"Dean Stockwell's Great Leap Forward"
by Illeane Rudolph
TV Guide, June 9-15, 1990
David Lynch once met a ghost. The co-executive producer of ABC's Twin Peaks was in Mexico City working on the movie Dune when he was introduced to an actor who was rumored to be dead. Recalls Lynch: "This person looked familiar, but [I told myself] it couldn't be who I thought it was, and it made me feel a little nutty. Then I realized it was Dean, and he was alive."
Lynch eventually cast Dean Stockwell in the science-fiction movie but it's not surprising he thought the actor to be no longer among the living. Actors who disappear seldom return, but somehow a reincarnated Stockwell has ended up costarring with Scott Bakula in NBC's Quantum Leap (for which he won a Golden Globe), and is pleased that his role on the show has been expanding. He says he expects more screen time next season, that "details about Al's past life will emerge." It's fitting that Stockwell, who has drifted in and out of acting several times, is now playing TV's only time-tripping hologram.
The 54-year-old actor's first taste of show business came in 1942 when his father, Harry, a stage actor and the voice of Prince Charming in Disney's Snow White, brought 6-year-old Dean and his brother, Guy, to an audition for a Broadway play. The neophytes both won roles and Dean was soon signed to a seven-year MGM film contract (Guy, now a drama teacher, still takes occasional roles). Dean became one of the era's more popular and less saccharine juvenile actors with several fine films to his credit, including The Boy with Green Hair and Gentleman's Agreement. But he hated being in the public eye and he hated the intense pressure to succeed. He felt he never had a childhood. So, at 15, he dropped out "to become anonymous, to disappear."
Stockwell's second acting career, after some schooling and a lot of odd jobs, began when he was in his early 20s with critically praised performances in such films as Compulsion and Sons and Lovers. Then came the '60s and, says Stockwell, "I dropped out." Again.
By the time he was ready to drop back in, having had his fill of enlightenment fueled by sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll, no one wanted him. To this day, Stockwell isn't sure why. "I couldn't get work for a long, long time. I would get an occasional TV guest spot or an occasional movie that never went anywhere." Although he and his good friend, notorious rapscallion Dennis Hopper, "got into quite a bit of trouble back then, I didn't have a bad reputation," he says, "although maybe I deserved one."
His career going nowhere fast by the early '80s, Stockwell and his second wife, Joy Marchenko, moved to New Mexico, planning to go into real estate (his first wife was actress Millie Perkins).
Then came Dune, the first major film he'd been offered a part in for years. Stockwell played the villainous Dr. Yueh with his customary panache. Other good films followed: Paris, Texas, Gardens of Stone and Blue Velvet. Of his strangely twisted role as the zoned-out, effete drug dealer in Lynch's Blue Velvet, Stockwell says, "I had nothing to lose taking the part because at that time I was taking anything that came to me. This was true until Married to the Mob."
It was Stockwell's delicious turn as a lecherous mob boss in Married, a departure from his usual downbeat characterizations and one for which he won an Oscar nomination, that put a definite end to his long dry spell. It also brought him to the attention of Quantum's producer Don Bellisario.
Stockwell's comeback was so successful that Bellisario was surprised to hear he was interested in the secondary part of Al, the Observer, on Quantum Leap. Stockwell liked the concept of the series, and he liked the character, "who has an awful lot of charm and interest." Perhaps most of all, he liked the fact that Al isn't in every scene. "I wouldn't have to work myself to death and I'd have time to spend with my family," says Stockwell, who has two children, 6 and 4.
Stockwell's colleagues say that he practices his craft with the particular joy of someone once denied a beloved livelihood. Observes Bellisario, "I've never seen an actor who loves to work like Dean. You might expect someone who's been making films for 47 or 48 years to be jaded, but he brings a kind of child-like enthusiasm to his work."
Stockwell likes acting in almost any form, but says he "would prefer to do the light stuff," rather than heavy dramatic parts. He enjoyed the two or three comedies he made as a child and he loved doing comedies in dinner theaters around the country. "I feel really comfortable doing lighter roles," he says.
But, for the moment at least, no comedies are on the horizon. He's about to start work on the ABC miniseries Son Of the Morning Star, about Custer's Last Stand. He has the role of Gen. Philip Sheridan, President U. S. Grant's Indian Wars advisor. He has another movie soon to be released, Sandino, dealing with the Nicaraguan resistance leader. Stockwell plays an American officer sent to flush him out.
With his career resuscitated and with his devotion to the environmental movement – despite his penchant for cigars – Stockwell is finally having a taste of the good life. He is working up ideas for an environmental storyline for Quantum and has convinced the producers to let Al drop occasional warnings against the misuse of our natural resources into the scripts.
"He's an incredible actor," says Lynch. "He's been through a lot and come out all the better for it. He's just a real special human being and a great actor." Not bad for a dead man.