"Dean Stockwell: An Interview"
by Michael Buckley
Films in Review, January 1985
"Cannes is a good place for me," claims Dean Stockwell, shortly after PARIS, TEXAS (one of his two new pictures) won the Grand Prize at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival. He has twice shared acting honors at Cannes, with Bradford Dillman and Orson Welles for Compulsion (1959) and with Ralph Richardson, Katherine Hepburn and Jason Robards, Jr. in Long Day's Journey Into Night (1962). And it was there that he met his wife, Joy: "It was in 1976, at one o'clock in the morning, on the beach in front of the Carlton Hotel." Says Stockwell: "Between Paris, Texas and Dune (in which he plays Dr. Yueh), I think I've got a pretty good start on what amounts to a third career."
Our meeting takes place on the day before Paris, Texas is to be shown at the New York Film Festival, and Vincent Canby's Times review (10/14/84) will single him out for praise: "Mr. Stockwell, the former child star, has aged very well, becoming an exceptionally interesting, mature actor."
Some of the most enjoyable hours of my childhood were spent watching Dean Stockwell endure some of the most miserable moments of his – not that it ever showed on screen, he was too good an actor for that.
One of the most attractive and least cloying child stars, he's best remembered as the youngster who wants to join the Navy in Anchors Aweigh and the youth who journeys Down To the Sea In Ships; as Nick Charles Jr. in Song Of The Thin Man (last of the William Powell-Myrna Loy series) and Gregory Peck's son in Gentleman's Agreement (for which he won a Golden Globe); as The Boy With Green Hair and the boy with dark skin (while disguised) in Kim. "I couldn't wait to get pimples. I couldn't wait to get awkward," he writes in Dick(ie) Moore's book on children in movies, Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. "I ruined my posture. I did everything, just to get out of it."
Flash forward - from a Saturday matinee 34 years before to a Saturday morning at 10. Seated in the restaurant of the Mayflower Hotel, on Manhattan's Central Park West, is Kim grown up. Instead of playing Kipling's young hero, the still boyish-looking actor (who turns 50 on his next birthday) is actively participating in the real-life role of father – trying to interest 11-month-old Austin in a plate of mashed banana. "I'm letting his mother sleep," he explains, extending a handshake.
The man is a survivor, having avoided the fate of some other child stars who died of drugs or quicker forms of suicide. Gone are the problems that plagued his second career, the highlights of which were three films in which he played real people dramatized under pseudonyms: Compulsion (Nathan Leopold/Judd Steiner), Sons and Lovers (D. H. Lawrence/Paul Morel), Long Day's Journey Into Night (Eugene O'Neill/Edmund Tyrone).
Stockwell co-starred with another former child star, Roddy McDowall, in the stage version of Compulsion, which he prefers to the film: "The picture was watered-down, in effect, for the film-going public. The play (based on the thrill killing of a boy by Leopold and Loeb) was stronger. It got into the psychology of the two guys, in more detail and more depth. It had more guts to it." Time Magazine's movie review (4/13/59) lauded the other performances, concluding: "But it is Dean Stockwell . . . who dominates the drama."
Of Sons and Lovers, Stockwell maintains, "It's a classic film. It holds up – over a long period of time. It had a brilliant cast, and I feel it was a pretty damn good rendition of that book." Sons and Lovers headed the National Board of Review's 10 Best Films of 1960 list. It tied with The Apartment as the NY Film Critics Best Film. In his FIReview, Henry Hart wrote: "Rarely has so honest and meaningful a novel been turned into so good a motion picture." He noted, "Stockwell does things . . . an actor twice his age would be proud of," and added, "I think the thing about his performance that fascinated me most was his seemingly spontaneous use of bits of business which seemed to come . . . from his feeling for the character."
"Long Day's Journey Into Night," states Stockwell, "was as intense and rewarding an experience as I've had. It's a small cast, and one of the greatest plays of the century by one of the greatest American playwrights. We rehearsed it six weeks with a brilliant director, Sidney Lumet. I feel that the film is the best American film made from a play – that I've ever seen. There was no screenplay. Some cuts were made to make it feasible for a film – but nothing was transposed. It was very gratifying."
In the book, Kate, by Charles Higham, Sidney Lumet is quoted: "Dean would come in with a bottle of vodka, and Kate at first almost did what she did to him in the movie – struck him. She was so angry at him – out of love. But she was tender to him. The first day of work was cold, and he had forgotten to bring an overcoat. The next day, there was a coat in his dressing room; she had gone out after shooting and bought him one. She always had an enormous affinity for heavy drinkers – maybe because of Tracy."
The O'Neill classic, says Stockwell, "remains one of my favorite films. And Paris, Texas is certainly another. The film was put together and shot in a most unusual way. Sam Shepard, probably our leading playwright right now, wrote the screenplay. But, as we started, it was simply a synopsis, a breakdown of scenes – with no dialogue at all. At the time, Sam was shooting Country, which opened the New York Film Festival. Everyday, when he got through acting, he would type out dialogue for Paris, Texas."
The scenario was adapted (and a different ending devised) by L.M. Kit Carson. His son (by actress Karen Black), Hunter Carson, plays Stockwell's nephew in the film. Was the eight-year-old offered any words of wisdom by his on-screen uncle? "The only advice I gave him was that he would hear the term 'one more time, just one more' a lot. If a kid hears that, he thinks that will be it. Then, you do one more, and you hear it again. It used to drive me up a wall! Of course, Hunter heard it quite a bit, and he would look at me and smile."
Judging from past statements, one gathers that, as a child, Stockwell smiled only on cue. "I had no friends, except for my brother, and I never did what I wanted to do. I had one vacation in nine years." His brother, Guy, who also became an actor, "still appears on television," says Dean, "and he teaches acting in L. A."
In Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, Stockwell has particularly good words for the adult star of Kim: "There were uglies and there were beauties. For me, Errol Flynn was the best." He affirms the statement, adding, "I didn't know anything about sex or what manhood was – and he opened that door for me." Another of his co-stars, whom he neglected to mention in the book, was "Dick Widmark (Down To the Sea In Ships). I remember him with such fondness. He and Errol had something in common. They didn't have a condescending attitude. Being human and honest in a relationship seemed to mean more to them than anything else. It meant a great deal to me. I don't know if Widmark is aware of that. They were straight with me – like, I would imagine, a father would be to a son, if he loved and respected him. And I didn't have a father with me."
His parents, who separated when he was six, were Harry and Betty Stockwell. The father, an actor-singer, supplied the voice for Prince Charming in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs; the mother acted and danced in Broadway productions. "It's a miserable way to bring up a child," Stockwell has said of his early career, "though neither my parents nor I recognized it at the time."
The younger ("by two-and-a-half years") of two sons, Robert Dean Stockwell was born in North Hollywood on March 5, 1935. The year, usually listed as 1936, is correctly stated in the publicity material for Paris, Texas, and substantiated by a February 1946 article which terms him a 10-year-old.
His professional debut was in The Innocent Voyage, which premiered on Broadway (at the Belasco Theatre) on November 15, 1943. In the short-lived production, Dean and Guy Stockwell played John and Edward Thornton. Dean's one line was, "I won't be damned!" Following the play, Guy retired until adulthood; Dean, recommended by a talent scout to producer Joe Pasternak, signed with MGM.
Valley Of Decision (1945) in which he appeared as Paulie, was his first release; two months later, he had the larger role of Donald, Kathryn Grayson's nephew, in Anchors Aweigh. Most of his films as a child have blended into a blur. He recalls the names of movies, but not necessarily his roles in them. Mention of the last Thin Man film elicits the correct title (Song Of the Thin Man), but a vague "I played somebody's son; I was usually somebody's son." Told that he had been Nick Charles, Jr., Stockwell says, "Myrna Loy was nice."
He was lent to 20th Century-Fox for his third picture, Home, Sweet Homicide (1946), in which he played Archie Carstairs, brother to Peggy Ann Garner and Connie Marshall. Back to Metro, he was cast opposite Wallace Beery in The Mighty McGurk, a reworking of Beery's Oscar-winning role in The Champ.
As the young Robert Shannon (portrayed as an adult by Tom Drake) in The Green Years, Stockwell attained stardom. Charles Coburn received a third (and last) Oscar nomination as Dean's grandfather. The sentimental film, based on an A. J. Cronin novel, did not win favor with James Agee: "It has been described in the ads as 'wonderful' by everyone within Louis B. Mayer's purchasing power except his horses, so I hesitate to ask you to take my word for it: the picture is awful."
In 1947, Stockwell starred in a John Nesbitt Passing Parade short entitled A Really Important Person, in which he was shown writing an essay about his father. It was also his busiest year in features; he followed his stint as Nick Charles, Jr. with a murder mystery, The Arnelo Affair; The Romance of Rosy Ridge, a Van Johnson-Janet Leigh (her debut) charmer that put the rust in rustic; and 20th's Gentleman's Agreement, which won the Academy Award as Best Picture.
Stockwell's two 1948 releases were made on loan-out: he played in Deep Waters at 20th and, at RKO, starred as The Boy With Green Hair. The latter, director Joseph Losey's first Hollywood feature, was an anti-war story that most critics found pretentious.
After playing Lionel Barrymore's grandson, Jed Joy, in 20th's Down To the Sea In Ships, he returned to MGM to star with Margaret O'Brien (making her last film under contract) in The Secret Garden.
His last three MGM films were released in 1950: Stars In My Crown, an account of the post-Civil War period told from Dean's viewpoint; The Happy Years, directed by William Wellman and featuring other aging child performers Darryl Hickman and Scotty Beckett; and the aforementioned Kim.
In Twinkle, Twinkle . . ., Stockwell recalls one of Errol Flynn's practical jokes: "The scene is a master shot inside a tent in India and I'm there with the lama (Paul Lukas) and Flynn comes through the tent flaps and gives me food for the lama . . . (he) hands me the bowl, piled high with fresh camel dung, still steaming . . . . I looked at the mess and said my line and he backed out. I played the rest of the scene and it cost Flynn five hundred dollars. He had bet everyone on the crew that he would break me up."
Stockwell's last film as a youth was Universal's Cattle Drive (1951), his second feature with Joel McCrea (whose personal favorite among his pictures is said to be their earlier one, Stars In My Crown).
"I liked Joel," says Stockwell, "he was really good. Stars In My Crown, I didn't enjoy doing; but in Cattle Drive I got to ride horses – and that was like playing, the way a child is supposed to play."
A student at MGM's little red schoolhouse, Stockwell notes (in Dick Moore's book) that teacher Mary McDonald "was dealing with kids that were out of place in time and ties and culture. I tend to revere her." He graduated from Alexander Hamilton High School, and attended the University of California (under the name George Stockwell) for a year before dropping out. He later explained: "I was unhappy and could not get along with people." He audited one class at the Actors Studio, but never went back. After a six-year absence, he chose to resume his screen career – returning as the younger of Fred MacMurray's brothers (Jeff Hunter was the other) in a 1957 western, Gun For A Coward.
Also that year, he signed a contract with Bryna Productions (Kirk Douglas' company), but starred in only one of their films: The Careless Years, a story of teenage love. Reports that he would star in a James Dean biopic never advanced beyond the talk stage.
On October 24, 1957, Stockwell made his adult debut on Broadway in Compulsion. Based on Meyer Levin's book, the play ran 140 performances at the Ambassador Theatre.
Stockwell repeated his stage role in the film version, but Roddy McDowall's part was played by Bradford Dillman, who had won acclaim for his Broadway portrayal of Edmund in Long Day's Journey Into Night (opposite Fredric March, Florence Eldridge and Jason Robards, Jr.). When the O'Neill drama was filmed three years later, Stockwell inherited Dillman's role.
His TV performances were plentiful during the fifties – with a particular highlight being his November 1959 leading role as Hemingway's Nick Adams in a Playhouse 90 presentation of The Killers, which featured former heavyweight champion Ingemar Johansson, Dane Clark, Glenda Farrell and Frank McHugh. Stockwell would continue to appear on television in the ensuing years.
On April 15, 1960, he married actress Millie Perkins, who had starred in the screen version of The Diary Of Anne Frank. They separated on March 29, 1962, and were divorced on the 30th of July (In January 1965, Perkins wed Robert Thom, who had written the stage version of compulsion).
Though the July 1964 issue of Films And Filming called him "America's most creative young actor since Montgomery Clift," Stockwell's second career didn't live up to its initial promise. His films over the next two decades were mostly independent works, seldom commercially successful. He received good reviews for Rapture, in which he played opposite Melvyn Douglas and Patricia Gozzi (who had been the child in Sundays and Cybele); but he says, "It was a tough location and I didn't like the screenplay. A lot of people seemed to like it, though." He thinks Dennis Hopper's The Last Movie, in which he plays Billy the Kid, "is a great picture. It was ahead of its time then – and it still is." He believes that "it will gain respect over the years. Dennis Hopper is a marvelous director."
A late night staple on TV is the tongue-in-cheek cult classic, The Werewolf Of Washington. In the title role, Stockwell plays Jack Whittier, right hand man to and future son-in-law of the President of the United States (Biff McGuire). He lives at the Watergate Apartments. When he asks the President to place a guard around him, the prexy tells him, "I want to assign you full-time to writing speeches for the Vice-President." At a restaurant, Stockwell says to a doctor: "Doc, would you come to the bathroom with me? I want to show you something." (It turns out to be a pentagram that's imprinted on his chest).
Harry Stockwell, father of Dean and Guy, had a supporting role in The Werewolf Of Washington; he died, aged 82, July 19, 1984.
Stockwell claims that one worm in Dune – "500 meters long, 85 meters high, you're talking big worms – costs $2-million." He says, "That's more than the entire budget of Paris, Texas."
His future plans include Legend, "a film with Marty Robbins, which will co-star Helen Slater, the star of Supergirl; and Blue Velvet, which will star the kid from Dune – Kyle McLachlan – and be directed by David Lynch (who directed Dune).
"I plan to solidify my acting career – so I can provide some security for my little baby boy, Austin, and for his mommy – and for his little brother and sister who will, we expect, come along before too long. They haven't been conceived yet." Wim Wenders, director of Paris, Texas, is godfather for Austin (born 11/5/83).
Watching Dean Stockwell holding his son, one concludes that he's a happy man and recognizes the fatigue that's common to the parent of a newborn. Would he ever consider letting Austin be a child actor? "A lot of people ask that, and it's a very natural question. The way I've been trying to answer it is to use the old saw about kids wanting to be firemen. Of course, you don't put them on a fire truck and send them off to fight a fire. There's no reason in the United States – in the western world – for a child to work. He's going to have plenty of work to do, later in life. I'd just as soon that he enjoy his childhood – and play!"