Radiating aristocratic sophistication and beauty, Alexis Smith started her career on the stage and some argued that was the medium where she left her most lasting impression. However, the imposing Canadian-born starlet was featured in a number of notable motion pictures during her 1940s and '50s heyday, including "The Constant Nymph" (1943), "Night and Day" (1946), "Of Human Bondage" (1946), and "The Woman in White" (1948). She was often cast as rather aloof, upper-class characters, though her image softened somewhat following an appearance in the Bing Crosby musical "Here Comes the Groom" (1951). When opportunities became scarce for her in the late 1950s, Smith concentrated on stage work and, with careful preparation, opened up a whole new chapter in her career. Although she had done summer stock at various times in her life, Smith's sensational turn on Broadway in Stephen Sondheim's musical "Follies" (1971-72) gave her a major third act boost and a Tony Award for Best Actress. She continued in productions like "The Women" (1973), "Summer Brave" (1975), and "Platinum" (1978), while also accepting the occasional movie or television assignment. Remembered fondly by fans of both film and live theatre, the glamorous Smith was able to move beyond the limitations of contract player casting and took steps to ensure that she had sufficient opportunities to display her abilities as both an actress and a singer/dancer.
Alexis Smith was born Gladys Smith on June 8, 1921 in Penticton, British Columbia, Canada, though her family moved to the United States when she was still quite young. Smith grew up in the Los Angeles area and it was clear early on that she was gifted. By age 10, the girl could play the piano proficiently, and upon entering her teens, Smith's singing and dancing talents could be viewed on stage in "Carmen" at the Hollywood Bowl. As the Smith family strictly adhered to the tenets of their Presbyterian faith, she was not allowed to date until age 16. By that point, Smith had added elocution to her talents, winning a state competition in that field. While acting in a Los Angeles City College presentation of "The Night of January 16th," Smith was spotted by a Warner Brothers talent scout and offered a spot on the studio's roster. After a series of small, uncredited appearances, she had her first significant cinematic assignment in the World War II thriller "Dive Bomber" (1941), while "The Constant Nymph" (1943) gave Smith her first lead part, alongside French romantic idol Charles Boyer. Other notable early credits included "The Adventures of Mark Twain" (1944), where she played the wife of master writer Samuel Clemens, and "The Doughgirls" (1944). In 1944, she wed fellow thespian Craig Stevens. The two would perform together on several occasions and their marriage ultimately lasted almost five decades, virtually unheard of among their Hollywood peers.
Smith's career continued apace with the Jack Benny fantasy farce "The Horn Blows at Midnight" (1945), "Conflict" (1945), "Of Human Bondage" (1946), and "Night and Day" (1946), where she played Linda Lee Porter, wife of legendary composer Cole Porter. By that point, she had an established persona as the somewhat cold "other" woman or standoffish society lady, save for an occasional change-of-pace outing like "Stallion Road" (1947), where she dressed down as a horse rancher. Smith was lauded for her dramatic performance in the period mystery "The Woman in White" (1948) and MGM borrowed the actress to star with Clark Gable in the drama "Any Number Can Play" (1949). By the end of the decade, Smith was feuding with Warner Brothers over the movies she was being assigned. She parted ways with the studio and entered the 1950s as a freelancer doing summer stock. Smith earned praise for her turn as Amanda Prynne in a 1951 production of Noel Coward's "Private Lives" and the Bing Crosby musical "Here Comes the Groom" (1951) offered her a chance to display some comedic skills. She traveled to England to star with Dirk Bogarde in the film noir thriller "The Sleeping Tiger" (1954) and began to accept small screen work, appearing on several of the era's live anthology programs. In addition, Smith co-starred in the Bob Hope dramatic vehicle "Beau James" (1957) and shared the stage with Stevens in a Palm Beach staging of "King of Hearts." However, as middle age approached, acting offers dried up and "The Young Philadelphians" (1959) proved to be her last motion picture for more than a decade.
Although she was absent from the big screen, Smith accepted occasional stage roles, including a 1968 revival of "Cactus Flower," where she was once again paired with her husband. However, that part of her career did not take off until the actress decided to take the David Craig course "The Actor as Singer." Following a half-year of instruction, she made her Broadway debut in Stephen Sondheim's musical "Follies" (1971-72) and the play's smash success made Smith a desirable commodity once more. She was soon cast as Sylvia in a revival of "The Women" (1973), though the production closed after only two months. She returned to movies as a bisexual socialite in the notorious turkey "Jacqueline Susan's Once is Not Enough" (1975) and was back on the Great White Way in the comedy "Summer Brave" (1975), an ill-advised revision of William Inge's "Picnic" that lasted a mere 18 performances. Regardless, Smith remained busy as a headliner at Walt Disney World's Top of the World supper club and headed back to her native Canada for the lurid thriller "The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane" (1976).
Smith made a final trip to Broadway in 1978 for the musical "Platinum" (1978). The play was a major flop, closing after less than a month, but her work was highly praised and resulted in a Tony Award nomination for Best Actress in a Musical. She also headlined a traveling production of "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas" as proprietor Miss Mona, which enjoyed a lengthy run of more than a year. Television also figured prominently during that time, including several episodes of "The Love Boat" (ABC, 1977-1986) and a regular spot on the short-lived mental hospital drama "Hothouse" (ABC, 1988). Smith also began an intermittent part on "Dallas" (CBS, 1978-1991) and received an Emmy nomination for her guest outing in an episode of "Cheers" (NBC, 1982-1993). A national stage tour of "Pal Joey" gave theatregoers another chance to appreciate her musical talents and Smith joined fellow Golden Age veterans Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster in the caper comedy "Tough Guys" (1986). Her last film appearance was a supporting role in Martin Scorsese's lovely adaptation of Edith Wharton's "The Age of Innocence" (1993). She succumbed to brain cancer on June 9, 1993, the day after her 72nd birthday.
By John Charles