"Dean Stockwell, Celluloid Survivor"
by David Keeps
Arena, November/December 1988
Dean Stockwell is checking in on a cellular phone from the set of his latest picture – very Hollywood, to be sure, but about the only way to reach the chap who's appeared in some of the finest films of the late Eighties. "It's called Limit Up," he says of his latest venture, "and I'm playing a very powerful soybean trader in Chicago." A tofu kingpin? Could be the most normal character yet for the actor who began his career as a child in the Forties starring in pictures like The Boy With Green Hair and recently registered shock waves playing Dennis Hopper's drug dealer in Blue Velvet. Now, with back-to-back triumphs playing Howard Hughes in Coppola's Tucker and comic Mafia don Tony "The Tiger" Russo in Demme's Married To the Mob, Dean Stockwell is easily as busy as he was as a contract player for MGM some 40 years ago (he signed when he was seven).
"My father was in musical comedy and my brother Guy, who is two and a half years older than me, was already acting," he explains. He attended school with the likes of Elizabeth Taylor and Margaret O'Brien, but wasn't particularly impressed with the work he and they were doing. "When the camera was running it was just go and do what I can do and then get the hell out of there."
That's exactly what he did, leaving Hollywood behind as a teenager and finding solace in anonymity. When he discovered that odd jobs were as meaningless as he previously deemed the actor's life to be, Stockwell resurfaced on acclaimed television dramas of the Fifties and made his Broadway debut playing one-half of the real-life preppy murder team Leopold and Loeb. The film version of the play, Compulsion, re-established his credentials, landing him in literary films like Lawrence's Sons and Lovers and O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night.
Despite the acclaim, Stockwell remained ambivalent about his craft. "I found it very difficult to come to terms with the fact that I was doing something that might be credible in any way, I still hadn't adjusted to the fact that I had a career."
That, of course, only contributed to his longevity. "Yeah, well I've had good fortune too. I've had my periods of lean years too." That included another period of self-imposed exile from La-La-Land in the mid-Sixties. "I just called my agent and said I didn't want to work for three years. That was a very beneficial period for me. It represented some of the aspects of childhood that I had missed working as a child. It was freedom of expression, and creativity and love, a type of benevolent anarchy and self-discovery that I still think is great."
He was not, however, third-time-lucky. "I went through a period from 1969 to 1982 of classic struggle, maybe being lucky and getting one guest television shot a year or a little independent movie that just turned to dust on me. It was difficult in a way that every man can understand: being out of work, frustrated and trying to fight getting bitter about it. I moved to New Mexico when I got married to my wife Joy and decided to raise a family. The minute I moved, things started happening."
Offers for work flooded in from everywhere but Hollywood. A chance meeting with David Lynch in Mexico led to a role in Dune, and a couple of friendly drinks with Harry Dean Stanton evolved in a fraternal onscreen relationship in Wim Wenders' Paris, Texas. "It's the same thing that's happened to my dear friend Dennis Hopper. Both of us have confounded the odds-makers and made it back. You know, we're best friends, a lot of our vision of life is closely aligned." That relationship fuelled their onscreen intensity in Blue Velvet and will no doubt surface in the Hopper-directed Backtrack which stars Hopper, Stockwell and Jodie Foster. Stockwell also has another shot at playing a gangster in the upcoming Palais Royale. Meanwhile he's been improving relations with the media. "I've done a ton of PR for Married To the Mob," he boasts good-naturedly. "In New York alone I did 50 TV interviews in a day. Any chance of a cover?"