Real People / September 1989
The Third Coming of Dean Stockwell
By Erik Knutzen

 

 

Six years 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 golf."

"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 whisper.

"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)."


By the time he retired at the age of 16, "The Boy with Green Hair" (1948) had become a classic. "I was about 12 at the time, but understood the strong anti-war message it had, coming on the heels of World War II," Stockwell recalls. "It's a surrealist film about a war orphan whose hair turned green as a symbol that there shouldn't be any more war orphans. I still love it."

 

He was 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 their daddy."

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 honor."

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."

 

THE END

1