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The Mystery Was the Point: On the Life of Dean Stockwell (1936-2021)

The year was 1982. David Lynch was in Mexico, in the end stages of preparations for "Dune." One day, a guy, slim and pale, with intense eyes, showed up at the studio commissary, and made his way over to Lynch. The stranger introduced himself, saying he was an actor, he loved Frank Herbert's book, and he wondered if there was a part for him in the movie. Lynch, shaken up by the encounter, apologized and said the movie was already cast. Then John Hurt dropped out of "Dune." Lynch remembered the encounter and put out the call, offering the role of Doctor Wellington Yueh to the man who had approached him. Much later, Lynch confessed to Dean Stockwell, "If I looked a little strange when you walked into the commissary, it was because I thought you were dead.”

Dean Stockwell, who just died at the age of 85, was not offended. He knew a lot of people felt that way. "I thought you were dead" is indicative of just how far out of the business Stockwell was in the 1970s and early 1980s. Once upon a time, he was ranked the #1 child actor in America. He wasn't just a cute kid playing small parts in one or two scenes. Like Elizabeth Taylor—one of his classmates in the "little red schoolhouse" on the MGM lot—Dean Stockwell was a star, with featured roles in movies like "Anchors Aweigh" (his second film), "Gentleman's Agreement" (where he and John Garfield walk off with the movie), "The Boy with Green Hair" (an anti-war film with a memorable poster), "The Secret Garden" (where his temper tantrum scene with Margaret O'Brien is worth the price of admission), and "Kim" (where he went toe-to-toe with Errol Flynn). He also played Nick and Nora Charles' son in "Song of the Thin Man" and had the great honor of being spanked by William Powell. David Lynch, who remembered that beautiful child, looked at the 40-something man who approached him in Mexico, trying to put the pieces together. Why wasn't Dean Stockwell still in the movies? Why weren't directors casting him left and right? Where had he been all this time?

That's a long story. Stockwell's life featured multiple "disappearances," some of which were involuntary, but some of which were conscious choices. He was born in California in 1936 to artistic parents, performers but not really "in the business." His mother, Nina Olivette, had a career in vaudeville before settling down to have children. His father, Harry Stockwell, was a singer who did musical theatre (he was also the voice of the Prince in "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs"). A scout for MGM saw child Stockwell in a play and arranged for a screen test. Stockwell was signed to a seven-year contract. His second movie was "Anchors Aweigh," where, opposite Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra, he glimmered with cuteness and innocence, totally lacking the irritating over-trained precocity of most child actors of the era. Dean Stockwell seemed real.

By the time he was ten years old, he was supporting his entire family. He viewed his contract as a prison sentence. He hated acting. When his contract was up, Stockwell walked away. He was 16. He hadn't had a childhood or a proper adolescence. He wanted to make up for lost time. This was the first "disappearance."

In the mid-‘50s, he was ready to return, and Stockwell's timing coincided with the sudden death of James Dean, when the industry cast around desperately for the next sensitive-rebel-icon. Stockwell was a candidate, and he was offered the role in a potential James Dean "biopic" (which he turned down, sensing, correctly, that it would be a lose-lose project). By this point, Stockwell had blossomed into a beautiful young man, with Montgomery Clift's dramatic coloring, pale skin, thick black hair. Due to Stockwell's later mainstream success, this period—from 1957 to 1962—is often overlooked, and it's one of the most interesting phases in his career.

He did a lot of television, much of which is worth seeking out (“Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” “Johnny Staccato,” “Wagon Train,” “Twilight Zone”). He also made a few good movies: "The Careless Years" (1957), an angsty "Splendor in the Grass" precursor, where he is the personification of 1950s teenage sexual frustration; "Sons and Lovers," Jack Cardiff's adaptation of the D.H. Lawrence novel; and 1959's "Compulsion," a telling of the Leopold and Loeb story with Stockwell as one of the young murderers, and Orson Welles as the fictionalized Clarence Darrow. Stockwell had played the role on Broadway, and his performance is a tightly coiled masterpiece of nerves, snotty superiority, and barely controllable feelings of the love that dares not speak its name for his conspirator (Bradford Dillman). Stockwell brings an unexpected tragic component of stifled romanticism and homoerotic closeted angst to his horrific amoral character.

In 1962, he was cast as Edmund Tyrone in Sidney Lumet's film adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night, alongside Katharine Hepburn, Ralph Richardson, and Jason Robards (Robards reprising the role he played on Broadway. In the "it's a small world" category, Bradford Dillman played Edmund in the same production.) Mary/James/Jamie Tyrone are dazzlingly difficult roles, but Edmund is one of the most challenging for an actor, because it seems like he doesn't do all that much. Dying from tuberculosis, Edmund spends much of the play sitting on the side, drinking, as the other three characters monologue at one another. Actors playing Edmund often forget that listening is as active as speaking, but Stockwell understood that implicitly. His quiet presence in every moment of every scene is crucial to the tragedy unfolding around him. Watch his face when Hepburn slaps him. He quivers with anguish and betrayal, suddenly seeming like a small child.

Stockwell walked away again in 1965. He wanted to throw himself into the social and sexual upheaval roiling around in the culture, so he made the obvious choice: he moved to San Francisco. He still worked, but intermittently. One film from this time is well worth seeking out: Richard Rush's hippie psychedelic classic, "Psych-Out," with Susan Strasberg, Jack Nicholson, and Stockwell (billed over Nicholson). Stockwell plays the guru-like Dave as a chilly observant outsider, whose eyes gleam in such a way that people are drawn to him, but there's a heartlessness there too, a heartlessness showing the void at the center of all that peace-and-love. It's a fascinating performance, and predictive of what he would bring to the table as the terrifying Ben in "Blue Velvet."

After that, Stockwell's career dried up. Nobody remembered his fame as a child. Nobody remembered "Compulsion" or "Long Day's Journey." Now he wanted to get back to work, but all the doors were closed. Stockwell moved to New Mexico. He got his real estate license. He did dinner theatre and television movies, on occasion, and he was extremely memorable on a couple episodes of “Columbo.” There were some oddball movies, none of which moved the career needle but which are to be treasured nonetheless: the loopy "The Dunwich Horror," Milton Moses Ginsberg's "The Werewolf of Washington" (fellow RogerEbert.com critic Simon Abrams and I had a virtual discussion about our shared love of "Werewolf" for the Metrograph restoration/release of the film), and Henry Jaglom's haunting anti-Vietnam film "Tracks," with Stockwell and Dennis Hopper (besties in real life) riding a train across America.

Years passed before Stockwell made the bold move to approach David Lynch at that commissary in Mexico. "Dune" didn't get him back into the industry. What did that was Wim Wenders' dreamlike "Paris, Texas." Another one of Stockwell's longtime pals, Harry Dean Stanton, recommended him for the role of the brother. The film got a lot of critical attention, and Stockwell was finally in the conversation. He got some very good, albeit small roles: he's sleazy with fake suntan and pinkie ring in "To Live and Die in L.A." and “Miami Vice” fans remember very well his performance in the season two episode "Bushido."

But it was David Lynch, again, who put Stockwell on the map, not just for 1985, but for all time, by casting him as Ben in "Blue Velvet." Stockwell appears in just one scene which culminates in him lip synching Roy Orbison's "In Dreams" in one of the scariest rooms in history. Everyone remembers that scene. Stockwell told Julian Schnabel in a 1990 interview for Interview magazine: "The character really just came out of my imagination and out of a desire to make him more extreme than Dennis' character, who was the weirdest antagonist ever in a film. I was the guy he looks up to and admires—black-on-black." But there was another inspiration for Ben, which shows Stockwell's trust in his own imagination: “You know that thing that I do with my eyes [in 'Blue Velvet']? Carol Burnett had a character of this super snooty woman and she was always like this. I stole it and I told her one time and she laughed her head off when I told her.” Every choice Stockwell made—the mostly sleepy half-closed eyes, the way they suddenly open wide, showing the whites, like a shark (or like Carol Burnett), the eyebrows lifted in disdain, his lips twisted up in a mild snarl, the unexplained ominous bandage on his hand—was designed to highlight the strangeness of the character, and his potential for unpredictable danger. Stockwell had no desire to explain the mystery. The mystery was the point.

After "Blue Velvet," time sped up again. Great directors remembered him now. Francis Ford Coppola used him twice: "Gardens of Stone" and "Tucker: The Man and His Dream," where he is riveting in his one scene as Howard Hughes. Tony Scott put him in "Beverly Hills Cop II." And then Jonathan Demme cast him as the mob boss Tony 'The Tiger' Russo in "Married to the Mob," which allowed Stockwell to be funny, broad, ridiculous (smoking a cigar wearing a pointy party hat), and for which Stockwell received his only Oscar nomination.

At the pinnacle of his new success, Stockwell shocked everyone by signing up to do a television series called “Quantum Leap.” Television didn't have the cache it does now. “Quantum Leap” creator Donald Belisario remembered: "When somebody said to me, 'Would you like Dean Stockwell to play the part of Al?' And I said, 'What are you kidding me? Dean Stockwell?' He had just done 'Married to the Mob'—it was a big film hit!" For perspective: this was just seven years after Lynch told Stockwell, "I thought you were dead." Stockwell himself said, "A dear friend of mine, Dennis Hopper, said, 'Well, that’s the end of his career' when he found out I was going to do a series. And Dennis, who is almost always right, was wrong."

“Quantum Leap” played for five seasons (1989-1993), and there are those who are still angry that the network pulled the plug. (Even with the show's unexpected cancellation, it has one of the most moving finales in television, where the great Bruce McGill—who also appeared in the “Quantum Leap” pilot, albeit as a different character—embodies the more spiritual aspects of show's concept.) Those five seasons cast a long shadow. Mention “Quantum Leap” on Twitter, and people will come out of the woodwork to express their fondness for it. For years there was talk of a reunion, or even a movie, but it wasn't meant to be.

“Quantum Leap” depended wholly on the chemistry between the leads, Scott Bakula and Stockwell. These two very different actors had the kind of chemistry creators and producers hope for but can't manufacture. In each episode, Bakula's "Sam"—a scientist with the body of a “Baywatch” hunk, is "quantum leaped" into a person in another era who needs a problem solved, a wrong made right. At the control is Real Admiral Al Calavicci (Stockwell), an eccentric ladies' man who shows up periodically as a hologram, always wearing some bizarre (and unexplained) outfit, and often called away mid hook-up. Stockwell, with his gravelly voice, ubiquitous cigar, lusty rapacious grin, is charming in an old-school Rat Pack kind of way, but the character was deepened by the finale to season two, when it is revealed that Al—who had been MIA in Vietnam for five years and presumed dead—came home to find that the love of his life and had moved on and found someone else. The heartbreak Stockwell showed, the authentic tenderness, was even more touching because of the contrast with his tough wisecracking demeanor.

Stockwell said he didn't enjoy acting until “Quantum Leap.” Being good at acting was more like a curse for him than a gift. He didn't have a childhood because of it. He didn't get to rebel or explore or develop because of it. Stockwell's newfound joy of acting, in improvisation and off-the-cuff creation, is one of the reasons “Quantum Leap”—even with some of the now-quaint special effects—is still so compulsively watchable. He said in an interview included in the “Quantum Leap” box set, "I mean, there are some actors, I don’t know how they do it, they’re lucky—they get in these big movies, and they have scenes at the beginning, and here, and there, and next thing you know they’re in Hawaii or somewhere for six months, on the same movie, picking up a check every week. Never happened to me! But 'Quantum Leap': five years. It was very unique in my career, and I’m very very proud of it."

His work after “Quantum Leap” was steady and reliably excellent. He's hilarious in Robert Altman's "The Player," where he and Richard E. Grant play a writing duo, following Tim Robbins around peppering him with story ideas. The scene where the two men finally get five minutes to pitch their movie is high comedy, both getting so swept away by their pitch they are almost in tears. In the final scene, Stockwell watches silently as Cynthia Stevenson's character flips out, crying and yelling at everyone in the screening room. He asks, to no one in particular, "Who is this person?" It is a brutal commentary on all we have just seen. He reunited with Jonathan Demme for "The Manchurian Candidate" (where he has one closeup that's among the best work he'd ever done). He was a regular on the television series “Jag,” and then joined the cast of “Battlestar Galactica,” where a whole new demographic of fans discovered and embraced him.

His lifelong friendships—with Dennis Hopper, Jack Nicholson, Neil Young—were creative partnerships in many ways. He collaborated with all of them, most notably with Neil Young: Young's album After the Gold Rush was inspired by a screenplay Stockwell wrote, and 1982's "Human Highway” was Young and Stockwell's shared brainchild, and starred one of Stockwell's little-red-schoolhouse classmates, Russ Tamblyn. In the '50s and '60s, Stockwell was heavily involved in the Los Angeles art scene (featured in the documentary "The Cool School"), and he continued to make and show his art—collage, assemblage, photography— through his long life. If all of this weren't enough, Stockwell took a photograph of California artist Wallace Berman which is included in the collage on the Beatles' famous Sgt. Pepper album cover.

Stockwell came a long way from gleaming adorably up at Frank Sinatra in "Anchors Aweigh," from writhing around as William Powell spanked him, from ripping down the curtains around his bed in "The Secret Garden." He came a long way from his uptight gay murderer in "Compulsion" and his gorgeously tubercular Edmund Tyrone in "Long Day's Journey." He came a long way from Lynch's "I thought you were dead." He lived long enough to be able to not just appreciate but feel the love that people had for him, the way audiences fell in love with him for 70 years. 70 years! There aren't too many careers out there like Dean Stockwell's. Again: mention him on Twitter, and you will be overwhelmed by people calling out his excellent “Columbo” episodes. People remember.

Stockwell stuck around long enough for acting to become not just something he happened to be good at, but something he loved.

We are all richer for it.

Sheila O'Malley

Sheila O'Malley received a BFA in Theatre from the University of Rhode Island and a Master's in Acting from the Actors Studio MFA Program. Read her answers to our Movie Love Questionnaire here.

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