"A Mob Hit"
by Pope Brock
Rolling Stone, May 4, 1989
Whether or not you liked David Lynch's Blue Velvet, you probably remember its weird-off between Dennis Hopper and Dean Stockwell.
"When I first read Blue Velvet," says Stockwell, "here was Dennis's character, Frank Booth, so unforgivably black and psychologically villainous. And now he's going to visit MY character, who is someone that he looks up to. So it occurred to me that this Ben had to be fucking stranger than Frank."
Ben wound up as strange as all get out, wearing white makeup while inflicting pain on a helpless college student, cooing and lip-synching. Although Stockwell's comeback had begun by then (with roles in Dune and Paris, Texas), it was this performance that recharged the actor's movie career and helped make him – following in the tracks of his close friend Hopper – a Hollywood survivor. Today, at fifty-two, he has received a National Film Critics Award and a New York Film Critics Award, has been nominated for an Academy Award for Married To the Mob and has the peacefulness of a very experienced man. Like the Chavelo cigars he favors, Dean Stockwell burns cool.
His career is thriving now with an upcoming TV series for NBC, Quantum Leap, and a cluster of films released in the last year: Tucker, Married To the Mob and the forthcoming Canadian feature Palais Royale. In the first, he plays the crackpot industrialist Howard Hughes. In the other two, he plays gangsters. Or maybe one gangster twice.
"There's not much difference," says Stockwell of his work in the Jonathan Demme comedy and the Martin Lavut comedic film noir. Even the scheduling was a blur: Although Demme's picture came out last fall, Palais Royale (due this month) was actually shot first. Stockwell had only a three-day break between finishing up one humorous mobster and starting the other.
"I had a choice to make about the Married To the Mob character, Tony 'the Tiger' Russo," says Stockwell. "Should I play him differently from the Palais Royale character just because I'm going to be criticized if I don't? I said, 'Fuck that, it's the same character, I'm going to do him the same way.'"
As a man interested in steady employment, Stockwell also decided to keep it a temporary secret that he was doing much the same part in two movies, lest he blow himself out of the new project. "I didn't want to tell the Canadians I was going to do the same role in a more major American film," he says. "And I didn't want to tell Jonathan that I'd just done it there."
Asked for an evaluation of Palais Royale (which he has not seen), Stockwell says, "I will be shocked if Palais Royale is as good as Married To the Mob, because Married To the Mob is fucking wonderful."
His jaunty turn as Tony "the Tiger" Russo, a Mafia don finger popping to the "Burger World" jingle, has been highly praised. There is a lot of gusto in Stockwell's work now, but not because he is getting famous. He has been famous before.
Becoming a movie star must be easier than people think; Stockwell has done it three times. Thrust into acting by his parents, he made his chipmunk-faced debut in Anchors Aweigh, with Gene Kelly, at the age of seven. Between 1945 and 1951, Stockwell made seventeen films for MGM. Among the more memorable is the antiwar fable The Boy With Green Hair (1948), in which young Dean cries, "I want to be like everybody else!"
"That line had a lot of irony for me even then," says Stockwell, who as a child star felt like a freak. He endured some peculiar torments, too. The green-hair wig gave him a scalp infection that lasted a year. On the set of Kim (1950), Errol Flynn fed him camel dung. Meanwhile, every other kid in America, it seemed, was out playing ball. At sixteen Stockwell abandoned Hollywood for five years, roaming the country under a different name, doing odd jobs.
Lonely, skilled only as an actor, he returned to the movies in 1957 as a young leading man. You couldn't call his lacquered performances of that era – in Compulsion, Sons and Lovers, Long Day's Journey Into Night – great acting. Unlike the volatile Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift, he basically connected the dots. Introverted off screen as well, Stockwell dodged interviews and photographs and soon vanished from the business again, this time into the West Coast counterculture of the Sixties.
Great times. "I was attracted by the idea that life could have a freedom in it that I'd missed in my childhood," he says. "And I always had this dream of belonging to something." So the young outsider embraced the communal life of a high-echelon hippie, hanging out in Topanga Canyon wit Hopper, Jack Nicholson and rock stars. Between drug trips he did some writing; Neil Young's 1970 album After the Gold Rush was largely inspired by an unproduced screenplay of the same name co-authored by Stockwell. It was the story, not surprisingly, of a sensitive and troubled young hippie.
Eventually, Stockwell tried to jumpstart his acting career for a third time. No luck. For more than a dozen years he appeared in schlock movies like The Werewolf Of Washington and in Las Vegas dinner theater.
Finally he wound up in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with a license to sell real estate.
So why is Dean Stockwell, after all that hard travelling, a star again? David Lynch cast him in Dune after somebody else dropped out, but a sympathetic director alone doesn't explain his renaissance. Stockwell himself shrugs and attributes it to fate, or maybe to his more relaxed outlook. "You're dealt a hand, that's it," he says. Stockwell is living in Brentwood, California, now, anchored in a good marriage, with two towheaded kids, ages five and three. His greatest pleasure, however high his movie career reaches, may be knowing that he's just like everybody else.
Or at least close. David Lynch is currently shopping a script called Ronnie Rocket around Hollywood. "It's surreal," Stockwell says, "much farther out than Blue Velvet." And the movie has another pungent role in it for him. Like Brando's part in Apocalypse Now, "it's an evil archetype who comes on at the end," Stockwell says. "David has already cast me twice in dark roles. He sees something in me.
"I prefer lighter things. In fact, there are three other roles in Ronnie Rocket I would rather do." Confident of his range, Stockwell admits only that he couldn't play Ronnie – "a dwarf who runs on a power pack."