One of the most riveting and radiant of blondes in late 1950s and '60s Hollywood, Stockholm-born Inger Stevens seemed to have the whole world in her corner. Bright and breathtaking, she possessed the cool, classic glamour of a Grace Kelly on screen, yet came off more approachable and inviting. Her warm smile and honey-glazed vocal tones could melt an iceberg. She was a paradoxical beauty, a study in contrasts—tender yet elusive, welcoming yet guarded, stunningly attractive yet modest—and this kept audiences intrigued. Columnist Hedda Hopper probably said it best: "When Inger Stevens turns those questioning blue eyes on an audience, they've had it."
On camera, Inger evoked instant sympathy. She couldn't have played the bad girl if she tried; she was too sincere and nurturing. Her early ingenues were vulnerable, troubled little butterflies often in peril and in need of protection from the big, bad, ugly world. Her later leading ladies revealed a mature, worldly wise resourcefulness that arose from lessons learned in the school of hard knocks. As gorgeous as Inger was, talent was her first and foremost salable item, and she pursued with fierce determination a meaningful career not based on looks alone.
Like the lovely Natalie Wood, Inger grew more beautiful and sensual with age. The fresh-faced prettiness that initially held viewers spellbound evolved into a full-grown beauty accented by a sexy, irresistible smolder. Thanks to a popular mid-1960s TV sitcom, the actress quickly became a household name. As a result, Inger's career seemed to be headed for new heights, and in her last film she displayed touches of Oscar worthiness in her fragile, highly moving performance.
By April of 1970, Inger had added producer Aaron Spelling to her list of admirers. After co-starring her in the dramatic TV-movie Run Simon, Run opposite Burt Reynolds, with whom she was sharing an off-screen relationship, Spelling cast the actress without pause for his newly dramatic TV series Zig Zag set to air that fall. Indeed, 35-year-old Inger Stevens seemed to be on top of her game.
Yet she would become a tragic and immensely regrettable Hollywood statistic—overcome by a deep-rooted personal unhappiness hidden by a sunny disposition and megawatt smile. A curious fascination centered on her after her death as it became clear the real Inger was a chaotic contrast to the halcyon beauties she tended to portray on camera.
Actually, she was a mystery. After her untimely death, the public suddenly wanted to know all about this stranger Inger Stevens, or at least to make sense of her life. The late William T. Patterson's absorbing, well-researched 2000 biography "The Farmer's Daughter Remembered: The Biography of Actress Inger Stevens" finally provided some answers to the more disturbing questions, but not to all. Patterson, who chose to take a more positive approach in opening up her story to the public, claimed that a significant amount of previously published information about Miss Stevens was either untrue or distorted.
The source of Inger's unhappiness can be traced back to her troubled childhood. The product of a broken home, she was born Inger Stensland in Stockholm, on October 18, 1934, named in honor of Ingebiorg, a Norse princess. Inger was the daughter Per Gustaf, a high school teacher, and Lisbet (nee Potthoff) Stensland who were married six months before Inger's birth. Brothers Ola (aka Carl) and Peter were born two and four years later, respectively. She was a shy, introverted girl who was first drawn to acting after witnessing the magic of her father's performances (in particular, his role as Ebenezer Scrooge) in local amateur theater shows.
The family moved to Mora, about 200 miles northwest of Stockholm, when she was four. Within two years, however, her mother had abandoned the family for another man. Lisbet eventually married the man and moved back to Stockholm, taking youngest son Peter with her. A confused and distraught Inger and Ola remained with their stern, emotionally distant father. When the outbreak of World War II prompted his move to the United States in late 1940, the children were left behind to fend for themselves with only a family maid providing any sort of parenting. Eventually the two children moved in with a loving aunt, stage actress Karin Stensland Junker, and her family in Lidingo, near Stockholm.
Officially divorced from his wife via mail years later, Per Stensland eventually summoned his two eldest in 1944, after taking an American bride and finding steady work as a teacher at Columbia University in New York City. Traveling alone on the freighter SS Margaret Johnson from Sweden to the United States, the children found that their father was not there to greet them when they docked in New Orleans. Too busy with his own work, he had a Salvation Army man accompany the anxious youngsters to New York.
Inger commented in a 1962 article, "The most horrifying thing for a child is to be different." A young stranger in a strange land, the young girl felt painfully out of place at her school in New York. An excellent student nevertheless, she applied herself and quickly picked up the English language in order to appear less conspicuous. "I fit no where," she recalled. "I was awkward, shy, clumsy, ugly with freckles and had no chance of winning a beauty contest." In 1948, a teaching position opened up for her father at Kansas State University that triggered a family move to Manhattan, Kansas. This only aggravated Inger's acute pangs of displacement.
Unable to cope with her cold and strict father and stepmother, Inger's home life became unbearable and she ran away at age 15. She wound up in a Kansas City burlesque chorus line making $60 a week under an alias, Kay Palmer. Her father eventually discovered her there and brought his underage girl back home. Returning to school, Inger actively involved herself in plays and the glee club—the only creative outlets she was permitted to enjoy. After her 1952 graduation, she left home as quickly as she could pack her bags. Once gone, she never looked back, maintaining very weak, unemotional ties with her entire family for the rest of her life.
Inger found menial jobs in town at first, including selling fabric at a department store and records at a music store. After moving briefly to Kansas City, she decided to return to New York in 1953, this time to actively pursue her dreams of acting. Outgrowing her plaintive teen awkwardness, Inger developed into a graceful and strikingly beautiful young woman, her fair and winsome Scandinavian features highlighted by a single left cheek dimple. As a result, she managed to secure some early work as a New York model.
Quickly bored and disenchanted with what she called "empty" modeling assignments, Inger secured an assertive agent, Anthony Soglio, for TV representation. He quickly Americanized her last name and, within a short time, helped Inger Stevens book her very first professional job, a Vel Detergent commercial in November of 1954. Other commercials, for Tide, Lustre-Creme and Kent cigarettes, soon followed. She and another actress hopeful, Carroll Baker, auditioned for and were accepted into Lee Strasberg's renowned Actors Studio. Members at the time included James Dean, Marlon Brando, Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Robert Redford, Jane Fonda, Eva Marie Saint and Rod Steiger. Inger's random dancing and singing lessons also paid off when she found supplementary income as a Latin Quarter nightclub chorine at $75 a week.
Gaining experience on the summer stock stage in such productions as Glad Tidings, The Women, Oh, Men! Oh, Women! and Picnic, Inger's first break on TV came when she was cast in a 1954 Studio One presentation of "Sue Ellen", thanks to her resemblance to the leading lady. Instead of disguising her Scandinavian heritage, she began to embrace it after being cast in a small part on an episode of the Norwegian-American family series Mama. From there she appeared opposite the fast-rising Paul Newman in both Goodyear TV Playhouse and Armstrong Circle Theatre presentations. Making significant strides as a dramatic ingenue, she also proved right for lighter weight material on such sitcoms as Jamie and Mr. Peepers.
Inger and her agent, Tony Soglio, quickly became a romantic twosome and the couple impulsively married in Connecticut on July 9, 1955. Soon, however, the young actress realized she had made a horrible mistake. Due to Tony's extreme jealousy and abusive tendencies, the marriage was practically over before it began, and the couple separated in January of 1956. Divorce would not become final until August of 1958. There was no community property to divide, but Tony profited greatly in the settlement, receiving 5% of her earnings for the next seven years.
Following out-of-town tryouts, Inger took her first Broadway curtain call on February 22, 1956, as leading lady of the new three-act comedy, Debut. The play received less-than-inspiring reviews but Inger's performance was highly praised, save for New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson who claimed she came off "high strung" and "aggressive." The show closed after only five performances. It was around this time that the young actress found a powerful friend in columnist Louella Parsons who went on to help her through some personal and professional stumbles.
Despite their separation, Tony Soglio, perhaps in the hopes of getting her back, managed to help Inger secure a three-month test option contract at 20th Century-Fox. Although it proved a disappointment, Inger remembered with self-effacing amusement, "My experience with Fox wasn't a total loss—I took driving lessons at the studio's expense." There were close calls too when she tested for major parts in the Fox movies Oh, Men! Oh, Women!, Fraulein, and The Last Wagon. Vying for the leading lady role in the Paramount feature The Tin Star, she lost out to another pretty blonde, Betsy Palmer.
It was film producer Sol C. Siegel who came to Inger's rescue after discovering her in the minor role of a chambermaid in the Playhouse 90 presentation of "Eloise" which starred Ethel Barrymore, Monty Woolley, Louis Jourdan and "Eloise" creator Kay Thompson. Putting her under a personal Paramount seven-picture contract at the enviable rate of $600 per week (the standard was $200-$300), Siegel introduced the 22-year-old to the film world with the MGM family drama Man on Fire (1957), written and directed by Ranald McDougall and starring Bing Crosby in a rare dramatic role. The story centers on an embittered, divorced father who has maintained tight-fisted custody of his son in his legal fight against an ex-wife who wants to rebuild a life with her estranged child.
Both second-billed Inger and third-billed Mary Fickett (who later courted daytime fans on the soap opera All My Children) made inspiring movie debuts. Crosby and Fickett as the battling ex-spouses are given the fireworks scenes while Inger (as an assistant to E.G. Marshall, playing Crosby's lawyer) is properly restrained as Crosby's morale booster, legal aide-de-camp and very subtle love interest. It was an important assignment for Inger and she showed great promise in her very first picture. Variety's assessment of the young actress was positive: "Inger Stevens, as a femme lawyer, is another newcomer who should be heard in the future." On only her second day of shooting, however, her life and career were briefly placed in jeopardy when she was suddenly rushed to the hospital. Stricken with an acute attack of appendicitis, the company had to shoot around her until she could return to the set.
Inger fell into an affair with Crosby, who was 30 years her senior, during the film's shoot. Inger's biographer, William Patterson, played down the Crosby/Stevens relationship and deemed it mild, if anything. Most of the movie magazines reported Stevens as being emotionally devastated and suicidal after learning second hand of Crosby's marriage to actress Kathryn Grant. Patterson claims Inger purposely "went along with the media and agreed to the many wild stories they printed" in order to help promote Man on Fire.
In the meantime, the Paramount publicity train worked overtime promoting their new film star. Inger, Mai Britt and Ingrid Gould were given a three-page color photo spread in Life magazine with the headline "Sumptuous Swedish Smorgasbord." Moreover, as the new cool blonde in town, the nascent film actress won an audition for the upcoming Alfred Hitchcock film Vertigo (1958) in the hopes of becoming the iconic director's newest blonde find (Grace Kelly had been lost to Prince Rainier of Monaco). The movie role went to another intoxicating beauty, Kim Novak.
Inger's second loanout film was MGM's Cry Terror!, written, produced and directed by Andrew L. Stone. A taut drama that takes place in N.Y.C. but was shot primarily in Los Angeles, Inger was given the uncharacteristic opportunity to shine as electronics expert James Mason's picture-perfect wife and mother of their young daughter. All three family members are kidnapped and held ransom by madman Rod Steiger and his motley crew (antsy Jack Klugman, sultry Angie Dickinson and creepy Neville Brand) after they place Mason-devised bombs aboard several airliners as part of an extortion plot. One plane in jeopardy, quite interestingly, is called 20th Century Airlines!
Though the plot is hard to believe, Inger becomes the emotional catalyst for much of the film's tension and she nearly runs away with the picture. Movie critic Leonard Maltin singled out her performance in his annual Movie and Video Guide. During the shooting of an underground subway chase scene involving Inger and Rod Steiger, which was actually shot in a railway tunnel in Hoboken, New Jersey, both actors and a number of the film's crew were overcome by carbon monoxide fumes triggered by a defective gasoline generator. Rushed to the hospital, a dangerously ill Inger had to be placed in an oxygen tent for two days before recovering.
In the summer of 1958, Inger impulsively took a trip to her native Sweden where she visited her estranged mother Lisbet, whom she hadn't seen in a decade and a half. There she met her mother's "second family," which included two stepsiblings. The reunion was polite at best and went over as well as could be expected, but a close mother/daughter relationship was out of the question.
Inger's third film was for Paramount, her contract studio. The epic War of 1812 costumer The Buccaneer (1958) was a sprawling but static remake of Cecil B. DeMille's 1938 classic that earlier starred a dashing Fredric March as pirate Jean Lafitte and featured Anthony Quinn. A seriously ill DeMille, having suffered a heart attack while filming The Ten Commandments (1956), executive produced the remake in name and spirit only with Henry Wilcoxon taking over the rigorous producing reigns and Quinn, who was married to C.B.'s adopted daughter Katherine at the time, stepping up to the plate as director.
Nobody filled out period costumes better than the lovely Inger, who reprised the Margot Grahame role of Annette, the Louisiana governor's frilly daughter and Lafitte's parasol-carrying paramour. Lending the requisite romantics between the disappointing action scenes, Inger's modest singing talents were also put on display with her airy soprano rendering of "Barbara Allen," an old English-American folk tune.
DeMille tried to strike gold twice by reuniting, as unlikely allies, his Ten Commandments male stars. Despite the inimitable Yul Brynner (sporting a dark head of hair) as the posturing pirate king, and a Moses-like Charlton Heston as the 45-year-old, silver-haired General Andrew Jackson, The Buccaneer was a critical misfire and Tony Quinn's directing ambitions ended with it. DeMille's trademark touches here are obvious with unshakeable strains of Ten Commandments throughout, from its grand mounting and Technicolor photography to its deferential casting and Elmer Bernstein's score. At the Academy Awards show of 1959, Inger made a brief appearance on stage showing off one of her gorgeous 19th century outfits designed by Oscar-nominated Edith Head.
Inger's passionate affair with the married director Quinn wreaked havoc on her as it's end brought on an acute bout of depression. According to Patterson's biography, Inger once remarked in an interview that when actors work together an involvement can easily occur both on and off the set. "When the cruise is finished," she lamented, "the romance may linger, but the relationship seems to shift and change. You tell yourself you'll never fall in love that way again, but it happens. . . ."
This destructive pattern continued while on loan for her fourth film, MGM's end-of-the-world drama The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1959) starring singer Harry Belafonte in an impressive dramatic role. The unusual story, which has a three-person cast, reunited Inger with her Man on Fire producer Sol C. Siegel and writer/director Ranald McDougall. The fascinating premise has underground miner Ralph Burton (Belafonte) as seemingly the only person to survive a nuclear attack in New York. The early exteriors shots of Belafonte scouting out signs of human life in an utterly desolate New York City are awe-inspiring and disturbing.
Halfway through the picture Belafonte comes upon another survivor, Inger's lovely Sarah Crandall (who survived by staying in a decompression chamber after the first alert), and an intriguing but uneasy relationship occurs. When another survivor (Mel Ferrer) surfaces as an imposing third wheel, the film begins to lose its focus and quickly nosedives into impractical melodrama. The film raised some racial issues that then seemed to evaporate. The first half or so, however, is still worth the price of admission and Inger was quite moving in a difficult and challenging role.
While the actress' on-camera movie heroines thus far were often shown suffering at the hands of a man, whether victims of fractured romances, unrequited love or physical aggression, a real-life tragedy began to unfold. Inger's latest affair, this time with the married Belafonte, ran its usual torrid course but now it was all starting to catch up with her. What followed was a near-fatal suicide attempt from which she was not expected to recover. Inger had swallowed an overdose of pills shortly after New Year's Day in 1959, but by sheer luck she was found in time after friend David Tebet, a senior Vice President at NBC, became concerned after the actress failed to show up at a dinner engagement and then could not be reached the entire next day.
By this point it was clear her addiction to on-set affairs had become extremely destructive. Promiscuous relations with people who, in fact, care little or nothing for you are all to common among people like Inger who suffered a lack of emotional nurturing from her parents in childhood. These affairs were especially dangerous because after the film wraps and the actors go their separate ways, Inger once again was faced with reliving all the painful feelings of the breakup of her family in childhood. It was as if the "solution" to her emotional problems was instead building to a deadly explosion of all the pain she had suffered as a child. She was, in effect, trying to put out the flames by dousing them with gasoline.
Following her recovery, the actress began an intense period of self-examination with a new drive. Refocusing intently on her career, she actively returned to TV. It became a highly productive period as she starred in what would become one of The Twilight Zone's more famous episodes. In 1960's "The Hitch-Hiker," Inger plays a young motorist traveling cross-country, who is stalked and terrified by the same hitchhiker wherever she goes. Elsewhere on TV, Inger shared touching scenes with sensitive hulk Dan Blocker on the first season of Bonanza, and went on to grace episodes of Checkmate, Route 66, and Zane Grey Theatre, as well as a second Twilight Zone.
Broadway welcomed her back with the femme lead in Roman Candle, which debuted on February 3, 1960, at the Cort Theatre. The three-act comedy by Sidney Sheldon, who won an Oscar for writing The Bachelor and the Bobbysoxer before creating TV's I Dream of Jeannie, co-starred Robert Sterling and Julia Meade. Inger plays a girl with extra sensory perception who becomes entangled with both a top-secret missile program and a handsome scientist. The welcome back was very short-lived. The comedy was dismissed by both critics and audiences and closed after only five performances.
Another close call with death occurred in June of 1961 while on an extended European vacation. Following a visit to her Swedish homeland, Inger continued on with stops in Rome, Paris and Lisbon. While attempting to land in Lisbon, her plane bounced off the runway and skidded with its nose gear collapsing, sparking a fire that quickly spread to the passenger cabin. Inger was one of the last passengers to exit the plane before it exploded minutes later.
An exceptional TV role came her way opposite Peter Falk in "The Price of Tomatoes," a 1962 episode of The Dick Powell Show. She co-stars as a very pregnant Romanian girl, on the run from immigration authorities, who is befriended by truck driver Falk. Both stars earned major kudos for their touching portrayals, including Emmy nominations. Falk, whose role was originally intended for Dick Powell himself, was an Emmy winner; Inger, however, lost out to Julie Harris' queenly portrayal of Victoria Regina.
Back on the comedic stage in a Chicago production of The Voice of the Turtle, Inger went on to replace Barbara Bel Geddes in the New York smash Mary, Mary where she earned the best Broadway reviews of her career. Always keeping visible in the public eye, she appeared readily as herself on such fun-oriented TV game and variety programs as Truth or Consequences, Your First Impression, You Don't Say, What's My Line? (as a guest panelist replacing Arlene Francis), Virginia Graham's Girl Talk, The Today Show, The Tonight Show and The Merv Griffin Show. Many of these appearances were prompted by her upcoming starring role in a prime time series.
The Farmer's Daughter was thinly based on the disarming 1947 RKO film starring Loretta Young and Joseph Cotten, but completely reworked to suit Inger's gentler comedic instincts. Taking over for the Oscar-winning Young as Katy Holstrum, the naive but attractive Swedish governess who wins over Washington D.C. (where the series was filmed), Inger worked with William Windom co-starring as Katy's boss, Congressman Glen Morley, originally played by Cotten. Having completely lost her Swedish accent a long time ago, Inger quickly recaptured it for the show, which premiered on September 20, 1963, and was an instant success.
Inger played no diva cards despite being the show's top draw. She was compassionate, thoughtful and highly giving to both cast and crew. Veteran character actress Cathleen Nesbitt, who played Windom's mother on the show, was frail and arthritic. Inger generously saw to it that Ms. Nesbitt's scenes were filmed first each day as the elderly actress was easily fatigued. Inger often did her own make-up and never balked at less-than-pleasurable conditions or situations that arose. Bill and Inger often played little gags on each other in order to lighten up any tension on the set. Once she recalled deliberately eating an onion sandwich just before shooting one of their kissing scenes.
TV audiences adored Inger and her popularity soared. During the show's run she could be found making personal appearances and granting interviews for TV Guide as well as all the many popular fan magazines. Moreover, the blonde bouffant beauty became the pitchwoman for Clairol's hair products on the show. It was a joyous and productive time for her despite the hectic scheduling and admitted lack of privacy.
Her film output, however, was a different matter. At odds with Paramount years back after she turned down the female lead in the 1960 film Key Witness, Inger bought out her contract in an expensive settlement agreement. She finally returned with Columbia's formula hospital drama The New Interns (1964) after a five-year big-screen absence. Earlier she had lost out to Marilyn Monroe for the lead in The Misfits and the coveted role of Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany's, which went to Audrey Hepburn and was a particular disappointment. This sequel to The Interns (1962) smartly retained several members of its original ensemble, including Michael Callan, Stefanie Powers, Kaye Stevens (erroneously billed in the movie as "Kay") and gruff veteran Telly Savalas.
With several multi-issue subplots (rape, sterility, etc.) interwoven throughout, Inger, in typical nice girl form, plays Nancy Terman, a naive young social worker who finds romance with Italianate Tony Parelli, a loose cannon intern and one-time gangbanger (as played by George Segal, who is "introduced" here). Inger's most intense scenes involve her kidnapping and subsequent rape by three members of Segal's former gang and the subsequent catatonic shock in its aftermath. Geared for the younger set, The New Interns did not stir up any new movie offers for the actress.
Inger's natural warmth and incandescent beauty was on full display in the TV travelogue Inger Stevens In Sweden, an informative panoramic look at her native country. Helmed by director/actor Don Taylor, who was simultaneously directing Inger on The Farmer's Daughter, the documentary began filming in September 1964 and aired in February of 1965. Among the noted Swedish interviewees were actor Max Von Sydow, former boxing champ Ingemar Johansson, songwriter/singer Evert Taube and Prime Minister Tage Erlander. Director Ingmar Bergman was a scheduled guest but the camera-shy icon later declined. Whether riding a bicycle as she explored famous historic and cultural landmarks or conducting interviews with everybody from the rich and famous to your average on-the-street commoner, Inger was the epitome of the perfect hostess.
The Farmer's Daughter was a change-of-pace comedy role for the actress, who went on to earn a Golden Globe award and Emmy nomination during its three-season run of 101 episodes. In addition, she and The Fugitive's David Janssen were recipients of the TV Guide Popularity Poll as "The Favorite Male (Female) Performer of the Year." The sitcom completely relied upon the relaxed charm and chemistry of its two stars as the show's comedy approach was relatively tame. Expectations of romance between Katy and the Congressman kept loyal viewers glued to the set.
While the steadiness of a TV series was inviting, Inger did comment in a 1964 radio interview that it openly affected her social life. "I have learned to appreciate my free time and I've learned to utilize it very well. And you appreciate your friends more when you don't see them so much, I think." In the same interview she cited other creative ways she expressed herself. She enjoyed oil painting and making/wiring lamps out of glass and copper or brass tubing.
As viewership declined into the second season, the producers of The Farmer's Daughter decided to have the two beloved TV characters finally declare their love for each other in order to bolster the ratings. An estimated 28 million fans watched Katy and Congressman Glen finally marry on November 5, 1965. Plot-wise, however, the show had no place to go and the ratings once again plummeted. The last original episode aired on April 22, 1966, while reruns continued until September.
As a famous TV star, Inger was now in the position to raise awareness for her various humanitarian causes. She sponsored art exhibitions to benefit special needs children; did volunteer work for various health centers; and was the Chairman of the California Council for Retarded Children, which hit particularly close to home. Inger's Aunt Karin, who bore two children with severe disabilities, chronicled her experience in a Swedish memoir "The Child in the Glass Ball". In 1966 the California governor would appoint Inger to The Advisory Board of the Neuropsychiatric Institute at UCLA, an honor given for her pronounced dedication to working with mentally-disadvantaged children.
The actress's high-profile TV status had other perks too. Her long dormant film career began to rev up again. A string of movies came along within a three-year stretch and, in an effort to break away from her wholesome image, she consciously sought out roles that would emphasize her maturing sensuality.
Inger manages to show real grit in the first movie to come along, the Civil War vengeance tale A Time for Killing (1967). The film's alternate title was The Long Ride Home, which was also the name of Eddy Arnold's tune during the opening credits. Distributed by Columbia, the film starred Glenn Ford and a heavily-bearded George Hamilton as Union and Confederate adversaries. Inger plays both a missionary and POW camp commander Ford's bride-elect who is kidnapped by Rebel escapees as Ford and his men give chase. Inger's brutalized Emily Biddle is key to the film and she manages several highly affecting moments. A very young Harrison Ford (no relation to Glenn) can be spotted in his first credited movie part as a Union lieutenant.
Next came the excellent TV-movie The Borgia Stick (1967) that paired the actress with handsome, square-jawed Don Murray. In this fine cat-and-mouse chase drama, Don and Inger are perfect in their faux husband-and-wife roles as two crime syndicate pawns who fall in love, then try to extricate themselves from their covert existence. Often underused as a love interest, Inger gets to better display her dramatic talents here. One eerie scene occurs at the beginning of the movie in a funeral parlor where Murray and Stevens are laid out in caskets.
One wishes that the actress had made more movies like 20th Century-Fox's A Guide for the Married Man (1967), the only comedy in her modest film repertoire. She is at her sunniest and most vibrant here playing Ruth Manning, the practically perfect suburban housewife unsuspecting of hubby Paul's (Walter Matthau) roving eye. While a hidden sadness seemed to permeate so many of Inger's movie characters, it was a joyous change of pace to see the actress show off her flair for the fun, lighter side.
Directed by Gene Kelly and co-starring an excellent Robert Morse as the worldly buddy who schools Matthau in the art of philandering, the film is highlighted by a series of star vignettes featuring the likes of Jack Benny, Lucille Ball, Sid Caesar, Jayne Mansfield, Joey Bishop, Terry-Thomas, Polly Bergen, Carl Reiner, et al., who demonstrate Morse's various cheating tactics—both successful and disastrous. The absurdity of it all is that the floppy-looking Matthau in no way rates Inger, whose figure is placed on dazzling, bikini-clad display here and who (to this writer) is sexier than Sue Ane Langdon, tawdry Elaine Devry, and the rest of the distaff cast. Critic Robert Windeler called the comedy, "One of the funniest films of the last several seasons."
With subtle shades of High Noon thrown in for good measure, Firecreek (1968) is a downbeat drama that pits pacifist James Stewart, a farmer and reluctant sheriff, against laconic but lethal outlaw Henry Fonda. The latter is on the lam with his kill-for-hire gang of freebooters (Jack Elam, James Best, Morgan Woodward and baby-faced Gary Lockwood) and wreaks terror on the lethargic little town that won't stand up for itself until Stewart is jolted out of his cowardice. Inger appears in a secondary role as a lonely boarding house owner who connects briefly with the equally forlorn Fonda. The climax is worth waiting for and Miss Stevens plays an unexpected part of it. Reviews were mixed. While Judith Crist thought it a "satisfyingly low-keyed and absorbing western," the Massachusetts Film Bureau (MFB) called it a "cramped and clumsy western (that) grinds to a standstill in its attempt to give (Firecreek) symbolic status." In any event, Inger is overshadowed in this picture by the male-dominated histrionics.
The same holds true with Hang 'Em High (1968), Clint Eastwood's first homemade American spaghetti western since hitting international superstardom in Italy. It provides solid entertainment but Inger again takes somewhat of a backseat as an embittered lady on a long-standing mission to find the men who murdered her husband and brutally assaulted her. Primary focus lies with the squinty-eyed, rope-scarred Eastwood running down an illegal posse for his near hanging. While Inger shares a couple of tender moments as nursemaid to an ambushed Eastwood and engages in a brief but lyrical love scene, it's Eastwood's movie. Hang 'Em High had the largest United Artists opening in history at the time and was given top-notch reviews by critics alike, including Arthur Winsten of the New York Post who called it, "A western of quality, courage, danger and excitement."
Likewise, in the gritty Universal crime drama Madigan (1968), Inger is given only a couple of scenes as the vulnerable, disused wife of a Brooklyn detective (Richard Widmark) who is briefly tempted into the willing arms of fellow detective Warren Stevens. Unneeded for any of the New York exterior filming, Inger's interior scenes were all shot in Hollywood. Auteur critic Andrew Sarris from The Village Voice once again championed director Don Siegel by calling the picture, "the best American movie I have seen so far in 1968." Widmark's character was resurrected (sans wife) in the rotating 1972 TV series NBC Wednesday Mystery Movie that included Banacek and Cool Million.
Judith Crist deemed Paramount's revenge western 5 Card Stud (1968) "so mediocre you can't get mad at it." Gambling stud Dean Martin (who sings the lackadaisical title tune), fancy-shootin' preacher Robert Mitchum and typically snide Roddy McDowall offer what interest there is. Directed by veteran Henry Hathaway and shot on location in Durango and Mexico City, Mexico, the film is reminiscent of William Dieterle's Dark City (1950) with its Ten Little Indians "whodunit" plot but ultimately lacks its style. Inger is shortchanged once again as brothel owner Lily Langford who seems to be around solely to trade sexy repartee with Dino. The most newsworthy item was the off-camera affair Inger had with Martin. This one lasted longer than usual after the film's shoot, but sadly, Inger obviously had learned nothing from her past mistakes.
Inger turned platinum blonde and replaced a pregnant Eva Renzi in the hip and stylish European chase thriller House of Cards (1968). This Universal picture has her playing the constrained widow of a wealthy French general who hires nomadic writer/adventurer George Peppard to tutor her son, then joins him in the rescue of her boy after he is kidnapped by Fascist villain Orson Welles. The plush Roman and Parisian locations add greatly to the Hitchcockian intrigue and accentuated Inger's own sophisticated beauty. One exotic scene has the two stars wading in the romantic Trevi Fountain in Rome stealing coins in order to buy food. What should have been an exciting experience turned into an unpleasant, shiver-inducing ordeal that took an exhausting eleven hours, and over a three-consecutive-night period, to complete.
Chicago's "Greektown" is celebrated in the ethnic drama A Dream of Kings (1969), a film that reunited Inger with old Buccaneer flame Anthony Quinn. The movie itself, distributed by small-scale National General and directed by Daniel Mann, has a spirited, Zorba-like Quinn playing Matsoukas, the owner of a foundering counseling service, who breaks from the community's moral code attempting to come up with enough money to take his terminally ill son to Greece. With Irene Pappas excellent as his plain, suffering wife, a very breakable Inger Stevens makes all her scenes count as Anna, an emotionally frozen baker's widow, who is temporarily thawed out by Quinn's lust for life and lust for sex. Alex North's flavorful score was a standout, and Leonard Maltin praised the film's vivid look and style along with its heart-rending story while once again singling out Inger by calling her work "exceptional."
With locations filmed in Chicago, A Dream of Kings was scheduled for only eight days of shooting but extremely bad weather extended it to three weeks. As for Quinn, despite their scorching love play in the film, the reunion itself was uneventful and didn't seem to trigger any emotional red flags. Little did anyone know that Inger's outstanding contribution to A Dream of Kings, one of her finest in years and one that might have been a contender for Oscar had it received better distribution, would be her last.
Unwisely turning down Jane Fonda's Oscar-nominated role in They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (she later confided to a friend, "You can't win 'em all, but then I don't try to!"), but wisely turning down the lead in Song of Norway (1970), a movie musical mistake that eventually starred singer Florence Henderson, Inger began to entertain thoughts of broadening her horizons. With ideas of directing or perhaps screenwriting, she also wished to devote more of herself to outside interests, particularly her work with special-needs children. On that same track, she went into a decorating and antique business venture with a friend and called the enterprise "Stevens and Cardini, Interiors and Design," located in Hollywood on La Cienega Boulevard.
Following her expeditionary work searching for a precious Ethiopian mask in the mini-movie adventure The Mask of Sheba (1970, with Walter Pidgeon and Eric Braeden, Inger began filming a second TV-movie, Run, Simon, Run (1970), that starred Burt Reynolds as a formerly imprisoned Papago Indian who seeks vengeance against his brother's killers. The tense tale has Inger's well-to-do social worker falling for Reynolds and aiding him in his valiant search. An ensuing whirlwind fling with the virile, handsome Reynolds occurred during filming and their affair would run hot and cold.
Things were looking very promising for Inger in mid-April of 1970. She attended the local Emmy Awards on Saturday the 18th looking as beautiful and fashionable as ever. On top of this she was excited about a prospective new fall TV series in the offering, her first since The Farmer's Daughter. On the sad side, burlesque star Gypsy Rose Lee succumbed to lung cancer on April 26. Having appeared with Miss Lee in summer stock during the early years, Inger more recently had been a guest on Lee's TV talk show. She decided to attend the memorial service. On April 28, character veteran Ed Begley also passed away. Begley appeared with Inger in the westerns Firecreek and Hang 'Em High.
A day earlier, on Monday, April 27, Inger and Burt Reynolds had dinner with their Run, Simon, Run producer Aaron Spelling and his wife Candy, at La Scala restaurant. The actress was in excellent spirits and had every reason to be as they were celebrating her signing up for Spelling's new TV series set for September. Zig Zag (which was renamed The Most Deadly Game when it premiered) co-starred Inger with George Maharis and Ralph Bellamy as three highly skilled criminologists who solve unusual murders. Promotional trailers and teasers of the three were filmed in preparation, with actual shooting to begin on June 1st.
It was not to be. On the morning of April 30, 1970, the actress was discovered on the floor of her kitchen by her housekeeper. Pronounced dead at Hollywood Hospital, Inger's cause of death was listed as "acute barbiturate intoxication." For all intents and purposes, her death appeared to be a suicide but William Patterson's book does offer substitute theories.
Following her passing, it came out in the tabloids that Inger had been secretly married for nearly a decade to African-American Ike Jones (they wed in Tijuana, Mexico on November 18, 1961). Jones, five years older than Inger and a former U.C.L.A. athlete turned musician, actor, writer and producer, was once a part of Nat King Cole's entourage and later produced the Sammy Davis Jr. film A Man Called Adam (1966). The career backlash suffered by Mai Britt after her marriage to Sammy Davis was reason enough for Inger and Ike to keep their union under wraps. They never attended premieres or public functions together and denied all persistent rumors of marriage throughout the decade. The relationship was fraught with tension and was marked by long separations. At the time of Inger's death, they had been estranged for some time.
The shock of Inger's untimely death was widespread. Her suicide just did not seem to gel with her on-screen sense and sensibility. Unlike the opaque and artificial Monroes and Mansfields of her generation, Inger appeared genuine and far too intelligent and unpretentious to ever fall into a blurring, destructive fusion of fact and Hollywood fantasy. Among those who commented was Anthony Quinn, who stated, "She had idealism and purity, and maybe she came to a sort of desperation. The great competitiveness and phony sense of accomplishment we have here can be very destructive."
Inger herself was very candid about her dissatisfaction with the Hollywood game. "A career can't put its arms around you," she once lamented. "You end up like Grand Central Station with people just coming and going. And there you are, left alone." In a chapter dedicated to her in Kirk Crivello's book "Fallen Angels", Inger is quoted as saying, "Once I felt that I was one person at home and the minute I stepped out the door I had to be somebody else. I had a terrific insecurity and extreme shyness that I covered up with coldness. Everybody thought I was a snob. I was really just plain scared."
With no public funeral services held, according to her wishes, mourners at her May 4 memorial service included director Leo Penn, and actors Peter Falk, Beau Bridges, Jack Warden, France Nuyen, Marge Redmond and Shelley Morrison, in addition to several family members. Excerpts from friend and Hollywood columnist Ben Irwin's eulogy summed up the actress most appropriately: "[She was] essentially a hopeful and gay human being capable of imparting that to others . . . For that really was what Inger was about—honesty and love. And she spent her life working harder than most of us practicing the first and living the second." Jerry Lam, the primary contributor to her on-line memorial website, adds: "Inger remains a gifted actress, an unforgettably beautiful woman and a kind, caring human being who lives on in our memories. The years since her untimely death have done little to diminish the impression she left us—Her legacy has touched our lives."
The year 2011 marks the 41st anniversary of Inger's death. Her contributions to Hollywood are so much more than the personal tragedy that befell her. A strong and consummate dramatic player as well as light comedienne, Inger Stevens deserves to be remembered in a better and more encouraging light.
Author's Note: My personal thanks to the late biographer William Patterson for sharing his knowledge and information with me via e-mail exchanges, and to Jerry Lam who contributed several positive notes and wonderful photos for this article.