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Interview

Roping Talent

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Who he is: The head of the Stevens Group, which represents actors for film, television, and commercials, who has spent 50 years in the business, from child star to casting director to agent. Above all, he said, he is a cowboy "every day of the week."

His early days: Stevens moved to Los Angeles from Corpus Christi, Texas, when he was 13 years old. He immediately got a job, shining shoes and selling newspapers on the corner of Hollywood and Vine. Some of the clients that picked up his papers included Humphrey Bogart and Clark Gable.

His life as an actor: Stevens was a working actor before becoming an agent. At 13 he snuck into the studio where they were shooting the anthology series Fireside Theatre and met director Frank Wisbar. "He was this crazy German director, he wore the beret, the boots, and carried the riding crop," recalled Stevens. Wisbar was screaming at a child actor who was struggling with a scene. "For whatever reason, I piped up and said I could do it." After the scene the AD found out Stevens didn't have a work permit. "He introduced me to an agent on-set," said Stevens. "He took me home, got my mother to sign some papers, took me downtown, got me a work permit, rushed it through, and I did four more shows for them."

His turning point: Stevens was a series regular on the television show Mr. Novak when he got the call to do his own pilot. "We had negotiated a deal and I was set to do the pilot, and, for whatever reason, the head of the studio had somebody else they wanted, didn't communicate this to anybody, and hired them. I was out," recalled Stevens. "I quit that day." With a $50 bill in his shoe, Stevens left Los Angeles and thumbed it across the United States for a year. "I hopped freights, worked on farms. I was just so upset that it literally broke my heart." At this point Stevens considered becoming an agent. "I realized that an actor has no control over his own life," he stated. "He's got to rely on his agent, an agent has to rely on casting, casting has to rely on the producer, the director, the network, the studio head. You're at the bottom of the food chain."

In 1963, at age 23, Stevens gave up the vagabond life after getting thrown off trains and beat up in a hobo jungle. "I realized I'm not a character in a movie and I'd better get my life together," he said. He contacted the agent from his child star days and went to work for him. His clients were a mixed bag: They included a 45-year-old stripper, a circus pinhead, and a fat lady. It helped that Stevens already knew all the casting directors in town, but some of them tried to get him to read for parts when he was pushing his clients. "I asked them to respect the decision I had made," said Stevens. "It took a couple years before they stopped asking me."

Thoughts on his profession: "I kind of regard being an agent as a poker game," Stevens philosophized. "Your clients are your chips, and you ante up, and you have to know when to back off and when to play your hand." Stevens loves the freedom his job gives him. "I don't have to represent somebody I don't want to represent, and I don't have to deal with someone I don't want to deal with," he stated. And the acting training comes in handy. "Everyday I act—trying to convince a casting director my client is the best one for the job."

Career highlight: Stevens spent seven years as a casting director before returning to agent work. Four of these years were spent exclusively with George C. Scott. "Everything he directed on film, I cast," said Stevens proudly. "That's the personal highlight of my career. There are a lot of wonderful people that I've had the opportunity to work with in my life, but I found him very, very special. He's a man's man, a talented guy, a genius. We just connected and hit if off."

Career lowlight: As a casting director, Stevens was forced by a producer to hire an actor who was absolutely terrible. When the head of the studio demanded to know who cast her, the same producer blamed Stevens. "I went to his office to confront him and, well, we got into a fistfight," Stevens admitted. Who won? "It doesn't matter because it was a lose-lose situation."

His clients: Over the years, Stevens has represented classic stars, including Bobby Darin, Alan Hale, and Chuck Conners. "So many of them become good friends," he noted. "Most of my clients die off on me. When a client passes away, it's easy to replace, but when a client is a friend, you can't." Stevens said he loves all his clients and considers himself more than just an agent to many of them. Richard Kiel, best known for his appearances as the villain Jaws in two James Bond movies, is a longtime client. "He's not only a good agent but my friend," stated Kiel, who recalled how Stevens stood by his client, actor Doug McClure, through McClure's alcoholism and subsequent comeback to his battle with cancer. "Steve was with him every step of the way," said Kiel. James Doohan, best remembered as Scotty from the original Star Trek, has been with Stevens for 26 years. "Steve goes above and beyond the call of duty," said Wende Doohan, Doohan's wife. Stevens often accompanies Doohan to autograph signings and is by his side every step of the way, from the plane ride to the convention. Stevens and his wife, Rosemary, are the legal grandparents of the Doohan's 2-year-old daughter. "I trust him with my career and my family," said Doohan. "I'd never leave him."

"I think we're both on the same page in terms of feeling a responsibility to be ethical in business and that's very rare," said Kiel. He praised Stevens for getting him a part in Happy Gilmore, shortly after Kiel had been in a serious car accident and was having problems with his balance. "He was very honest and managed to get them to accept that they could use me but would have to work with that." As a result, viewers may notice that Kiel is constantly leaning on "everything and everyone" in sight.

What he looks for in actors: "I'm looking for talented actors," emphasized Stevens. "I don't care what they look like, what color they are, if they're male or female, young or old. Talented people—that's all that I want to represent. I feel that talent always wins out in the long run. For whatever reason, character people work better for me. I've never been good with what the industry would call 'pretty people.' Character actors can work forever, and that's what I prefer."

Office of two: The Stevens Group is made up of only two people—Stevens and his son, Steve Stevens Jr. There isn't even a receptionist. "When a client calls the office, I want them to be able to talk to somebody that can answer a question." Stevens said his office gets about 1,500 submissions a week. "We go through every single one of them. If we like the look of someone, I don't worry about the resumé or even if they're SAG."

His passion: All of Stevens' spare time is dedicated to being a coach for the Special Olympics Equestrian Athletes—training special needs children to ride horses and even compete in events. "Sometimes I don't know whether I do it for them or for me," said Stevens. "I don't think I could get through the week without working with these wonderful, special athletes." Stevens said he's been working with challenged children all his life in one way or another. "For whatever reason, I'm able to connect with them," he said. "I get down on my hands and knees and I eyeball them and treat them as an equal, and it works."

A cowboy's life: Stevens has been riding and roping all his life. His son is a Professional Rodeo Cowboy's Association (PRCA) rider. "We're not a golf and tennis family, to say the least," said Stevens. "I'm a cowboy all the time. I don't own a pair of shoes; I wear boots. It took the industry awhile to get used to it, but I'm not going to pretend to be something that I'm not."

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