Sun Sentinel Palm Beach Edition
‘Nutty Professor’ leading lady starred in ’60s, ’70s comedies
Stella Stevens, a prominent leading lady in 1960s and ’70s comedies perhaps best known for playing the object of Jerry Lewis’ affection in “The Nutty Professor,” has died. She was 84.
Stevens’ estate said she died Friday in Los Angeles after a long illness.
Born Estelle Caro Eggleston in Yazoo City, Mississippi, on Oct. 1, 1938, she married at 16 and gave birth to her first and only child, actor-producer Andrew Stevens, in 1955 when she was 17, and divorced two years later. She started acting and modeling during her time at Memphis State University and made her film debut in a minor role in the Bing Crosby musical “Say One for Me” in 1959, but she considered “Li’l Abner” her big break.
“The head of publicity at Paramount basically made me a worldwide sex symbol,” Stevens told FilmTalk in 2017. “He had me doing a lot of layouts with photographers — indoors, outdoors, here and there — being seen in different places, going to the best restaurants, meeting with wonderful actors and directors … those were the golden years of Hollywood. It was a very exciting time.”
Soon after, she won the New Star Golden Globe, was named Playboy’s Playmate of the Month and got a contract with Paramount Pictures, leading to film work and “Girls! Girls! Girls!” with Elvis Presley, which she only agreed to do because she was promised to be cast in a Montgomery Clift movie if she did it. The Clift picture didn’t pan out though, at least with her promised co-star. It turned into John Cassavetes’ “Too Late Blues,” with Bobby Darrin.
Next came “The Nutty Professor” as Lewis’ student, Stella Purdy, who he is infatuated with.
“Jerry Lewis had told the bosses at Paramount he wanted to cast the most beautiful ingenue working at the studio — or something like that — and so I got the gig,” Stevens said. “We all tried to make the characters he had created in the script special, wonderful, unique — and if you ask me, I do believe that’s why the film still holds up after all those years.”
At Columbia Pictures, she’d appear in “The Secret of My Success,” “The Silencers,” with Dean Martin, and “Where Angels Go Trouble Follows,” as a nun opposite Rosalind Russell. Other notable roles include “Slaughter” with Jim Brown, Sam Peckinpah’s “The Ballad of Cable Hogue” and “The Poseidon Adventure,” in which she played Linda Rogo, Ernest Borgnine’s character’s wife.
Stevens worked steadily in television in the 1970s and ’80s, appearing in the pilots for “Wonder Woman,” “Hart to Hart” and “The Love Boat” and in series such as “Night Court,” “Murder, She Wrote” and “Magnum P.I.”
In 2017, she’d say that her favorite director that she worked with was Vincente Minnelli on “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father,” from 1963. She also directed films: the documentary “An American Heroine,” which never got distribution, and “The Ranch.” She retired in 2010.
In an interview in 1994, Stevens said that she worried that she didn’t succeed in bringing out the best in her directors and that her ambitions changed.
“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,” she said. “But I also had the plan of being a director . ... I saw (Bob Hope) 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.”