In 1945, a beatific young boy, was befriended
by a madcap sailor with a penchant for tap-dancing in the breezy M-G-M
musical "Anchors Aweigh."
More than 40 years and 55 films
later, that curly haired waif is in the midst of a second Hollywood comeback,
portraying a salacious Mafia don in Jonathan Demme's "Married to the
Mob" and an edgy Howard Hughes in Francis Ford Coppola's "Tucker:
The Man and His Dream."
Dean Stockwell is 52 now, but for the
first time in his vertiginous career he is enjoying making movies. An unhappy
child actor at M-G-M in the 40's, Mr. Stockwell had seen enough stars and
scripts, gaffers and grips by the time he was 16. Fleeing Hollywood to become
an anonymous roustabout, he eventually returned to his craft in 1956,
appearing in such outstanding films as Richard Fleischer's
"Compulsion" and Sidney Lumet's screen version of Eugene O'Neill's
"Long Day's Journey into Night." The cherub seen scampering with a
toe-tapping Gene Kelly in "Anchors Aweigh" had turned into a dark,
intense, charismatic leading man. Particularly indelible in movie memories is
his portrayal of a brooding, tubercular Edmund Tyrone opposite Jason Robards,
Katharine Hepburn and Sir Ralph Richardson in O'Neill's trenchant tragedy.
But while he received acting honors
at Cannes for both "Long Day's Journey" and "Compulsion,"
Mr. Stockwell deserted the movie cameras once more to join the 60's
counterculture movement. He embraced the hippie ethos, attending art exhibition
openings and listening to such gurus as Wallace Berman, Lawrence
Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg and Michael McClure. A close friend during this
tendentious time was Dennis Hopper, who would later direct and star in a film
that would symbolize the movement and galvanized its followers: "Easy
When Mr. Stockwell decided to resume
his acting career in the late 60's, he collided with a dozen Hollywood
clichιs. "You think those adages couldn't possibly be true, but then you
find out they are," says the actor. "'Out of sight, out of mind,'
`What have you done lately?'; I even heard about a casting meeting where the
producer said, `We need a Dean Stockwell type.' Meanwhile, I couldn't even
A dozen years of dinner-theater
engagements and frustrating auditions would pass before Mr. Stockwell who
in the early 80's renounced again and moved to Santa Fe to sell real estate
would achieve his second comeback. But now after playing the maleficent Dr.
Yueh in David Lynch's "Dune," the sympathetic brother in Wim Wenders's
"Paris, Texas," the slimy attorney in William Friedkin's "To
Live and Die in LA," the lip-synching pansexual in Mr. Lynch's
"Blue Velvet," the cigar-chomping captain in Mr. Coppola's
"Gardens of Stone" and a doomed, laconic thief in Tony Scott's
"Beverly Hills Cop II," he is finally exploiting all the cinematic
techniques he has assimilated over four decades.
And in the latest phase of the
Stockwell saga, "Married to the Mob" represents a milestone. In
this caper about a Mafia widow fed up with the mob life, Mr. Stockwell
portrays Tony the Tiger, a lecherous don whose fatal flaws involve fast-food
joints, diamond necklaces and vindictive women. He's the kind of gangster who
calls his mistress "Lollipop" and tells his henchmen to
"evaporate for five minutes" when a pouting siren enters the room.
"When I looked at the script, it
was as if I were reading a role I'd been waiting for," Mr. Stockwell
says. "That this was a comedy was a huge attraction, because although
comedy is part arsenal and personality, I have had a reputation for years as
a dramatic, serious actor. And beyond the film's romantic-comedic style, I
loved Tony: he's dangerous but sexy, powerful but charming.
"In fact, the biggest challenge
was to make sure the audience liked him. And he's Italian and I'm
half-Italian, and I had never made a mobster before. So all those things
represented something new and that I wanted very much."
That he was even considered for Tony
was fortuitous. "I had someone else in mind," admits Mr. Demme.
"But I picked up the trades, and there was an ad announcing that an
actor had changed agencies. I looked at the photo and thought, `That's the
real thing. That guy's scary, intriguing, handsome.' And I read the name and
couldn't believe it! It was Dean Stockwell."
"Tucker" was a different story. The
actor had met Mr. Coppola during auditions for "The Godfather."
"Years later, Francis remembered me and cast me in `Gardens of Stone,''
says Mr. Stockwell. "After I did that film, the producer Fred Roos said,
`No one ever works for Francis just once.'"
Mr. Roos was right. When
"Tucker" reached pre-production stage, "they sent me the
script with the tacit understanding that I could play either the defense
attorney or Hughes," says Mr. Stockwell. "Although the screen time
is like 10 minutes less, I definitely wanted Hughes."
The actor instantly visualized the
part: "I've had a lot of exposure to that image, like anyone of my
generation, so I didn't need to do any research. All I needed was the right
The Hughes sequence shows the
iconoclastic car-maker Preston Tucker grinning like the Cheshire Cat
meeting the paranoid creator of the Spruce Goose, with that giant white
albatross of an airplane looming in the background. "They say it can't fly,"
whispers Hughes, the Mad Hatter of capitalization, "but that's not the
"When we shot the scene in Long
Beach, Francis couldn't get over my resemblance to Hughes," Mr.
Stockwell recalls. "He said, `I knew you had the internal workings for the
part, but I had no idea that you'd look like him.'"
Mr. Stockwell's approach to Hughes
reflects how he analyzes all his roles. "I use my intuition. Somehow I
was able to find an accommodation with the camera as a child and it became
almost like an ally. I got on very intimate terms with it."
But while he was always comfortable
with the camera his favorite children's role was Joseph Losey's "Boy
with Green Hair" in 1948 he hated confronting the studio system.
"It was confining, having the responsibility of being a worker when
you're that young," says Mr. Stockwell, whose mother was a vaudeville
comedienne and whose father was an actor.
"And being a worker thrust into
a situation that was very high-pressure, psychologically and emotionally.
It's just not something I would recommend: a childhood ideally is for play
and fantasy. My mother was incredibly supportive and protective during that
time. My mother and father had split up when I was 6, so it was just me, my mother
and my brother.
"And if she had not been as good
as she was, I don't think I would have survived it.
"Getting out of acting came up a
number of times back then. But there was nothing we could do that's how we
were making a living. She was a single mother with two children, and I was in
effect the breadwinner."
Once Mr. Stockwell graduated from
high school, he could finally bid the studios farewell. "I needed to
find anonymity," he says. "I needed to go off by myself and
disappear and try to figure out what was going on with this life of ours. I
did odd jobs around the country: I worked on the railroad for a while, I
worked in garages. But I couldn't keep doing that forever, and I had no
training to do anything else. So I went back to acting."
But for Mr. Stockwell, this proved a
long day's journey into negativity. "I had difficulty accepting anything
positive about acting for myself. I could admire other people's work, but if
anyone admired mine, I would say he was wrong. I was rude to people. I was beating
the creative part of myself on the head and denigrating acting. I just
couldn't take any credit for it, even when I was doing important work."
Finally in the early 60's. The actor
tuned into the hippie movement, despite the acclaim that greeted his first
comeback. "My career was doing well, but I wasn't getting anything out
of it personally. What I was looking for I was finding in another place,
which was in that revolution. The 60's allowed me to live my childhood as an
adult. That kind of freedom, imagination and creativity that arose all around
was like a childhood to me."
"That was a breakthrough that
had to come through at some point, or I would have eventually dried up in
While he relished this personal
catharsis, however, a career boost remained elusive. During the late 60's and
early 70's, he appeared in such fringe films as Mr. Hopper's "Last
Movie," Daniel Haller's "Dunwich Horror," Richard Rush's
"Psych-Out," and even an obscure curiosity called "Werewolf of
Washington." But he fruitlessly sought guest shots on television series
and parts in
"The anxiety of trying to get
jobs takes a toll on any actor. But I also had to fight off a sense of
bitterness, because all through that time, anyone I would talk to would refer
to me as one of the fine actors and say, `Having done all these wonderful
things, you should be working all the time.' I had to fight off this sense of
"During that period, I seemed to
be considered as a past-tense figure," he muses. "And I couldn't
discover any other reason that I couldn't find decent work. I would ask
people who were working within the `establishment' if I was on some list that
was preventing me from getting jobs; they were kind enough make discreetly investigations,
and they found nothing."
In the early 80's, Mr. Stockwell
decided to marry. Feeling he couldn't provide for a family on his meager
Hollywood wages, he resolved to move to New Mexico and sell real estate. But
for reasons he still can't pinpoint, he started receiving television offers
while living in Santa Fe and eventually won parts in "Dune" and,
more important, "Paris, Texas."
"'Paris, Texas' was definitely
the breakthrough role this time around," Mr. Stockwell says. The movie
was the talk of Cannes in 1984, winning the vaunted Golden Palm award. And
Mr. Stockwell's critically acclaimed portrayal of the perplexed brother who
rescues Harry Dean Stanton from a desert morass led to other films as well.
While Mr. Stockwell's movie roster
expanded, so did his friend Dennis Hopper's, whose own comeback has included
not only major film roles, but directing opportunities as well. Mr. Hopper
has just finished shooting "Backtrack" which just happens to
feature Mr. Stockwell.
"I play a lawyer for the mob,
and Dennis who is starring in film as well as directing plays a hit
man," says Mr. Stockwell, who now lives in Monterey, Calif., with his
wife and two children.
In addition, Mr. Stockwell returns to
mob life in Martin Lavut's "Palais Royale," which is being screened
at the current Toronto Film Festival. And he is wearing business suits for
Richard Martini's "Limit Up," now in production in Los Angeles.
"I'm a Chicago commodities
trader in that one," he says. "It's the same milieu as `Wall
Throughout all this, the actor is
counting his cinematic blessings. "I have a deep sense of gratitude
about all this. At different times, I'll say I thank God, I thank the Lord, I
thank the Great Spirit. I know it's not my doing totally. "But I'm ready