ago, Dean Stockwell couldn't get arrested in Hollywood. He had spent fourteen
long, lean and frustrating years trying to launch his movie comeback –
bouncing between dinner-theater engagements in the hinterlands and knocking
on film producers' doors, practically hat in hand. But all he got were a few
crumbs in the form of occasional television guest shots. His earnings
averaged around $10,000 per year.
In 1983, as Stockwell was considering selling real estate
in Santa Fe, New Mexico, he got a break from an old friend in the form of a
small supporting role in "Paris, Texas", which didn't set box
office records, but won the grand prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Another
modest role in the blockbuster bomb "Dune" followed, but only after
the director, David Lynch, discovered that the rumored reports of Stockwell's
death had been greatly exaggerated. And then the floodgates opened.
Now, over the past half-dozen years, Stockwell seems to be
a permanent member of the Movie-of-the-Month Club. He regained fame with
every passing project, including such widely divergent films as "Blue
Velvet," "To Live and Die in L.A.," "Gardens of
Stone," "Beverly Hills Cop II" and "Tucker." And
1989 has been a rather extraordinary experience for him so far, with an
Academy Award nomination for "Married to the Mob," starring status
in a new NBC network series, "Quantum Leap," and four feature films
("Backtrack," "Limit Up," Palais Royale" and
"Sandino") in the can.
Stockwell – short, spare, dark and whisp-haired, now 53 –
seems perfectly content with his current situation as he pulls on a huge
Cuban cigar (his smoke of preference) in his cluttered dressing room trailer
on the Universal back lot where "Quantum Leap" is being shot.
"Why am I doing a television series with a big movie career going?"
he asks rhetorically, puffing on a stogie.
"Well, for one, a film activity might appear to be
hot, but there are big periods of time in between when an actor, like, me
starts wondering if another part will come along. I don't like that anxiety
particularly. Second, doing a series at home in L.A. means I can see my wife
and children every night – unlike going on location somewhere doing a motion
picture. Third, the financial rewards are potentially great. If the series
runs five years, I'll be financially set, and I can cut back on work and play
"Quantum Leap," a critically acclaimed
comedy/fantasy/drama, in Stockwell's first venture in the television series
field in a 46-year acting career that includes more than 65 features and
countless stage productions. But it wasn't for the lack of trying. "No
one ever approached me, or responded to me, about a series until I got hot in
films," he explains, barely raising his soft voice over the level of a
"I was told by TV producers time and again that it was
impossible to cast me in a show because I had no TVQ (TV-viewer recognition).
I still have no TVW, but I have a series, nothing is impossible,"
Stockwell continues, waving the cigar. "And, fortunately, I love playing
this character, Albert, a hologram that only the time traveler (Scott Bakula)
can see and hear. He's a smart guy, a quantum physicist and ex-astronaut, but
also a reprobate. And he's a womanizer who tends to get hangovers."
It took a long time for the genuinely kind and modest actor
to reach his current status. Born in Hollywood to actors/vaudeville
performers Harry and Betty Veronica Stockwell, Dean and his actor brother, Guy
("Beau Geste") got fast starts in showbiz. "I didn't choose to
go into acting at the age of seven, it just happened," he says,
matter-of-factly. "My parents took me down to a Broadway theater where
they were casting "The Innocent Voyage". The next thing I knew, I
was in the play. An MGM talent scout saw me in it and before I knew what was
happening, I was making movies – starting with `Anchors Aweigh' (1945)."
exhausted from nine years of 10-hour-days, six days weeks, when he walked out
on this career for the first time. "It was very difficult for me to be a
child star, living in a goldfish bowl and isolated from my peer group,"
Stockwell recalls, wincing. "I was lucky to survive, due in large part
to the love, support and understanding that my mother provided. Without her –
my parents divorced when I was about seven – I would have had repercussions
later in life. A number of child stars who were my contemporaries didn't
survive. They're literally dead and gone, and not from natural causes."
In order to experience reality, Stockwell changed his name
and disappeared for five years – making a living driving trucks, inspecting prunes
and pounding railroad spikes. "It was a very necessary and good
experience," he explains, "but by the age of 20 or so, I realized
that I didn't really have any training for a life-long career other than
acting. So, I tried it again. It was difficult, but I was lucky."
And he did very well, this time as a leading man, in such
prestigious films as "Compulsion" (1959) and "A Long Day's
Journey into Night" (1962). Just as things got rolling again, his
two-year marriage to actress Millie Perkins landed on the rocks and once more
he left acting to explore sex, drugs and rock `n roll. "In the classic
phrase, I dropped out, turned on and tuned in during most of the 60's, (often
in the company of pals Jack Nicholson and Dennis Hopper), only to find there
was nothing for me in Hollywood when I tried to drop back in," shrugs
Stockwell. "Here, out of sight means out of mind. More than decade
passed, and I was unlucky. When you're hot, everyone wants you. When you're
not, forget it."
Somewhere down the line, probably during drinking bouts in
fits of depressions, Stockwell managed to lose his Golden Globe statuette for
"Gentleman's Agreement" (1947) and two Cannes Film Festival
"best actor" scrolls bestowed for "Compulsion" and "A
Long Day's Journey into Night". The golden globe disappeared due to my
carelessness and I torched the Cannes scrolls one night when I was three
sheets to the wind." He says with a touch of regret. "Things have
changed now because of my wife, Joy, who is wonderful. I wasn't working when
we got married in 1982 – and it didn't look like I was ever going to work
again – yet she has always been unflagging in her support."
Now a solid family man, Stockwell claims his life has been
totally turned around by fatherhood. "Everything I do now I think of in
terms of my babies, three-year-old Sophia and five-year-old Austin. That's
why I am petitioning to have duplicates made of the Cannes awards and the
golden Globe. I don't care much for such prizes personally, but hopefully it
will mean something to the kids – like leaving them with a good feeling about
In his latest resurrection, Stockwell is one of the most
sought after character actors in the business and he intends to keep it that
way. "I'm having a good time with my work, though the big thing is being
with my wife and kids," he says. "There seems to be a balance in my
life right now that came late, but I wouldn't trade it for anything. It's
also nice to know I've been part of many good projects, including
"Married to the Mob" – that wild gangster role was my favorite.
"After I read the wonderful script, I called my wife
and said, `If I get this role, it's all over.' I just knew I could score with
the part. That Kevin Kline won the Oscar as `best supporting actor' (for
"A Fish Called Wanda") doesn't bother me at all. I've been in this
business a long time, long enough so that I consider a nomination a deep
He also developed a fondness for the tiny part of the
freakish drug dealer with eerie white makeup in Dennis Hopper's film,
"Blue Velvet". "I figured the film would get a lot of
attention because it was a brilliant script, albeit bizarre. However, I
wasn't quite ready for how good it would be, nor did I realize the effect
that my performance in it would have because I only did one scene. It was the
most off-the-wall thing I could think of. I thought it would be too strange
to catch on, but fortunately I was wrong."
Stockwell's long journey into daylight was one he would not
care to repeat in every detail, nor wants his children to go through. "I
have few regrets, but many stops along the way were frightening," he
says, stubbing out his fat cigar. "As for my own children, if either of
them expressed an interest [in acting] now, I'd encourage them to design costumes
and put on little plays at the house – just to see how long they kept it up.
If their interest persisted over a number of years, I would encourage it. But
a job is a responsibility and I wouldn't encourage them to do it
professionally. I'd rather have them enjoy a free childhood."