Alexis Smith, the statuesque actress who appeared in films such as “Night and Day” in the 1940s and ’50s and made a comeback on the stage in a Tony Award-winning performance in “Follies,” died Wednesday. She was 72.
Smith died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center from cancer, said her husband, Craig Stevens.
She was still in college when a talent scout spotted her and got her a screen test for Warner Bros. Between 1940 and 1959, she appeared as lead or second lead in a string of films, including “Dive Bomber,””The Doughgirls” and “The Woman in White.”
Among her leading men were Clark Gable (“Any Number Can Play”), Ronald Reagan (“Stallion Road”), Errol Flynn (“San Antonio,” among others) and Jack Benny (“The Horn Blows at Midnight”).
But the high point of her career came later, a decade after she had more or less retired from the screen. In 1971, Smith scored a personal triumph in “Follies,” an ambitious Stephen Sondheim musical centered around the reunion of aging showgirls in a soon-to-be-demolished Broadway theater.
The performance won her a Tony Award as best actress in a musical.
Among the show’s highlights: Smith’s biting rendition of “Could I Leave You?” and her “Story of Lucy and Jessie.”
Raved Time magazine: “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. Her blue-green eyes catch the light and the audience’s rapt attention; her body seems beyond the aspiration of girls half her age.”
Her opinion of her movie career was decidedly humble. In a 1971 New York Post interview she admitted that she rarely watched her films because “they weren’t very good then, and I doubt they improve with age.”
But she said she shared the blame: “People frequently said it was a shame Warner Bros. typecasted me, and I don’t believe that,” she said. “I believe I typecasted myself… I was not that creative.” She cited people such as Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland who “didn’t allow Warner Bros. to do that to them. So I don’t blame the studio at all.”
She was in several film biographies: “Night and Day” (Cole Porter); “The Adventures of Mark Twain”; and “Rhapsody in Blue” (George Gershwin).
“I was always the wife of Cole Porter or somebody, the lady who sat in the audience and applauded the composer and who was never allowed on stage,” she said. “Of course, it was very frustrating. I had studied dancing all my life.”
More recently, Smith appeared on Broadway in another big musical, “Platinum,” in 1978. It was about a fading movie star who tried a comeback as a rock singer. She got great reviews — but the show was a bomb.
Smith was born in Canada and brought up in Los Angeles. She trained as a dancer and attended Los Angeles City College. It was there that a Warner Bros. scout spotted her during a campus theater production.