The character Inger plays in The Farmer’s Daughter is a naïve but attractive Swedish governess who wins over Washington, DC and when it initially premiered in September 1963, it was an instant success. Her hair was also a conservative light brown and styled.
The show proved that Inger was a gifted light comedienne even if there was canned laughter in the background of her heavily accented fish out of water witticisms. Those who worked with her on the show said she was no diva and that she was seen as compassionate, thoughtful and highly giving.
The Farmer’s Daughter peaked with the marriage of the title character to the character played by William Windom (1923-2012 congestive heart failure) and once this had occurred the series had nowhere to go and had to end due to falling ratings. There were 101 episodes of this series and its producers perhaps also hoped it would ground Inger with a lesson in settling down. She received a Golden Globe for her work in The Farmer’s Daughter as Best TV Star in 1964.
Of her success, Inger said in an interview: “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.” She also said she had found artistic outlets in oil painting and doing craftwork.
She also became socially conscious in that she was Chairman of the California Council for Retarded Children because her loving aunt Karin Stensland Junker (1916-2008), who had cared for her in Sweden for a spell, and who was a well-known actress and later writer, had given birth to two profoundly disabled children. Was this a reason why Inger chose not to have children? Or was it a botched abortion in her early life? Or perhaps she still hoped she could conceive after her two failed marriages?
She gave a good performance in one of the first tv movies ever made entitled The Borgia Stick (1967) in which she played a woman who hoped to leave the ‘company’ with her husband which is some sort of organised crime syndicate – alive.
“I wonder about you,” says her deep cover husband for the ‘company’, played by Don Murray, and Inger tenses up and is suddenly afraid of her past: “Where you came from… what you thought about as a kid?” Did her family’s past in Sweden where Nazism was tolerated during WW2 come back to haunt Inger again? At the beginning of The Borgia Stick, which goes into flashback, we see Inger in her coffin and someone comments: “Pity. She’s lovely.”
If Inger were being truly fitted for a coffin and her fidelity tested again on the big-screen, it came in a flurry of roles in films such as A Time for Killing (1967) which was Harrison Ford’s first credited appearance, a role in the all-star comedy A Guide for the Married Man (1967) where she seemed to be having fun being in on the joke of adultery again. Then came Firecreek (1968) with James Stewart and Henry Fonda in which she is overshadowed by the two stars. This happened again when she had a desultory role in the Clint Eastwood movie Hang Em High (1968). There was no reported affair with Eastwood.
“I’m not looking for ghosts,” says Eastwood to Inger’s character in the movie.
The Don Siegel movie Madigan (1968) gave her a small role and her career seemed to be going off the boil in terms of critical hits when she made 5 Card Stud (1968) which was “so mediocre you can’t get mad at it” according to critic Judith Crist (1922-2012). This western film starred Robert Mitchum (1917-97 lung cancer) and Dean Martin (1917-95 lung cancer and emphysema) with Inger as a brothel owner. She was playing the promiscuous role again and she carried on an affair with father figure Martin which by her earlier standards lasted longer than usual. But the fact she was playing the madam in the movie showed that in terms of Hollywood stardom… Well, it was going nowhere like her affair with the married Martin would also go. She was no longer the ingenue as younger girls eclipsed her in these movies.
But her most interesting performance out of this sudden burst of features came in House of Cards (1968) which used international locations and was set primarily in France. In this film, Inger is a prisoner of her rich in-laws in a family mansion that relives the past of their happy role as occupiers of Algeria by playing home movies of their old plantation in black and white. It is almost a kind of a metaphor for Inger’s family in Sweden during WW2 and their possible affiliations, and also one about Fascism in America and the racial divide as well as being about a woman and a country which may possibly lose their minds and freedom.
Inger’s character says: “When everyone goes to bed and turn out the lights – the bats begin to fly.” It is like Inger is talking about voices in a black mass which she cannot understand as she sleeps alone in bed with no one to hold her tight and whisper the sweet nothings she truly craved to hear. But later she says: “I’m not the least bit interested in being married again…”
House of Cards concerns a secret Fascist military plot which threatens to consume France and one of the evil family members which have control and dominance over Inger’s life in this film says they are concerned for her health since she is drinking and has had a previous breakdown. It is though she is forever threatened for her past sin of having a breakdown.
“I really don’t care that much,” says Inger drunkenly and is carried up to her room by her co-star George Peppard (1928-94 pneumonia and lung cancer). She tells him: “I had a breakdown. There was only one way to get out…” and she tries to drunkenly kiss Peppard.
From what I could gather, Inger was a shy girl and alcohol helped her in her later years to overcome that shyness. It was perhaps that strict Puritan streak of her father which she had to overcome within herself to let herself be free. It was a conflict within herself which she could never fully overcome and she remained shy when she really wanted to be a libertine and House of Cards gives her a limited chance to prove her acting chops in terms of The Method she learned all those years ago at Strasberg’s Actors Studio. However, the script and the direction, and perhaps even Inger herself, lets her and the film down on this occasion. The movie is interesting for its depiction of Fascist Americans who would rather have a gun than a sex life – and that being the possible crux of the lack of it in the first place – and it is probably one of the reasons why the film has had no proper release on DVD to this day.
“Sex and smut… the magazines and the movies… sex is exhausting and destructive. It can damage your nervous system and shorten life,” says one American Fascist dreamer who could rather play pool and drink than make love and not war.
Inger is warned about her career on the big screen and in real life also in House of Cards: “If you persist with these delusions, you will most certainly end up in the madhouse.”
The climax of House of Cards in the Coliseum in Rome kind of asks “Who’s your daddy?” and a scene where Peppard and Inger rob the Fontana de Trevi in the middle of the night, when they have run out of money, shows that this was meant to be a major and possibly classic movie but it instead failed. I think it is cult nonetheless.
One of Inger’s last appearances in feature films would be in the barely released The Dream of Kings (1969) with former lover Anthony Quinn doing another version of his Zorba the Greek (1964) character. Inger is an emotionally frozen widow who is temporarily thawed out by the married Quinn’s lust for life and lust for sex. There was mention of an Oscar for her work but the film didn’t make a ripple. I haven’t seen it.
After turning down Jane Fonda’s role in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They (1968) possibly to make the international journey of House of Cards during a busy year, Inger went into the antiques and decorating business for a short time.
It was then she made her finest tv movie and gave her most poignant performance in Run, Simon, Run (1970).
Inger plays a well-to-do social worker for native American Indians who becomes involved with an Indian who has been released from prison after a decade for a murder he did not commit. The murder of his own brother. The Indian is played by Burt Reynolds and his career was on the ascendent whereas Inger’s was once again in questionable territory. Really, she belonged on television where the big screen could not be cruel to her aging looks in a youth obsessed world. She was meant to star in another tv series The Most Dangerous Game aka Zig Zag – had she lived – for producer Aaron Spelling (1923-2006 stroke) who also produced Run, Simon, Run.
But Inger fell for Burt Reynolds in a whirlwind sexual liaison with the virile actor which is built into the script of Run, Simon, Run. The world was changing…
“The wise man makes his prison most everywhere he goes,” sings the title song to this movie and it is a line which can have many meanings for Indians, for the white man and even for women in terms of the straitjacket of society. “And like your father Simon your feet have hit the Earth” the song ends as it predicts the birth of a child for the main character played by Burt. And Burt’s character hits the Earth running in the film until he is hit by the accident waiting to happen which is the car driven by Inger.
“It seemed like a good idea at the time,” says Burt’s Simon upon getting involved with Inger when he gets into her car.
Inger seemed wise and almost maternal and incredibly beautiful in a mature fashion in this movie. She even looks better than she did a decade earlier in The Buccaneer. Yet she was also at an age where neurotic blonde beauties worried about their appearance to the point of suicide. Inger was 35 and Marilyn Monroe was 36 when she died.
But her character of the social worker in this film, who asks what it means to be an Indian in modern America, meets the immovable force of a stalwart Indian in the form of Burt and a possible sexual tryst within the confines of the clinical approach of a professional. Once again, Inger is caught between two worlds as Burt’s laugh is fully-fledged and sexually liberated in a flashback before his imprisonment. Contrast this with the repressed sexuality of Inger – unless she was drinking – and even then, she would have to sober up for the world and the cameras… and you get the idea that Burt and Inger could never be compatible in real life as well as on screen.
“Where did you sleep last night?,” Inger asks Bert, as if she is stalking. “I drove by.”
The script has a built-in obsession for Inger to latch onto as well as liberating her true character as a social reformer. Inger really cared for society and you can tell by her performance. Pity society didn’t care for her. Her character is ‘different’ in that she wants to help even if the Indians think she still thinks of herself as superior. It’s that key of shyness being mistaken for snobbiness. Inger seemed to carry it wherever she went.
There is a scene where a rabbit is a symbol of a man who loved his brother “more than I loved myself” as well as for a possible pregnancy test.
“I’ll kill my own rabbit,” says Inger as she turns anger inward towards herself after being spurned by Burt and men in general. Inger had issues about her own legitimacy as a child herself and the movie seems to try and help her see her worthiness as a social worker beyond her admiration of Bert. The ending was meant to be liberating and a catalyst for Inger.
Later in the movie, which goes into peaceful protest as well as the role masculinity plays among Indian men, Inger falls for the script and Bert: “I finally found someone I could care about” she says and there is an extreme close-up of their eyes which was rare for a tv movie at the time.
“There’d be no turning back,” says Burt to Inger about their possible relationship and there is a sense of all or nothing this time and a definite split between the movie and the reality of Burt and Inger pursuing true love. Inger fell for both Burt in the movie and off screen too.
“You’re beautiful, you’re bright, I think you have a good soul,” says Burt about Inger: “You are special and very different.” This celebration of an interracial relationship which was taboo back when Inger married her African American husband a decade earlier was something perhaps slightly more acceptable in 1970. But it was too late for Inger in that respect…. Just as Bert’s summing up of Inger as ‘special’ and ‘different’ is of the type by a man who is about to break the news to his date that they are not compatible.
The scene where she takes him to a social set dinner shows political correctness was rife back in 1970 and the movie is much better than run-of-the-mill tv movies of the day.
“Can you keep a secret? He doesn’t know yet but I’m very, very pregnant,” Inger tells a friend about Simon’s/Burt’s baby before he is killed at the end of the proceedings which leads back to the song at the beginning about Simon’s son hitting the ground running. It is almost like a vicious cycle – sadly, for Inger as well.
Near the end of the movie, Burt runs out on Inger and leaves her in tears… He’s got bigger fish to fry with a new tv series and a hit film with Deliverance (1972) on the horizon – or simply revenge in the movie Run, Simon, Run itself. Such is the predestination of the movie in the life of Inger Stevens. The coda for the movie has Inger caught between two worlds once more when she is initially refused entry onto a bus which is segregated and for Indians only. It is like her character in The Twilight Zone which finds she is dead and in some sort of limbo. They are Inger’s lifelong frustrations with race and death which personified and demonised her in both her public and personal lives.
The last days of Inger were tinged with tragedy as a few days before she killed herself a couple of father and mother figures in the forms of Gypsy Rose Lee (1911-70 lung cancer) and Ed Begley (1901-70 heart attack) died. She had worked closely with both of them. On the night between the deaths of these two performers, Inger and Burt and tv producer Aaron Spelling and his wife Candy had dinner at the fashionable La Scala restaurant in Beverly Hills. Both Burt and Inger had television series lined up for their futures and they were probably the subject of conversation. The truth is that Run, Simon, Run was the breakthrough role which Stevens needed and it was possible the 1970s may have seen a mature character like hers blossom. She looked the part.
The night she took her overdose, she cooked Burt dinner at her home and appeared to have consumed a bottle of wine or more as her blood alcohol reading was 0.17. Perhaps she was trying to get in the mood… Burt left her alone drunk and possibly feeling rejected as though it would be for the last time. She rang her personal assistant who said she couldn’t come around. Inger was left alone to her demons and unable to sleep she reportedly took up to fifty sleeping tablets. She was dead on arrival at hospital in the morning after she was found face down in her kitchen where she had so lovingly cooked up a storm for her lover the night before. Police found pictures of Burt covered by a rug as if it were some sort of statement about Inger knowing the real Burt beneath the rug, or toupee, he wore in Run, Simon, Run… Was it a uncaring or caring Burt? He was cleared of any wrongdoing.
Inger said in one interview: “A career can’t put its arms around you. You end up like Grand Central Station with people just coming and going. And there you are, left alone.”
Another interview: “I had a terrifying insecurity and extreme shyness that I covered up with coldness. Everybody thought I was a snob.”
Another theory is that Inger was murdered or the tablets were deliberately provided for her by someone. The personal assistant and hairdresser mentioned earlier called Chris Bone was interviewed on televsion with little or no eye contact in the late 1990s. Lola ‘Skip’ McNally/McNalley (1921-2001), rented a room from Inger and it was she who Inger pleaded to come home after her night with Burt. She was also a hairstylist. She was out the night Inger died and didn’t return home despite her pleas. Who did the sleeping tablets belong to? They weren’t the ones apparently prescribed for Inger. Lola said she found Inger in her negligee on the kitchen floor unable to speak and with a bandage on her bloodied chin and called the police. A violent and possibly murderous Burt? Chris Bone said in her later interview that she had turned up the next morning and went back home when she saw the police presence at Inger’s house knowing the worst had happened in terms of Inger’s possible suicide. Whose tablets were used?
The irony of Inger’s suicide in picking a date was that her death occurred on 30 April 1970 and she possibly took the tablets in the early hours of that day. It was the black mass of Walpurgis Night and also the 25th anniversary of the suicide of Adolf Hitler. Maybe she felt like she was a Nazi the way she had been treated. The date spelt the end for a shy Swedish girl had tried to assimilate in America but found only rejection and depression as a result of her adulterous relationships with men. Television offered her a distraction and a life lesson as opposed to the frame of the big screen but Inger fell back into her old habits and, ultimately, this led to her self-destruction. The seeds were sown by parents who didn’t really care about the baby they had accidentally conceived and who had to follow convention and marry as a result. Inger’s answer was to defy convention and have no baby at all in an interracial relationship. Her charity work for children with an intellectual disability showed a woman who cared far too much at a time when none else would.
PS Her estranged husband used part of her estate to establish a mental health centre in the poor district of Watts in Los Angeles.
PPS Thanks to Doug Schultz for providing some essential facts missing from an earlier version of this article…