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The Dentist Student Turned TV Private Eye

Sep 05, 2018

By Dean George

“I’m just a very fortunate fellow I feel to have had the life that I’ve had.  I could have been playing golf every Wednesday in Kansas City, having been a dentist.” – Craig Stevens

Craig Stevens isn’t the first person we’ve featured in this space who planned a career in dentistry, only to take a different path when the temptress fate whispered in his ear and provided a helpful suggestion.

Nor is he the first actor to abandon dental mirrors and curettes for stage lights and celebrity fame. Unlike Edgar Buchanan though, who left an active dental practice to appear in  more than 100 movies and television shows over 35 years, Craig Stevens was merely attending dental school when the acting bug bit.

Early Days

Craig Steven was born Gail Shikles, Jr. in Liberty, Missouri in 1918.  Little has been reported about his boyhood growing up as an only child, and his humility discouraged him from writing his memoirs during his golden years. 

We know his father Gail Sr. was a high school teacher, principal and coach who served in the Kansas City school system for 46 years.

Gail Jr. was a good student, and at 6’2” he also excelled at athletics where he played both football and basketball. After taking pre-dental school classes while earning his bachelor’s degree at the University of Missouri-Kansas City in 1936, Gail planned to pursue a career in dentistry. 

Dental school was put on hold though, when the legendary University of Kansas coach, Phog Allen, offered Gail a basketball scholarship when he chose to continue his education and focus on attaining a degree in drama.

Son of a Gun

Admittedly shy and reluctant in public, the senior Gail persuaded his son to take a college course in public speaking to help overcome his natural shyness. The public speaking professor at the university was also the school’s drama coach, and while working with Gail, Jr., persuaded him to perform in seven college plays.

A talent scout from Paramount saw Gail during one of those plays and arranged for a screen test. Within his first four months after signing with Paramount, Gail played in a handful of uncredited roles (one was Mr. Smith Goes to Washington), and adopted the screen name Craig Stevens.

A Paramount talent coach believed Craig had tremendous potential but advised him to return to the theater to continue learning his craft.

“I listened to him; now why I did, I don’t know because young people don’t normally do that,” he with a smile during a 1993 televised interview.

During World War II Craig served in the Air Force and continued honing his acting chops while serving his country by making a series of military short features from his California base.

Craig’s, aka Gail’s, willingness to work stock theater paid off when a Warner Brothers talent scout saw him three years later and offered him a contract. A short time later he appeared in his fist credited movie, Dive Bomber, in 1941.

This was the second movie in which he worked with his future wife, Alexis Smith, although the two shared no scenes and were just friends at the time. The couple later wed in 1944 and were married 49 years before her death in 1993.

That was the first of 140 credited roles Craig Stevens earned over a stellar 49-year movie and TV career. Of all the roles he played up until his final TV appearance in 1988, the elegant and suave actor was forever known by an iconic role in a three-year TV series that ran from 1958-61.

Top Gun

A groundbreaking series created by Pink Panther movie director Blake Edwards, Stevens played a well-dressed private detective and ex-cop whose hair and clothes were always well coiffed.  He drove a sporty convertible with a car phone (in 1959!), often met his clients at a jazz club called Mother’s and was the epitome of cool.

His character was modeled loosely after Mr. Debonair, Cary Grant.

The series still airs today on some classic TV channels and was notable for several reasons: it was the first televised detective program whose character was created for television. It also introduced the popular 1940’s film noir style previously seen only in Hollywood movies to the small screen, including “long shadows, dark streets and a private eye with a nose for danger and the heart for only one woman.”

Finally, the show’s theme song was nominated for an Emmy Award and won two Grammys for its’ composer, Henry Mancini.  The Peter Gunn Theme is still recognized today and has been performed by scores of jazz, rock and blues musicians over the years.

In a 1993 TV interview Stevens expressed amazement that people still recognized him over three decades after the show originally aired.

A Fortunate Life

“They still remember me, it’s amazing,” Stevens said. “I run into people that think I’m still doing it (the show).  It’s just unbelievable that that stays alive.”

When asked during the 1993 interview why he never wrote a book, the unassuming actor just shrugged, as if to say he never saw the need.

“I’m just a very fortunate fellow I feel to have had the life that I’ve had,” he said.  “I’ve traveled all over the world, I’ve worked with some of the most brilliant talents in writing, directing and acting. That would never have happened to me.”

“I feel terribly fortunate, and I was married to the most lovely lady you could ever want to be married to.”

Kudos to Craig Stevens on a fantastic Hollywood and TV career, and for a life well lived. But forgive us for thinking he would have been one heckuva dentist.

Thanks for reading Agent Straight-Talk and if your looking for clues on how to solve your dental whodunit, follow us on FacebookTwitterPinterestGoogle+ and LinkedIn.

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Copyright 2018, Bloom Insurance Agency, LLC©

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