Tevis graduated from Model High School in 1945 and entered UK after serving in the Pacific Theater during World War II. While a student at U.K., Tevis worked in a pool-room and published a story about pool written for A. B. Guthrie's writing class. After being awarded a Masters degree by U.K., Tevis wrote for the Kentucky Highway Department and taught school in Science Hill, Hawesville, Irvine and Carlisle and then at Northern Kentucky University.
He was an English literature professor at the University of Ohio from 1965 to 1978, where he received an MFA. He wrote seven books, three of which were basis of major motion pictures: The Man Who Fell to Earth (1963), The Hustler, and The Color of Money (1961). He also wrote Mockingbird (1980), Far From Home (1981), The Steps of the Sun (1983), and The Queen's Gambit (1983).
He was a nominee for the Nebula Best Novel award in 1980 for Mockingbird.