Green Hair to Quantum Leap, cigar-smoking actor has carved out a distinctive
by Jeffrey M. Anderson
From Las Vegas Weekly, June 10, 2004
Biographers will have an easy time with Dean Stockwell. The actor's career breaks very neatly into four parts: child actor, young man, hippie, and character actor.
Born into a showbiz family in 1936 in Hollywood, Stockwell made his movie debut at age 8 in the MGM musical Anchors Aweigh. During a recent telephone interview, he says he doesn't remember his first day of work, but does remember that he didn't like it much.
"I found myself in a very weird world, this moviemaking. I was expected to do the same caliber of work as the adults, and at other times I would be reminded that I was a child. It was difficult. I could do the work but I didn't like it. Other than two comedies and The Boy with Green Hair, I didn't enjoy acting at all."
The Boy with Green Hair (1948) was a bizarre, passionate anti-war film that changed many people's lives. In it, 12 year-old Stockwell plays a war orphan whose hair turns green as a symbol for war orphans everywhere. The film marked the directorial debut of the celebrated Joseph Losey (The Servant, The Go-Between). "He was a very sweet man," Stockwell says. "I remember he gave me a puppy. It was a little dachshund and I named him Thief."
Stockwell notes that the film came "at a time when there was a very influential
right wing that created the blacklist. This was prior to the McCarthy witch-hunts.
Losey went to England and never came back.
While the film was being made, I was unaware of that. I only found out about it years later. What did affect me was the content of the film. I took it very seriously. The other ones were just dropped in my lap, but I was very proud to do this role."
The actor dropped out of the movie business to go to high school, but re-emerged
in his 20s. "I didn't have any training to do anything else in life," he
says. He received some acclaim for his performances in Compulsion (1959) and
Long Day's Journey Into Night (1962) before
entering the "hippie" phase of his career, epitomized by the San Francisco Haight Street movie Psych-Out (1968).
It wasn't long before Stockwell burned out again, eventually moving to New Mexico and acquiring his real-estate license—though he never used it. "I was feeling pretty depressed," he says. While working on a "stupid Mexican 'B' movie," Stockwell learned that David Lynch was making Dune and managed to get an introduction.
"He said, 'I thought you were dead.' He had confused me with the kid who was in Shane," Stockwell says. (Brandon de Wilde died in a car accident in 1972.) Initially rejected, Stockwell landed the part of Dr. Wellington Yueh after another actor dropped out. Later that year, a film festival in Santa Fe put him in touch with Harry Dean Stanton, which led to his illustrious role in Paris, Texas.
"I never really liked acting until I was in my 40s," he says of
this new period of creative character roles, which also included To Live and
Die in LA, Blue Velvet, Tucker: The Man and His Dream, Jonathan Demme's Married
to the Mob —his favorite role, for which he received
an Oscar nomination—and the popular cult TV show Quantum Leap.
For Lynch's Blue Velvet, he based his role of the bizarre, effeminate Ben on Carol Burnett. "I told her about it to her face and she loved it. Funny how things work."
Demme also recently cast him in a "teeny, little part" in his new Manchurian Candidate remake. "I think it could be hot," Stockwell says.
It also was during this period that Stockwell's signature cigars started popping
up from time to time, notably on Quantum Leap. "The cigar made its debut
in Kim," he says, speaking of the 1950 film he made with Errol Flynn,
based on the Rudyard Kipling novel of the same
name. "I guess it was in the book; my character smokes these little cigars. I started smoking them for real years later in Nicaragua."
Now Stockwell has embarked upon what could be his fifth career stage as an
artist. "I'm making collages and prints out of computer-made pieces. I'm
having an exhibition in Taos, New Mexico, at the RB Ravens Gallery in September,
and then another one later in Monterey
[California] . There are 42 pieces in the show," he says proudly.
In a business where most child actors burn out quickly, Stockwell has shown remarkable staying power, especially with very few role models to learn from in his childhood. "I attribute it to good fortune and fate," he says. "It amazes me that I'm still alive and that I'm still working.