called. So, it was possibly one-sided adulation on my part. We started that film down in Mexico, Sol Madrid (1968), together (Cassavetes had a role in the film), but John got hepatitis and had to be replaced by Rip Torn. We were almost together on that one.

Stella and Jerry Lewis in The Nutty Professor.
Stella and Jerry Lewis in The Nutty Professor.

Michael: The Nutty Professor (1963) with Jerry Lewis is one of the films people remember you from.

Stella: A lot of people tell me I’m very good in it. That’s because of Jerry’s assistance in molding my character into what it was. I was scared to death (during the filming), because I didn’t know what to do.  I thought I had to be funny and when I look back at it today, I kind of cringe at a few of the things I did. I can see that I just kind of stumbled my way through it.

Michael: Jerry Lewis starred, wrote, directed and produced the film. It’s been called one of his masterpieces.

Stella: He was a working genius and he was marvelous to watch in action. It was also a biut tiring to have to wait for him to circle back down from all the 20 things he was doing and get back to the one you were doing. However, he was a great influence on me as a director. He told me everything he did, and he took me to every daily.

Being a budding writer, I’m very sensitive to the sounds of words,, because I speak the writing that is given to me. So, as you hear it, images sometime form in your mind. Originally, Jerry had written my character name name as Stella Payne. I said I didn’t want to be named Payne, so he changed it to Purdy, Stella Purdy.

Michael:  You worked three times with Glenn Ford: The Courtship of Eddie’s Father (1963); Advance to the Rear (1964); and Rage (1966).

Stella: Glenn was always fun to work with. I believe it was on Rage that he asked for me. I was under contact to Columbia at the time. My role, as Pearla, the whore, was a very good one. She was the first whore with the heart of gold that I played. That kind of stuck until I did Flamingo Road (the television series) when the reviewers said I had established the prototype of the whore with a heart of gold.

Stella and Glenn Ford in Rage
Stella and Glenn Ford in Rage

Michael: Rosalind Russell wrote in her autobiography that she didn’t care for Where Angels Go…Troubles Follow (1968), which had been a sequel to The Trouble with Angels (1966). As one of the nuns in the film, what did you think about it?

Stella: This film was a showcase for me as Sister George. I thought it worked quite well, and she (Russell) was funny and wonderful, a very giving actress. I loved working with her. I’m surprised she was disappointed, but a sequel is perhaps disappointing to someone who was in the original.

Michael: You worked first with Shelley Winters in The Mad Room (1969).

Stella: Yes, and I said I would never work with her again. There’s where I broke my vow ( they later made The Poseidon Adventure together).

Michael: What was the problem with her on that one?

Stella: She was under a lot of stress at the time. Robert Kennedy had been shot during the filming of it, and she had a very bad reaction to it. She had been soothing her nerves with white wine and shouldn’t have been. She doesn’t do that any more. She was quite well behaved on The Poseidon Adventure.

I have to tell you this funny story. Shelley saw me the other day and asked me how The Granny, the film in which I replaced her, turned out. I said it turned out great, that it was a wonderful part and that I had a lot of fun doing it. She told me she had been ill (with the shingles) and didn’t think she would have had the strength to have done it. Then she says, “Stella, give me your number. I get so many scripts that I can’t do. I’ll tell them to call you.”

Stella and Jason Robards in The Ballad of Cable Hogue.
Stella and Jason Robards in The Ballad of Cable Hogue.

Michael: Your role as Hildy in The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970), again a whore with a heart of gold, is considered among your best roles, and your on screen interaction with Jason Robards has been called your most mature relationship on celluloid.

Stella: It was a very interesting role and a unique experience. I can’t say it was a great experience, but it was something to live through.

Michael: Did you and Robards discuss off camera the workings of your on-screen relationship?

Stella: Not so much. The boys stuck with the boys and the girls with the girls on that picture. This was like a segregated film in that regard. The men were so upset that we came out there to their desert, where they had been chewing and spitting and telling dirty jokes. They drank and fell asleep in the bar and woke up and went back to work the next morning. They just acted badly. They played cards and peed out the windows and did everything they could to be macho men. Something like 32 people got put on the bus and sent home.  Finally, the union told Sam (Peckinpah) that if one more man was fired, they would close down the picture.

Michael: Cable Hogue was quite different from the bloody violence Peckingpah had portrayed in The Wild Bunch (1969).  How did you find him as a director?

Stella: I appreciate him as an artist. I loved The Wild Bunch  and I loved the man, as mean and hard as he was. He had poetic  eyes, as far as the camera was concerned. He put visual poetry on the screen as a background for whatever he shot. He was not a great comedy director, and he kept calling Cable Hogue a comedy. I kept looking at him until finally I said, “Sam, this is not a comedy; the hero dies at the end. This is a love story. It may have some funny stuff in it, but it is not a comedy.” He, however, always called it a comedy.

Ernest Borgnine, Stella, and Gene Hackman in The Poseidon Adventure.
Ernest Borgnine, Stella, and Gene Hackman in The Poseidon Adventure.

Michael: Did you realize The Poseidon Adventure (1972) was going to be something special when you were making it?

Stella: Yes, we all knew that. There was no question about it. And, when I got the script and saw that I died six pages before the end, I remember saying to my agent, “The fat lady gets a nomination, whomever they get to do it.” They said Shelley Winters was doing it, and I said I was not going to do the film. Then, they said I wouldn’t have to be in any scenes with her one-on-one. I did it, and I’m glad I did.

Michael: Did you have fun with the part?

Stella: As agonizing as it was, it was a lot of fun.

Stella with the cast of The Poseidon Adventure (1972).
Stella with the cast of The Poseidon Adventure (1972).

Michael: Did you do your own stunts?

Stella:  Yes, and it was a little scary going underwater, but we had men there in the tank with us. Ronald Neame was our director, and he was a wonderful, supportive, inventive, clever, sweet dear man. No matter how hard the work was, we gave him our all and more. There was never enough we could do for him.

Michael: Did you have any qualms about doing those sizzling love scenes with Jim Brown during  the interracial relationship your characters had in Slaughter (1972)?

Stella: I didn’t have any qualms about it, but I got some bad fan mail from the South.  I had been damned for so long for being so unusual and strange anyway. My father had not spoken to me since Playboy magazine came out. It was over 20 years that my father didn’t speak to me, so everything I did in their eyes was wrong anyway. It was just another thing.

Stella and Jim Brown in Slaughter.
Stella and Jim Brown in Slaughter.

When I saw the love scenes, I was disappointed, because I thought it was too dark and you couldn’t see anything. It could have been photographed much better. I was told that in the movie he did with Raquel Welch (100 Rifles), he had a towel put between them, because he didn’t want to touch her flesh in the nude love scene with her.  I can tell you, we didn’t have anything between us except good feelings and fun.

Michael: You did the film Stand Up and Be Counted (1972), an early film about the women’s liberation movement. Were women’s rights  an importment issue to you then?

Stella: Truthfully, for the first nine or 10 years I was in movies, women hated me. Men, who had seen Playboy magazine or other pin-ups or semi-nudes of me, were mostly my fans. It seems like women resented me. It went beyond sex. I’ve always been a woman who liked men things. Men, to me, have the most fun life. I didn’t like being a girl when I was a child. I was the biggest tomboy in the world. It seemed that everything that was fun to do were the things men did.

I made a concerted effort to try to win women over, and I decided the only weapon I had was just myself, being a woman. I did quite a few things to help the image that I was actually a woman and not to be hated by women and that I was not after their husbands.

Stella in Stand Up and Be Counted

Michael:  It was about the time that you announced you were considering running for president in the next election.  Were you serious about being the first woman president?

Stella: It was serious comedy. I’ll put it like that. To tell you the truth, I think I would have been a better president than many I’ve seen. I know there will be a woman president one day, and I hope I’m her friend. I hope someone comes along I can believe in as much as I believe in myself.

Michael: What happened on Nickelodeon (1976)? Why did it bomb at the box office?

Stella: What damned the film worse than anything is when they released it, they had a screening where they charged the moviegoers a nickel admission. It made everybody think it was worthless. The movie itself seemed over embellished. Every single shot had 35 things going on at one time, and it’s very hard to pick out the single, simple theme of the story like that. It didn’t have any spirit to it. Also, there were values that were out of proportion. Peter (Bogdanovich, the film’s director) told me he had fought with the studio because Burt Reynolds and Ryan O’Neal got such-and-such amount of money and he needed to get more than they did because he was the director. It was also not a great time for Peter, because the studio wouldn’t let him have Cybill Shepherd in the film, and he wanted her in it.  He was fighting with them, and to have huge, horrendous battles with the studio when you’re trying to create something, it’s just detrimental.

When Stella relocated to her ranch in Washington in 1976, the community believed she was abandoning Hollywood, retiring from the screen. She admits work wasn’t coming in like it had, and she was discouraged that her profession had not given her a chance to direct during her 17 years in Hollywood. It had nothing to do with retiring; instead, she was regrouping, getting in touch with the real world.

Stella: In Washington, I had human contact for the first time in nine or 10 years. There’s a joke that California people don’t know their neighbors. I didn’t know my neighbors, and I had no friends. All the people I knew were those I worked with, those who told me to keep my mouth shut, to be careful and to not say anything or my jobs would be taken away from me, or someone would go and rip it all from under me. It was just a dog-eat-dog world.

I’m a loner, quite frankly, but I have to keep feeding my brain. When you have no one to talk to and no one to learn from and no interaction between people, how can you learn to be a better actor or a director?

Michael: You directed your first film in 1979, The American Heroine, a documentary that dealt with the lives of strong American women and the inspiration they had on their families and communities.

Stella: I like my documentary, although I could never get a release on it.  This, again, was my thrust, because I could not get accepted, not only by Hollywood, but by women in general. I suppose it was a personal film, but it was a great learning experience for me,  because I had to learn all those parts of putting a film together that I would never been able to do had I not been compelled to direct something.

Michael: Even with this film under your belt, you had a hard time convincing Hollywood to allow you to direct.

Stella: Yes, and I would imagine they still don’t think I can do it. I have gone into despair many times, and the only thing that has kept me going has been working as an actor.

Stella and the Flamingo Road cast.
Stella and the Flamingo Road cast.

Michael: In the 1980s, your career took a different path.  You appeared on the prime time series Flamingo Road (1981-1982), and in about two dozen television movies. Was there a reason?

Stella: Yes, I had an agent who was strong in the area of television, and I didn’t do a lot of feature films during this time.

Michael: You directed your next film in 1990, The Ranch, in which your son, Andrew Stevens, appeared.

Stella: That’s right.

Michael: He directed you in The Terror Within II (1992).

Stella: It’s a bit of Hollywood trivia. It ‘s the first time a mother has directed her son in the first film she directed, and he directed his mother in the first film he directed. I don’t count The American Heroine, because I was actually hired to direct The Ranch.

Michael: How was giving and taking direction from your son?

Stella: The amazing comment Andrew made when he worked for me was, he told people on the set I was enormously patient, and he never realized that. I also like working for Andrew. I think he’s a very patient director. It was a major breakthrough in our relationship because I have my life and he has his, and the only way we can ever really get together and enjoy life’s work is to be there and to create something together. (Andrew also directed and appeared with his mother in the upcoming Illicit Dreams).


Michael: Do you remember what you said to Andrew when he said he wanted to be an actor?

Stella: I think he told me he wanted to be a movie star.  I encouraged him to be an actor and not to aim for the movie star part, because that wasn’t a very substantial thing to wish for. If you really become a good actor, I said, then you would really become a movie star, if you know your craft.

Michael:  Tell me the truth, Stella.  How do feel about playing so many prostitutes on the screen?

Stella:  I always loved to play the opposite of what I was, and I loved the fantasy of doing something I would never have dared do in life. It’s something I would have never had the guts to do in real life because sex is such a personal thing to me. I just couldn’t make a business out of it. I’ve always admired the psyche of women who could say, “Okay, jump on, jump off.”


Michael: You mention your writing ambitions. Will we ever see a Stella Stevens tell-all book on the shelves?

Stella: I’ve been relunctant to do that. I’m writing a novel, which contains a character based on me. I feel much more comfortable with that right now, rather than revealing all.

Michael: So many of your contemporaries are gone. Some have died of drug and alcohol abuse and others faded into obsucirity. You have been working rather steadily since coming to Hollywood 35 years ago.  What’s been the key to your survival?

Stella: I’m sure some people took an easier road out, probably settled down with a nice guy and either had kids and a nice life of entertaining friends. I have been alone all of my life since I divorced Andrew’s father. Being alone, maybe that’s part of my survival. It’s totally out of necessity that I must keep going. I have nobody else but me. So, if it’s just me, the fates of the gods have thrown me into the position and made me do that. I had no choice. I’ve just been this sort of tomboy out in the world, making my own way.

Stella and companion Bob Kulick
Stella and companion Bob Kulick

Michael: You’ve been linked in the gossip pages with many men over the years. Yet you’ve never remarried. You’ve remained single throughout your Hollywood career.  Why?

Stella: I never found anybody with whom I could truly have a halfway balanced relationship with as I do with Bob.  (Stella has been involved with composer and music producer Bob Kulick, formerly with the group Meatloaf, for more than 10 years). He’s extremely supportive of me, and he truly loves me, which is nice.

Michael: How do you sum up all these years of working in the film and television industry?

Stella: It has not been a happy career for me. I have felt like a failure for not being able to contribute what I thought was my best talent, bringing out the best in other people as a director.

A stunning Stella Stevens
A stunning Stella Stevens

Michael: You’ve made over 50 feature and television films.  You’ve been working in this business for over 35 years.

Stella: You see, I wanted to be like my favorite actresses: Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich. I wanted to be like a burst of youth and then when I got a little crow’s feet or age, I’d be off the screen. But I also had the plan of being a director. But, you know, Bob Hope and I did a movie together [A Masterpiece of Murder (1986)], and I saw him at 83 cracking jokes and having fun. I said then that I never wanted to quit. I want to be like this man. I want to go on forever.  I want to die on a movie set.

Michael: It sounds like, and I hope I’m right, we haven’t heard the last from Stella Stevens.

Stella: I feel like I’ve just keyed the car, just scratched the surface, and that the whole auto is still sitting there in front of me.

Stella in the 1990s
Stella in the 1990s

14 responses to “From Hookers to Grannies: An Interview with Stella Stevens”

  1. I really enjoyed your interview, Michael. I worked with Stella in the summer of 1979 as assistant director on her documentary, “The American Heroine”, and was delighted to see that it was mentioned here. Most of her crew had been members of a film class at the University of Texas at Arlington for which Stella had provided her talent as an actress, performing in a short film the class made that spring. I served as director on that class film, and have always been grateful to Stella for her generosity.

  2. […] After a failed teenage marriage, which produced a son (actor, director and producer Andrew Stevens) Stella moved, over parents’ objections, to Hollywood, where she embarked on a movie career. They, along with her hometown of Memphis, Tennessee, practically disowned her when she did the Playboy layout. The results of appearing in the magazine firmly established her as a sexpot (a term she despises) in the eyes of Hollywood and stunted her deep-rooted ambitions for directing films. Michael G. Ankerich. […]

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