"Elements of Style –
Why I Wear What I Wear"
by Trish Deitch Rohrer
GQ, September 1989
Married To The Mod
From Green Hair to Blue Velvet, Dean Stockwell remains original and classic
You'd think that jumping from time period to time period would be something novel for Dean stockwell, who, at 53, is the world's first television hologram, traveling in style through time and space every week on NBC's new television series Quantum Leap. But Stockwell has made some quantum leaps of his own in film over the past four and a half decades and seems to be an old hand at just about any kind of role, no matter how surreal; he went, for example, from being the sincere little soft-faced boy who cried "I want to be like everybody else!" in the 1948 film The Boy With Green Hair to being the fey, white-faced, cross-dressed, lip-synching sadist in the 1986 film Blue Velvet.
The irony is that while Stockwell was playing those sweet-faced boys in such films as Anchors Aweigh with Gene Kelly (1945) and Kim with Errol Flynn (1950), he was miserable; and now that he's a grown man and playing mostly murderers, weirdos and freaks (such as Tony Russo in Married to the Mob, Howard Hughes in Tucker and Ben in Blue Velvet), he's happier than ever.
Like Bogart, Cagney, Gable and other veterans of the golden age of film, Stockwell comes across as an old-time kind of guy – touchy and aloof, vain and irascible, but with an elusive underbelly of good-heartedness. And there's a twist to his tough-guy persona, more than a hint of the kind of devilish madness you find in other professional wackos, such as Jack Nicholson and Dennis Hopper.
Sitting with Stockwell in his well-worn motor home parked outside one of the stages at Universal Studios, where they're doing some shooting for Quantum Leap one might feel just a little bit, well, scared, if it weren't for Stockwell's being in his Quantum Leap mode and so more like George Burns (smoking a Zino – a Honduran Davidoff cigar) than Humphrey Bogart gone mad.
"I was always a very sensitive person," says Stockwell, "and I took to heart a lot of the aspersions cast on the entertainment industry, like acting's being frivolous and unimportant and so on. But I came to realize that was wrong. Acting is a very, very potent and mysterious art. There's a need in the collective conscious, in the psyche, all over the world that's being fulfilled by these people who are actors and actresses. When I realized that, and adapted that idea to myself, then I began to feel some self-worth and self-esteem as an actor."
Before that point, though, Stockwell tried to drop out of the profession twice; the first time was at 16, when he left Hollywood, changed his name and found odd jobs, trying just to exist.
"By the time I was 20, 21," says Stockwell, "I realized that I didn't have any training for a life's work – the only training I had was acting."
So he returned to Hollywood.
"I was very fortunate there in my twenties. I did a lot of films and television work and Broadway, but I didn't enjoy it."
So at some time in the 1960's, Stockwell left Hollywood for the second time and spent his days traveling mainly between London and Topanga Canyon in Los Angeles, hanging out with such fellow artists as Allen Ginsberg, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg, Eric Clapton, Neil Young and Dennis Hopper.
When Stockwell decided to get back into acting – after he'd come to terms with his profession and was at peace with it – he couldn't find the door.
"Even after I had changed my attitude toward my work," he says, "I still certainly wasn't driven. I didn't have a really over-riding ambition – I merely wanted to work. I didn't want to become a big star. And that was all right, because I could barely find work. But it wasn't until I married my wife, Joy, and decided to raise a family that all of a sudden I found myself with a really profound motivation for my life and for my work. So thank God the advent of that coincided with the turnaround in my good fortune."
In the past couple of years, Stockwell received a National Society of Film Critics Award and a New York Film Critics Circle Award for his work in Married to the Mob and Tucker, and an Academy Award nomination for Mob. He has three films coming out in the next few months (Palais Royale with Kim Cattrall, Backtrack with Dennis Hopper and Jodie Foster, and Limit Up with Nancy Allen) and has started work on a film called Sandino, being shot in Nicaragua.
Catching Stockwell just before his feet leave the floor, writer Trish Deitch Rohrer, asks this man-on-the-way-up about his personal style and things related.
Was there someone in your life who made a deep impression on you when you were younger?
I would say that when I was a child, Errol Flynn made the biggest impression. Out of all the adults whom I encountered, other than my mother, he was most straight with me. He treated me as he would treat a friend or contemporary of his. Not as a child, not as a movie actor, just straight, no bullshit. And because of that I was very open to him. And I found him a very fascinating character, very irreverent, highly individual, very independent and very strong and with great humor and a certain sense of wisdom that wouldn't find its way into words but that you sensed was there.
About the character and clothes on Quantum Leap
I don't think every actor could pull it off. Some of (the clothes) are very flamboyant, but they're not effete; for one, I smoke cigars on the show. My character is a terrible, reprobate womanizer; he thinks of nothing but sex. And that works in contrast to the clothes. It's over the edge, toward flamboyant eccentricity. Yet it is up-to-date stuff. You can't find it except in the avant-garde men's stores – like Ecru (in L.A.) and stores like that.
What do you like to wear around the house?
Around the house I still wear Levi's most of the time. And I wear white leather tennis shoes – I've been wearing those for twenty years.
Or Reeboks or any of that. I've always found those very comfortable. I'm a tennis player – I used to play a lot more – and I used to wear them twenty years ago. We lived in New Mexico for several years, and I would wear either cowboy boots or tennis shoes. In those years, I wore all western-style clothing.
Did you ride?
Occasionally, but not too much. Just living there it's comfortable to wear that sort of stuff. Now around the house I usually wear jeans and a shirt, and I have an old silver Navaho concha buckle that I wear all the time. I love American Indian stuff, I have a bolo tie that's very exceptional. It's kind of a mandala surrounded by some asymmetrical shape – which is very unusual for Indian (jewelry). No turquoise – it's solid silver. It's an antique piece – very heavy. I wore it on Academy Awards night, except for the ceremony itself.
Then if I'm going out, I like to wear suits – always double-breasted. I like Hugo Boss, Armani suits. And I have a couple of Armani jackets and ties and other Boss stuff – some shirts, for example.
Is there a sensation you like to create by the way you dress?
I like to be considered in a respectful way. My taste is more on the mature, tasteful, but conservative side. I like very modernistic-looking clothes, though. I mean, the Hugo Boss suit I have is that wrinkled (fabric), you know, and I roll the cuffs up. But it's conservative at the same time. It's laid-back and gray. I never wear blue. You'll never see me in a green suit or anything stupid like that. Or checks or tweeds.
Is your current style influenced by your Topanga days?
No, not at all. I was dressing western then. But it's an interesting coincidence that during the Sixties and Seventies I was dressing western and my closest friend, Dennis Hopper, was dressing the same way. And when he came back and started working in Hollywood, we were both wearing similar stuff.
No. Very conservative. Shirt and tie. We both independently arrived at that. We're comfortable with it.
What did you make of that?
Well, I make of it that we're very close in a lot of ways, Dennis and I. Our aesthetics are very much in line, and our eye for art is extraordinarily similar. Our values are very close. We're close on a lot of levels.
Are you about the same age?
I'm two months older. He's May, I'm March.
You know, I've always had a high regard for shoes, and that might be because of my astrological sign. I don't know. I understand that Pisces are ruled by their feet. And I've always been very particular about the cowboy boots, or the white tennis shoes that you see now everywhere, and shoes in general. The shoes I have on I got on 61st Street in New York City. They're deerskin.
Do you shop in New York?
Occasionally. I mean, there are wonderful clothes there. But there's one fabulous perk that an actor has. He's able to either make a deal for or outright be on the receiving end of a wardrobe. And if you're lucky and the wardrobe is nice, you can end up with some nice things.
A case in point is Married to the Mob, where nobody else in the whole show would want to keep their wardrobe – the rest of the gangsters were caricatured a little bit in their costumes, and the Long Island nouveau-riche mobsters' wives were certainly caricatured brilliantly by (costume designer) Colleen Atwood, who I think should have got the nomination for that. But (it was) the one character who was dressed with impeccable taste; a lot of those suits were handmade – a lot of them came from Parviz – and those suits are $1,500, $2,00 apiece, and I got nine of them, I got fifteen shirts – all handmade, I had to change the collars on them – they were exaggerated round-tip gangster things, so I had all the collars redone, took the French cuffs off. And all of a sudden I had a wonderful wardrobe full of these nice, laid-back double-breasted suits that are gorgeous.
So clothes are important to you
Yeah. (But) going out and buying them is not that important. If I didn't get them from films occasionally, I wouldn't have nearly so much as I have. But I like to look sharp, I guess. Not sharp like "Oh, isn't he sharp!" Just sort of laid-back sharp. That kind of look that implies really fine taste that doesn't have to show off.
Do you have a particular style of clothing that you like to wear all the time?
I wear hats a lot. I used to wear western hats, of course, all the time. Now I wear a certain type of fedora – not as wide-brimmed as Howard Hughes's but . . . .
What about in the warm weather?
Oh, I like a Panama. I got one from Married to the Mob. And I have a lovely Panama-type hat that I got in Brazil when I was there.
Do you have any feeling about what is affecting fashion in general, culturally speaking?
I think there was a backlash affecting fashion, when it got very conservative for a long time, and, more recently, especially with men, it's breaking free a little bit again. Certainly, what is socially accepted as dress code – I'm not talking about black tie but just below that – has changed permanently as a result of the Sixties.
In the Sixties, if you attempted to go to a good restaurant dressed like a hippie, you couldn't get in. But now, if you're in the right circle and you're known, you can wear damn near anything to these places. You couldn't get into, say, Sardi's without a tie (in the old days), but that's not true anymore. And I think it's a direct result of the Sixties. What happened to fashion (happened) because a whole generation or two came out of the Sixties, grew and became the influential movers and shakes of their day, and you can't deny them the fine restaurants and the things that go with being the leaders of the generation.
How did you feel dressing the way you dressed in Blue Velvet?
Weird, but that's what I wanted.
As an actor, you get a chance to try on styles that you wouldn't normally wear....
Yeah, well, that was pretty extreme. Some nightmare. I wouldn't want to do that more than once.
Do you see yourself as one kind of man?
Yeah, I'm one kind of man, but I'm not one kind of actor. Well, I am one kind of actor, but not the kind of actor who does one kind of character.
How would you describe yourself?
I'd say, if anything, I'm spiritual.
In what sense?
That's all. No need to say anything else.