"The Boy Who Beat the Jinx"
by Jane Wilkie
Motion Picture magazine, November 1957
I remember it as though it were yesterday. In August of 1945, a 9-year-old charmer named Dean Stockwell burst upon the scene in a movie called Anchors Aweigh. He stole the picture right out from under three veteran scene-stealers – Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly and Kathryn Grayson.
From that moment, he shot upward in a series of pictures which won him award after award. He became known, simply, as "the best child actor of all time." He was a child who could turn emotion on and off at will, who was always letter-perfect in his lines, who was a one-take wonder. He never bothered with rehearsals. Instead, he walked through them in low key, like a tenor saving his voice for an opera performance, then when the take began, would unleash enough emotion to shake even hardened crew members.
Despite his prowess, he was a young rebel who despised acting, who resented the time it took from his life, who hated the fact that he could not be like the other kids.
"They think I'm different because I have a job. But I'm not!" he told interviewers.
But he WAS different, and at 16, he quit the movie business – for good, he hoped – spent a year at college and three years bumming around the country with odd jobs.
Then, despite his plan to lead a non-theatrical life, Dean turned back to the only business he'd ever known – making movies.
Today, at 21, Dean Stockwell is still a young rebel – but he's not sure of what he's rebelling against. To his friends and associates, he's an enigma.
Says a director: "He's a brilliant actor, but he's the only one who doesn't believe it. Ask him what role he was good in, and he's the only actor in town who'll say 'None.'"
A critic: ". . . a good actor, but why does he copy James Dean?"
A friend: "Dean Stockwell was an actor long before James Dean ever thought of it."
A producer: "He's a moody, mixed-up kid. He's changed from the kid we knew."
A co-worker: "He was always like this. I knew Dean when he was fourteen or fifteen. I was a messenger boy at the studio and he'd come in the messenger room and sit in silence, then, after a while, get up and leave."
In an effort to unravel this enigma of a boy on the threshold of adult stardom, I made a coffee date with Dean himself. In a way, it was like interviewing a newcomer, for he has made only two films – Gun for a Coward and The Careless Years – since his return. Yet, he is actually the veteran of some 17 films – top calibre stuff such as Anchors Aweigh, The Valley of Decision, The Green Years, Gentleman's Agreement, The Boy With Green Hair and The Secret Garden.
Dean is a slight, brown-haired boy, intense and brooding, with a quiet humor that flicks occasionally through his conversation. His tendency to scoff at his accomplishments, as well as his reticence to disclose his personal life, made this a painful interview for him.
The word painful is used literally, for Dean has a mental block where his childhood is concerned. He looks on Dean Stockwell, child actor, with complete detachment, as though he himself had never been that boy. It was an intensely unhappy period for him, beginning when his father put him, at age 6, and his brother, Guy, into a Broadway play, Innocent Voyage. Dean remembers very little about it; he recalls no audition, no dialogue, no stage fright. There was a girl in the play, a little girl his own age, of whom he became enamored and held hands backstage. "We held hands on stage, too," he says. "I didn't care."
The pattern of forgetting his past is one he has followed in all his work. The many radio and television plays and the movies in which he has worked, made no impression on his memory – unless there was a person involved with whom he had a feeling of closeness. And these are few. There was Selena Royle, who played gin rummy with him on the location trip to Maine for Deep Waters. There was Ann Revere in Gentleman's Agreement, whom he remembers with some affection because of her gentleness and warmth. And in Anchors Aweigh, he liked Frank Sinatra. "I don't remember why – maybe he was understanding. I haven't seen him since. But I remember I liked him. I don't know if he liked me."
This boy who can't remember his past was born March 5, 1936, in North Hollywood, California. His father, Harry Stockwell, had been a music critic for a Kansas City paper, then had given up that career for the musical stage. He sang the lead in the road company version of Oklahoma! and was the voice of Prince Charming in Walt Disney's Snow White. His mother, Betty Veronica Stockwell, danced in George White's Scandals and Earl Carroll's Vanities, but gave up the stage to make a home for Dean and his brother Guy, who is two years older. Before they settled down, the boys had seen most of the country, including stays in Boston, Chicago, New Jersey and New York.
Dean's first year of schooling was in New York. He remembers the apartment building in which they lived, and a nearby park where he played and where he fought with other kids. "I never won. I don't think I ever won a fight." But he remembers little else. He made few friends; he felt they were unnecessary because of his close relationship to his brother. Guy was a child actor, too. But, as Dean says, "He accepted it more readily than I. He was a much better actor than I. Guy did some plays in high school and won quite a few prizes."
Dean speaks apathetically about his childhood, feeling he was a child actor rather than a child, and he bitterly resents this fact. "It's hard to describe. But I wasn't acting as a matter of choice. I was too young to make a choice. I felt deprived of many things, particularly a healthy relationship with kids my own age. I had no friends other than my brother, and I never did anything I wanted to do. I associated with older people almost exclusively."
When Dean was 7, his parents divorced. His father stayed in New York and his mother took him to Hollywood to test for Anchors Aweigh, a trip that ended in a term contract with MGM. Dean feels that his years in movie work – "Maybe eight of them," he says with a heavy sigh – contributed nothing to his acting ability. "I was totally unaware of what I was doing. You don't act when you're a kid – you just learn lines and do as you're told. I didn't begin to realize there was a yes or no to the decision until I was about fifteen."
In Hollywood, Mrs. Stockwell and her two sons lived in a hotel for a while, then rented a house, later bought one in Culver City, near the studio. Dean lived there seven years, the longest period he ever spent in one home. His mother was paid a salary by MGM to manage the career of her sons, and found it a full time job, combined as it was with everyday domestic duties. The minute his work day was over, Dean removed his make-up, which he hated, and the family ate dinner at home if Mrs. Stockwell had had time to prepare the food. Dean always disliked going to bed, so he memorized his scripts after dinner and then read books until he fell asleep. On free days, he played football with the neighborhood kids, but there were few free days.
In the schoolroom at MGM, his classmates included Liz Taylor, Claude Jarman, Jr., Jane Powell and, for a while, Skip Homeier. But Dean made no close friends; Guy was in school with him, and that was enough. Though he enjoyed the academic side of school, he disliked the social life that went with it. He was not bowled over by the growing glamour of the girls in his class. He doesn't even remember his first date, only that it was a publicity date, set up by the studio for a premiere. He recalls attending a premiere, but doesn't remember what the movie was, only that the studio did not suggest a second one. "If they had, they wouldn't have been able to nail me."
Did he enjoy making any of his movies – The Boy With Green Hair, for instance? He passed a hand over his eyes. "No," he said. The Secret Garden? "No, I don't remember much about any of them." Wasn't there, somewhere, a favorite picture? Down To the Sea In Ships, he thought, with Lionel Barrymore and Richard Widmark, because he was fond of the sea. And because he had liked Henry Hathaway, the director, very much. "But I don't know whether he liked me. I don't think so."
What did he do during the endless hours on the sound stages? "I accepted the fact I had to be there. I don't recall thinking anything. Sometimes, when they were shifting scenery, I played ball with my stand-in, a boy named George Spotts."
What kind of a boy was Dean Stockwell? He doesn't remember, but he is sure the other actors and the crews didn't like him. "I used to rehearse very badly, and it must have annoyed everybody."
It is interesting that Dean does not embroider on this statement, nor does he make excuses for himself. I had already spoken to a director who had worked with him in those days. According to him, Dean Stockwell had reason for his indifference in rehearsals.
"The boy unfailingly knew his lines. The necessity for his work had been pounded into him. This was something he had to do, and he did it. He was a natural actor. A director needed only to explain the scene, and the boy instinctively was ready to play his part. I never saw him rehearse a scene well. He sluffed through it, for one reason, because he was sure he knew his part and the rehearsal was unnecessary for him. For another, it was his one opportunity to evince his intense dislike for what he was doing. But when the camera was on him, he was alert, instinctive, always giving a magnificent performance."
I mentioned to Dean the names of several child actors of today and yesterday, youngsters who apparently are and were a lot happier in their work than he.
"I don't believe it," he said. "I can't believe that any of them are doing what they want to do."
"You know," I said, "this story is going to paint you as a very complex young man."
He frowned. "I wish you wouldn't play it up too much. The readers won't like me."
"Do you want people to like you?"
"Yes, I do," he said. "Very much."
I disagreed with him that readers would be unsympathetic. There was no other way to write about him, I explained, than the way he is. Interviewing him was difficult. Some actors won't talk about their past because they don't want to; in Dean's case, it is because he can't remember. The mental block is there, protecting him from memories that are unpleasant, almost abhorrent to him. He is bottled up with unspent emotion, with distrust of almost everyone, with the certainty that people dislike him, and with a crushing lack of faith in himself.
"I have so little confidence," he says. "Every bit of acting I do is a traumatic experience. I have a tendency to make things over-complex, and when I try to do something that demands normalcy I have to pare down my thinking and try to make it simple."
He proceeded to deny many things that had been said and written about him. "I have no gift of acting . . . I'm not an aficionado of bull fighting. As a matter of fact, I have little interest in sports. I don't think I've lived long enough to have integrity . . . I have just a passing interest in music. I've never composed anything, never put a note down on paper . . . ." Despite this, friends say that the night The Careless Years was previewed in Los Angeles, Dean went to a Bach concert instead of his own movie.
His schooling, he says, was a series of jumps from one ivy-covered hall to another, ending with five years in MGM's studio school, a year at a Parochial school, and finishing in Los Angeles's Alexander Hamilton High. All the way through, with the exception of MGM, he was teased and taunted about being an actor, and was hurt deeply by it.
At 16, his MGM contract fulfilled, he was finally able to make his own decisions, and turned his back on acting. He enrolled at the University of California in Berkeley for a general course, with a predominance of English courses.
In college, Dean hoped to find himself, to determine what he would do with his life. Some people thought he might follow the footsteps of his brother Guy, now a schoolteacher in Northern California, but Dean denies having entertained the thought.
Despite the fact he was at last on his own and in a school where he might be accepted by young people his own age, college was not the answer. Not only did he fail to find an interest, but the students remembered Dean's name, and, he thinks, looked on him as something from outer space. "I tried to enjoy it – I really tried – but a year can be pretty long." Then came the three years which he refuses to discuss.
"What about those years?" I asked.
"What about them?" he parried, and grinned at me over his coffee cup.
"You ought to say SOMETHING – people will suspect the worst. Opium dens, etc."
He laughed. "It was legal. Let's just say I wandered around with my eyes open, and bummed around the country working at odd jobs trying to find myself. I did no acting."
Beyond that, he would say no more. I didn't insist, for too many people had said this had been a tough time for Dean. I knew that others, many times, had tried to pry the information from him, but the result had always been the same – he was unable to bring himself to talk about it.
Suffice it to say that somewhere along the line, he decided to return to his acting career. This time, there was a difference – it was his own decision. He got an agent ("MCA handles all the gory details") and soon landed the second lead in Gun For a Coward, followed it with his role in The Careless Years and signed a contract with Kirk Douglas' Bryna Productions.
"You don't look at all like Jimmy Dean," I ventured.
He sighed again, this time in relief. "I'm glad you said that. I've had a lot of trouble with that comparison. I can't help how I look, you know. It's only natural, I suppose, that his fans are looking for a replacement and they seek it in every new actor they see on the screen. But I didn't even know Jimmy Dean – I was living in a little town up north when he died."
"Suppose the teenagers latch on to you the way they did with Jimmy?" I asked.
"I want them to like me," he said slowly, "but it should be because of my acting – not my looks." He leaned forward, his elbows on the table. "That's the trouble with the realm of the theater and that includes radio and television. The people in these industries have encouraged hero worship, and the interest has grown all out of proportion. This way of thinking ignores the literal quality of art and elevates the people involved not for their artistic accomplishments, but for misplaced adulation from the public."
"That's quite a speech," I said.
He grinned. "You'd better not print it. I'm not sure teenagers go for eggheads."
I took it down anyway, because it illustrates how articulate and how deeply serious Dean can be.
He can also be amusing.
"What do you like to read?" I asked.
"Large print," he said.
"What do you notice first about people?"
"Whether they're naked or clad."
"What do you admire in women?"
"I have an aesthetic appreciation for form and symmetry."
The humor loosened his tongue. "As for books, I'm usually more interested in the way something is written than the subject matter itself. My interests are varied. I read a lot of history and find it interesting – but futile. The very fact that reams have been written about it proves its importance, but as far as I can see, the activity hasn't improved society in any way."
He is not a reader of best sellers, prefers instead to discover obscure authors who have something to say and say it well.
His interest in painting is as varied; he admires Utrillo's impressionism, Rembrandt's classicism and Paul Klee's modernism. About people, he is analytical more often than not, but doesn't make snap judgments. He looks for honesty, and because this quality is so important to him, he is disgusted by dishonesty. "I like a girl I can talk to, not, you understand, that I consider myself an intellectual. I just don't care for ignorance."
He is a confirmed Californian. "I don't like the east. I don't like cold weather, and I don't care for all the cement of Manhattan." He lives in a small house in San Fernando Valley, preferring it to an apartment because of the privacy it affords. Every dish in the house piles up in the sink before he gets around to washing them, and his clothes fill the hamper before he totes them to the laundry.
He doesn't care about clothes, has never been inside a tuxedo and owns one suit, "a morguish brown" which he seldom wears. He drives a flame-red sports car, but is planning to switch it for a more conservatively colored car. He has no mechanical bent, and depends completely on a trained mechanic when something goes wrong with it.
He cooks his food indifferently, often sprinkles a steak with spices and throws it in the oven. Vegetables are too much of a bother. "I have no sense of money or budgeting – I'm like a child where money is concerned."
He has no interest at the moment in any particular girl, but supposes he will get married some day and have a family. "Any man who doesn't look forward to marriage has a neurotic problem."
Without dramatic training to date (he still considers his childhood career worthless on this score), he hopes to remedy the situation soon. "You need an overseer you respect. You can't do everything yourself. You have to exert yourself and learn by working on different types of roles. Most important of all, dramatic training leaves you free to fail. You can't fail in front of cameras, but in studying you can, and actors need to fail in order to improve."
He admits to disagreeing often with directors. "I have my own concepts. I expect a director to put a scene to me clearly, and to justify it. If he can't show me, I can't work smoothly. With a director who doesn't do this, I feel inept. I'm really quite adamant in my dislike for myself in my work. I'm hyper-critical about it." He prefers roles with as much maturity as possible, "something intelligently written, with a lasting quality."
Put Dean Stockwell together along with the opinions of those who know him and you have a curious picture of a boy who is searching for himself. He is a lonely, complex, intense young man; he is gentle and strong. Could you know him personally, you would like him for himself. And that he would want.
Despite his self-criticism, he is a talent that cannot be denied. He is facing life, slugging it out on his own terms – and winning. What he wants most to be is the boy who beat the jinx. And at the rate he's going, he's almost got it made!