"Dean Stockwell: The Master of
Quirky Cool and Alien Humor"
by Phoebe Hoban
Vogue, August 1988
"You got any cappuccino?" asks Dean Stockwell. He's wearing a striped shirt and pants and a lot of New Mexican jewelry. It's not exactly the John Gotti look, but somehow it says "Mafia don." His turquoise ring weighs down his pinky finger as he slicks his hair back with both hands. "A bit of the Don talking," he says, with a smile that could make a hit man sweat. "Normally, I'm much more like this . . . ." Stockwell makes some imperceptible adjustment, and suddenly the suave criminal becomes a regular guy, the kind you might buy real estate from.
He's taking a break from the set of Jonathan Demme's Married to the Mob. "The Don is the only part I've enjoyed doing when I wasn't on the set. I love going around being the Don. It just comes out."
The dean of Dons enters the picture to a serenade: the piano player at a mob joint bursts into song as Tony Russo strolls in and drapes his white silk scarf over an accommodating waitress. And Russo never loses his satisfied smirk – whether he's murdering his mistress in a hotel bathtub ("It's checkout time," he says, chewing gum and twirling his gun) or sweet-talking his obnoxious wife.
Jonathan Demme was polishing the last rewrite of his script when the inspiration to cast Stockwell struck. "I got off the plane in L.A. and opened up the inevitable Hollywood Reporter and there was this full-page picture of Dean Stockwell staring at me," he recalls. "I went, 'Oh my God, it's Tony Russo.'"
Stockwell liked the script, but when Demme flew him to New York City, Stockwell refused to read. "I don't want to put the kiss of death on it by reading," he said. "I've never gotten a part I've read for."
"I just sat there," Demme says, "and I just thought, these feelings I'm getting from this guy are much too strong to let this be a stumbling block, so I said, 'O.K., you got it.' He's far greater than anybody else would have been. He brought this incredible fusion of a contemporary sensibility with a classic sense of who the gangster is and how he functions in society. And I love that."
A child star in the 'forties, a leading man in the early 'sixties, a dropout till the 'seventies, the fifty-year old Stockwell has resurfaced in the 'eighties as a master of quirky cool. "Dean is intelligent, intense, and deep," says Francis Ford Coppola, who directed him in Gardens of Stone. "He's able to work from the mysterious part of the soul."
Stockwell, a veteran of fifty-five films, was discovered in 1944 at the age of six. In 1947, he won an award for his performance as Gregory Peck's son in Gentleman's Agreement, and in 1948, he played the eponymous Boy with Green Hair in Joseph Losey's popular pacifist film. Still, Stockwell wasn't exactly thrilled with being a child star: "I dreaded showing up on the set a lot of times."
He took five years off after high school. At twenty-one, he returned to Hollywood and acting, reincarnated as a serious lead. In 1959 he made Compulsion and Sons and Lovers. In 1962, he played Edmund in Long Day's Journey into Night. He won two best-actor prizes at Cannes. But "after Compulsion, they offered me every psychotic script you could think of."
Stockwell quit acting again in 1964 to tune out and tune into the 'sixties scene on the West Coast, hanging out with friends including Dennis Hopper. His face is full of stories, but he isn't about to spin any Hopperesque tales of easy riding. "I did some drugs and went to some love-ins. The experience of those days provided me with a huge, panoramic view of my existence that I didn't have before. I have no regrets. It was a lot of fun, suffering, stimulation, boredom. A lot of hangovers, a lot of women. Those were the days."
In 1976, Stockwell met Joy Marcheko on a beach during the Cannes Film Festival. Five years later, they moved to Santa Fe and he placed an ad in Variety for a totally new role: "Dean Stockwell will help you with all your real estate needs in the new center of creative energy." But, he says, "No one ever called about a house." Instead he got calls for acting jobs.
Stockwell played the sleazy lawyer in William Friedkin's To Live and Die in L.A.; Harry Dean Stanton's brother in Wim Wender's Paris, Texas; and the traitorous Dr. Yueh in David Lynch's Dune. But the role that got Stockwell back into the limelight was the awesomely weird Ben in Lynch's genre-defying classic Blue Velvet.
Dressed in a Paisley smoking jacket, with white pancake makeup and a long cigarette holder, Ben is the film's real femme fatale – a polymorphously perverse androgyne who looks like a cross between Liza Minnelli and an anorectic Divine. "Suave, you are one suave fucker," rants Dennis Hopper playing Frank. Ben's lip-synched version of Roy Orbison's "In Dreams" pushes the movie – and the song – into a whole other orbit. "I never had any idea the character would be effective in the way that it's been," says Stockwell. "I think one writer called it 'alien humor.' That strikes a chord with me."
Stockwell gets a chance to play his "alien humor" to the hilt in Married to the Mob. He's happy with his comeback. In fact, to him, it's kind of karmic. "I enjoy the mystery of acting more than anything. I'm aware of it and that's the way I work. I just scoot along with a spontaneity that rolls rhythmically. I feel every moment that's going down there's a wonder, a magical existence. It's pretty far out."
"It's weird," says Demme. "I watched The Boy with Green Hair a few weeks ago. And there he is, exactly the same Dean Stockwell. Usually you search for the adult who grew from the child. But it was all there then: extraordinary presence, extraordinary savvy, and this great communicative ability with the other actors. He was really quite astonishing. Dean brings a lot with him from his previous life."