Early Years and Education
Alexis Smith moved with her family to Los Angeles when she was a year old. As a child, she took ballet lessons and became a trained dancer. At age 10 she won a dance school championship, and at 13 she made her professional dancing debut. She also began acting at age 10, performing in summer stock theatre in her early teens and in school productions while attending Hollywood High School. She danced in a production of Carmen at the Hollywood Bowl and won a statewide acting contest.
After graduating from high school in 1938, Smith enrolled in the theatrical training program at Los Angeles City College, where she studied under influential acting coach Jerry Blunt and graduated with a degree in drama. A talent scout for Warner Bros. saw Smith in one of the school’s theatrical productions and signed her to a long-term contract in 1940.
Smith made several minor, uncredited screen appearances before landing a leading role opposite Errol Flynn in Dive Bomber (1941). Over a period of almost two decades, Smith starred in more than 30 romantic dramas, adventure films, comedies and Westerns. She was paired with such legendary leading men as Clark Gable, Humphrey Bogart, William Holden, Cary Grant and Fredric March. Among her most noteworthy films were Gentleman Jim (1942), The Adventures of Mark Twain (1944), Conflict (1945), Rhapsody in Blue (1945), Night and Day (1946), the remake of Of Human Bondage (1946), The Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947) and The Turning Point (1952).
Often cast as the alluring “other woman” or the wife of the leading man, Smith often received good reviews for her performances, even in films that were not critical or box office successes. In an era of demanding Hollywood divas like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, Smith was popular with directors, fellow actors and film crews because of her relaxed manner on set. British actor Dirk Bogarde described her as “Fun, professional, loyal and courageous.”
Of this period in her career, Smith later said, “In those days I was fresh out of school and delighted to be a movie star… Besides, I was pretty much a utility girl at Warners. Anything Ann Sheridan or Ida Lupino or Jane Wyman didn’t want to do, I sort of fell heir to. You know, people frequently feel it was a shame Warner typecast me, but I don’t believe that. I believe I typecast myself. I wasn’t creative. Certain creative people — John Garfield, Bette Davis, Olivia de Havilland — didn’t allow Warners to do that to them. So I don’t blame the studio at all.”
After Smith’s contract with Warner Bros. expired, she made several films with Paramount Pictures in the 1950s. In 1959, she returned to Warner Bros. to star opposite Paul Newman in The Young Philadelphians. During filming, she suffered severe injuries in a horse-riding accident and decided to retire from the movie industry. By that time she had become an American citizen and was married to actor Craig Stevens.
During the 1960s, Smith appeared in a handful of TV series and performed with Stevens in several theatrical productions. In 1971, she made a stunning comeback in Stephen Sondheim’s hit Broadway musical, Follies. Her performance earned rave reviews, and in an issue that featured her picture on the cover, Time magazinedeclared, “Alexis Smith is the living, dancing refutation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s axiom that there are no second acts in American lives. At 49 she is in the best second act of her life.” Smith received a Tony Award and a New York Critics Award for Follies. She received another Tony nomination for her performance in the 1978 Broadway show Platinum.
Smith returned to film in 1975, starring opposite Kirk Douglas in Once Is Not Enough and co-starring with Martin Sheen and Jodie Foster in the Canadian tax shelter thriller, The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (1976).She toured American and Canadian cities as a nightclub entertainer and made guest appearances on such television shows as Marcus Welby, M.D. and The Love Boat. She had a recurring role in the popular drama Dallas and received an Emmy Award nomination for a guest appearance on the sitcom Cheers in 1990. Smith also appeared in the action-comedy Tough Guys (1986) with Douglas and Burt Lancaster. Her final film role was opposite Daniel Day-Lewis and Michelle Pfeiffer in Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence (1993), which was released shortly after Smith’s death from brain cancer.