"Dean Stockwell's Lost Years"
by Carter Francis
Motion Picture, November 1959
From 1952 to 1955 he vanished. Here, for the first time, is the story of those three tormented years of running.
Dean Stockwell squinted. The mannerism was habitual – a legacy from the powerful lights and reflectors that always bothered him as a child star. But this time there was something brusque and purposeful about the way he squinted. He knew what had to be done. His resolve almost erased the troubled expression that pulled at his face.
HE WAS GOING TO RUN AWAY FROM HOME!
He was 16, old enough for decision, and that was what he had decided. It had been coming on for a long time and now the nature of the gathering compulsion was known to him. He had to find out once and for all where he belonged – OR IF HE BELONGED ANYWHERE AT ALL! Suddenly it came to him that it had been ordained a long time ago – when from the hothouse world he inhabited as a child star, he was thrust into public school so that he would be just like everyone else. And he had found out that everyone else was different – that it was too late for him to be like everyone else.
This had happened in those critical boyhood years from 9 to 12. He still tossed in his sleep with the nightmarish memories. That sweet, innocent face and the curly hair were all too familiar. But the image wasn't as celebrated in the schoolyard as it was in the movie palaces. Recognition didn't mean adulation – or camaraderie, for which Dean hungered. He couldn't get the din of the shrill taunts out of his ears.
"What did you do, Little Lord Fauntleroy – go to the beauty parlor to get those curls?"
His greatest triumph, the title role in The Boy With Green Hair, had provided rich grist for the insatiable mills of childish cruelty.
"What's the matter? Afraid to wear your green hair to school?"
"Come on, Deanie weanie, take off the wig. Let's get a look at your green hair."
He got into fist fights. He fled, teeth chattering behind clenched blue lips, a sea of tears battering against the tensed rims of his eyes. He pretended not to hear. He tried everything, and everything he tried failed. The ostracism did not abate. He was a hooted, bewildered outcast in an alien world of happy, carefree children. He found it impossible to hate them for the hurts they inflicted. He envied them too much.
He would have given anything to prove himself – to show that he was one of them. But he could only watch longingly as the other children flung themselves joyously into after school activities. He couldn't play baseball, football or any of the other sports. He couldn't even keep score. He never had had the time to learn. Even when the boys and girls danced in the school gymnasium he was a timid outsider suffering the quiet agony of rejection. He had never learned to dance either.
One thing he had learned was courtesy. He had been accustomed to treating girls politely on movie sets. The code of the schoolyard yielded to no such refinements. He was shocked by the rudeness the other boys displayed toward girls. Yet he was not so critical that he did not wish he were sharing their forbidden fun.
But wishing did not make it so. He was lonely and miserable – unaccepted and unable to adapt. To the other children he remained an oddball. He was wounded one moment by their derision, cut even more deeply the next moment by their indifference. He had gone to public school with the door to his starved heart wide open – only to have the other kids shut their hearts to him.
He hated what they had done to him at public school and he hated acting for enabling them to do it. He blamed it all on the fact that he was a child star. Otherwise no one ever would have recognized him. And if they hadn't recognized him, they wouldn't have tormented him. So at last he returned, defeated in spirit, to private school. He was safe from the barbs of the children at public school – but not safe from the yearning that had been born there, or the pain in which it had been cradled.
He found insulation – but not the warmth and affection he craved. There was little to choose between the thoughtless aggressions of the public school children and the sterility of making pictures. His life as a child star represented more dull denial. It was a world he saw through unresponsive eyes – where he felt unimportant, where he functioned almost mechanically, and where his elders took little notice of him. All he felt about his exalted station was boredom – unrelieved boredom. He hated the hours of sitting around doing nothing. He hated the hovering in the shadows watching the older actors in animated chatter – while he had no one to talk to, no one but the studio tutor who saw to his studies, but not to his dreams or to his emotional needs.
In time, the curls disappeared. The sensitive boyish features matured. The oval face turned lean. He felt the first stirring of manhood. Childhood had passed. But the aching for companionship had not passed. The return to private school was not an escape.
Even as other adolescents, he had gone through the awkward age. His appearance had changed. He had been inactive for three years. MCA could find no pictures for him. They urged him to work meanwhile in an upstart new medium called television, but his mother, who managed his affairs, was scornful. They wanted him to go to Europe. His mother didn't think much of the idea.
Dean was weary of the pressures, weary of the frustrations, weary of the futility. Now even the movies – that loveless sanctuary of cameras and lights and preoccupied grownups – didn't want him.
So he just left home and disappeared. He left without a word. What was there to say? Who was there to say it to? He was bitter and confused and tired – so very tired for a boy of 16. All he knew was that he had to get away. Maybe later he would know why.
But he didn't cover his tracks very well. The Stockwells lived in New York between pictures. His mother knew his haunts and his habits too intimately. She found him a week later.
"Why don't you give up acting?" she pleaded. She was not insensitive to her boy's suffering. "Forget about it. It's a thankless existence. Try to lead a normal life. Look at your brother Guy. Look how happy he is. Who needs the tortures of acting?"
Dean smiled. "You're right, Mother. That's what I want to do, what I have to do. Give it up."
"We'll all move to California," she said, "out in the suburbs, where no one cares about Hollywood, and we'll start a new life. It will be different. Just wait and see."
Dean did make the break with acting – but in his own way. His mother went on to California. He stayed behind. He was on his own – completely, totally on his own for the first time in his life. He embarked on a strange odyssey in search of himself.
He began his three lost years – three years during which no one knew, even if they did not care, what had happened to Dean Stockwell. Three years out of time, years that remained a blank to the rest of the world till now.
He started by killing off his worst enemy – Dean Stockwell. The hated name worn during the hated years. He christened himself Rudy Stocker, and got a job as a mailboy to an office at Rockefeller Plaza. He came with no credentials. That was part of the plan – neither a celebrity nor a has-been. Just a boy looking for work. The work was menial and arduous, exactly the way he wanted it. As he delivered the sacks of mail he felt sweat prickle on his skin. It gave him a thrill of achievement. He barely could lift the bags, and he gloried in the physical agony like a trial by fire.
He felt something he had never felt before. HE FELT USEFUL. All else he had ever done was artificial – or so he was convinced. He knew for the first time the ecstasy of acceptance. He was just one of the other mailboys. The only difference was that he didn't gripe as much as they, but they didn't seem to notice. They liked Rudy. He was a nice guy who did his work, and didn't run off at the mouth very much.
They were golden months, those first months when he was Rudy Stocker. Then one day he was walking down the hall feeling a warm sense of well being, when without warning he was unmasked.
"Excuse me, but you're Dean Stockwell, aren't you?"
The pretty young girl who stopped him took puzzled notice of the mail sack he was carrying. He grabbed her arm, and hustled her around the corridor.
"I don't know how you recognized me," he said, "but please, please don't say anything to anyone. If you do you'll ruin everything. Please!"
He saw her consternation, and promised to explain everything if she would have dinner with him. She was touched – and intrigued – by his urgency. She agreed to have dinner with him.
That was how he met Susan Blasnick. Her father had an insurance agency in Rockefeller Plaza, which was how she happened to be there. Over dinner, Dean explained his predicament. Susan solemnly swore secrecy. The crisis passed. A grateful smile came over Rudy's face.
They became good friends. Friendship ripened into romance. Rudy Stocker found it good to have someone to talk to.
But other threats were to emerge. One day he spotted an MCA agent, and quickly darted into an office. When he came out the MCA man was gone, but Dean was sure he had been recognized. He was panicky. He didn't want to go back to that life; he didn't want to be pressured, badgered, blandished. He wanted to be left alone. For a whole week, he lived in terror of discovery. At last he was sure the MCA man had not seen him. He relaxed once more.
Months passed. He began seeing another girl. He still dated Susan, but he never could feel entirely free with her because she knew his identity. The other girl didn't have any idea who he was. This pleased him. If she liked him as Rudy Stocker, she liked him for himself. He didn't have to question it – and that was what he needed.
She was a devotee of the theater, and soon Rudy Stocker fell into the ritual of taking her to Broadway shows, eating in restaurants perilously close to the theatrical scene. Again he felt threatened. Fear of recognition gave him no rest. He wasn't ready to be found out. He might never be ready.
Again he panicked. He quit his job as mailboy and took a job with the Erie Railroad in New Jersey. Rudy Stocker breathed easier. A year in New York was enough. His secret never would be safe there. He worked his way to New Orleans, then on to Texas.
Away from New York, away from Hollywood, he was discovering that he no longer was a boy with green hair but, incredulously, a man among men. A man among men! He embraced the thought lovingly, and it warmed him. On the Texas-Mexican border he got a job on a caboose. For that kind of work references were not necessary. It was dirty and grimy, and Rudy Stocker gave himself to it as if immersing himself in holy water. It was his job to keep cleaning the greasy catwalks so no one would slip. He was also charged with the callous-raising duty of keeping the handrails free of grease and dirt.
An old man who worked in the caboose patted him on the back. "You're a real hard worker, son. We don't get many that put to it like you do."
Dean wouldn't have traded that casual recognition for the Congressional Medal of Honor. Though he was limp with exhaustion at day's end, he loved it because he felt DEPENDED on.
One afternoon on the Mexican border, the train was delayed while the crew piled out to fix some rails. Dean begged them to let him pitch in. He felt tingling excitement as he drove spikes. He quit the caboose and hired on as a day laborer. The clang of iron hammer against iron spike was music – and the lyrics were NOW YOU'RE SOMEONE, ALL RIGHT! NOW YOU'RE SOMEONE, ALL RIGHT!
Indeed, Rudy Stocker WAS someone. And something was happening to him. Some ancient companions seemed to be tiring of his company. He gradually stopped feeling the presence of his once dogged pursuers – guilt, anger, confusion and self-deprecation. It was little more than two years since Dean Stockwell had become Rudy Stocker.
When he said his good-by to the men on the Texas-Mexican railroad, there was affection and respect in the handshakes. He was leaving friends behind – men who valued him. It was a hallowed thing – being esteemed even though he was an unknown among unknowns.
He returned to New Orleans and got a job in a bakery. The bakery products were placed on wax paper so they didn't stick to the pan. When they came out of the oven it was Rudy Stocker's job to take the finished baking off the wax paper. It was not the kind of work people fought for. But it was important. Someone had to do it. Rudy Stocker reflected on how good it was to do something that others did not resent or envy.
However, in New Orleans as in New York anonymity became increasingly difficult. Again Dean was recognized. Only this time it did not distress him. He experienced a startling nostalgia for acting.
He was a man now, not a child star. He was ready to return to acting – but in control of it, not controlled by it. A lifetime jumble had suddenly fallen into place. He returned to New York, banished Rudy Stocker as abruptly as he had created him, reported to MCA, and enrolled in The Actors' Studio.
He had thirsted for anonymity and had drunk hungrily of it in the mailroom, on the railroad and in the bakery. He felt a twinge of dread that an old trauma would be triggered at The Actors' Studio.
But he could have spared himself. The other students were not impressed by Hollywood names. They were enormously talented people, completely absorbed in their work. They paid no attention to Dean.
His reaction surprised him. He was secretly offended at not being fussed over. He behaved like a spoiled child. Subsequently, he quit The Actors' Studio in a huff, and off he went to Buffalo as a sales clerk in a book and music store.
This time he did not cut his ties or change his name. He kept in touch with MCA. He was finished with hiding. But not with growing. MCA sent him scripts which he read with rising enthusiasm. He couldn't contain his anxiety to resume acting.
He went back to New York, swallowed his pride and enrolled once again in The Actors' Studio. A sense of purpose and self confidence swelled within him. His single-minded concern was to nurse his talent – not his ego. He was wooing a neglected bride.
A beautiful young actress in class kept his dedication from becoming one dimensional. Susan Pleshette and Dean Stockwell were instantly and warmly drawn to each other. She, too, had run away from home. They had a ready-made bond. They talked earnestly, feelingly and freely.
Their long talks blossomed into long walks. When they exhausted conversation they found rapport in silence. They held hands – and held one another. Lovingly. They gave themselves to a soulful romance.
Susan gave him new strength and serenity. It showed up in acting class. He began to take issue with the master, Lee Strasberg, director of The Actors' Studio.
"I want to approach acting allegorically," Dean insisted. "I want to take one trend and develop it one week, and I want to take a completely opposite trend and develop it another week."
Strasberg calmly vetoed Dean's audacious request. Tensions mounted. Strasberg would give the class a project, setting down the manner in which it would be done. Midway, Dean would defy Strasberg and do it his own way. And he would vindicate himself so well that he would earn the respect rather than the scorn of the other students.
Again he walked out of The Actors' Studio. This time in triumph, not in rejection.
"Look how brilliant I am," he mused privately. "I'm really a great actor. Look what I've done!"
On Broadway they were casting the play based on Meyer Levin's best seller, Compulsion. Dean urged MCA to arrange a try-out. Was he sure he was ready? He was never more sure, he smiled. He read for one of the two male leads. To no surprise of his own, he got the part.
In his elation, he hadn't forgotten Susan Pleshette.
"You're crazy if you don't give her the feminine lead," he pleaded. "You've never seen a girl so talented."
His ardor was not entirely wasted. Susan was taken on as the feminine star's understudy. Their romance was not interrupted. Only the locale – not the proximity – was changed.
Eventually there were subtle signs that Dean and Susan were pulling in opposite directions. She was a zealous follower of the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall, and Dean found this a tiring ritual. Susan seemed to enjoy the spotlight. Dean still shrank from it.
When Compulsion ended its successful Broadway run, Hollywood beckoned to Dean. He made a Western, Gun For a Coward, and next did a film about teen-age turmoil, The Careless Years. Despite his conflicts with Lee Strasberg, many Actors' Studio mannerisms, closely associated with the late James Dean, were decidedly obvious in Stockwell's performances. These mannerisms plus a physical likeness made Stockwell the center of an almost neurotic James Dean revival movement. Although he angrily disavowed the comparisons, they didn't interfere with the rebirth of Stockwell's Hollywood career.
It was about this time that Dean began seeing an analyst.
It was also about this time that Susan Pleshette also chose to come to Hollywood to seek her mark in television and movies. Television, you see, was no longer a dirty word. Dean, in fact, did a great deal of fine television work, too. But it wasn't long though before the once-flaming Stockwell-Pleshette romance burned itself out.
Last year, Dean reported to 20th to bring to the screen the role he had created on the stage in Compulsion – a performance that was to be crowned with international honors at the Cannes Film Festival.
Like Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando whom he admired as friends and actors, Dean fiercely guarded his privacy. He found this attitude shared by his costar, Diane Varsi, an enigmatic new star who also refused to parade her emotions and private life in public.
In Compulsion, Dean sought to force his attentions on Diane. In real life they got along much better. He found Diane fascinating and complex. She liked him, too. Their romance escaped public attention but ended long before Diane fled Hollywood. Diane seemed to have too many problems. Dean was too depressed.
Then one day Dean Stockwell met another Hollywood newcomer. Her name was Millie Perkins. He stopped seeing all other girls. He also stopped seeing his analyst. Millie proved to be the perfect therapy for him.
Today Dean Stockwell has everything any 23-year-old man could ever want. He has it because he worked for it. He has it because he had the courage of his convictions . . . . He did what he felt he HAD to do, what he felt was RIGHT FOR HIM. And there is no doubt in the minds of those who know Dean well that it was his three lost years that most helped him find himself and make him the complete young man he is today.