When Dean Stockwell learned that director
David Lynch had chosen him to play Dr. Yueh, the traitor of DUNE, he also
received the shock of his life. In the very same breath, Lynch apologetically
explained that he had heard that Stockwell had died. "I was really
surprised," the actor explains, laughing, "because that's the first
time anybody ever told me that I was DEAD."
To understand this pseudo-posthumous
situation, it's necessary to step back two years into the past. In 1982,
Mexican director Juan Lopez Moctezuma (of MANSION DE LA LOCURA and ALUCARDA
fame) offered Stockwell a role in his latest thriller, TO KILL A STRANGER.
and travelled to Mexico City (where the film
was being shot on location) and at the Churubusco Studios (where DUNE was in
"I heard that Dino De Laurentis had
rented the studio, that they were building the sets, that DUNE was going to
be done, and that David Lynch would direct it," the actor remembers.
"So, I put on my mental calendar that, before I left, I would get over
there and see if DUNE was being cast, and if I had a chance of getting in it.
The next to last day of shooting, we had some stuff on the edges of the back
lot, so at lunch, I asked Juan Lopez Moctezuma if he would be kind enough to
get me an
introduction to the DUNE people. Sure enough,
I met David in the cafeteria, and it turned out, much to my surprise, that we
had met once before, years ago. I said, 'David, I love DUNE. I think it's great
that you're doing this project, and I would LOVE to be in it.' I just flat
out put my cards on the table. He thought for a second, then he had to tell
me that the movie, at that point in time, was cast.
"So, I wished him all the best with DUNE
and said goodbye. I left Mexico City and came back home [New Mexico], then
went to LA for a TV show. Suddenly, I got a call from my wife, saying that my
agent had called. I thought it was about another project, also being done in Mexico,
by the first company that I had worked with down there. So, I called and my
agent told me it was DUNE.
"I jumped up and down, very happy. He
said they wanted me for the part of Dr. Yueh, and of course, I said to accept
it. I finished the TV show, went back to my home, and made a telephone
connection with David Lynch in Mexico City. What had happened was that John
Hurt, who had
originally been cast in the role, had found a
schedule conflict and backed out of DUNE. Because I had fortuitously met with
him in Mexico City, David immediately went with me. But the funny thing is,
on the phone, the first thing he did was to apologize. He said, 'If my reaction
looked strange when you came into the commissary down there in Mexico City,
please forgive me, but I had heard you were dead.' Whereupon I assured him
that THAT information was incorrect."
Feeling "plenty alive," as he
describes it, Stockwell couldn't control his enthusiasm about DUNE. "My
first reaction when I heard I got the part was, I couldn't care less which role
it was because I just wanted to be in this movie," he says. "Then,
I read the book again to refresh my memory. I thought of it as a part with a
good deal of dimension to it. Yueh's not just a soldier. He has some guts. If
I had chosen a character to play in this film, I think that he would have
been among my
Stockwell also feels positive about his
collaboration with director David Lynch. "David is just great to work
for," Stockwell explains. "He has enormous respect for actors, and
actors really respond to
respect, let me tell you. If you want to get
an actor pleased and doing his best work, just show him respect and you'll
get it.....and love. David has that. He's not a technician who's only
interested in the effects and the camera. His concern is the drama going on
That, to me, makes a good director. And that's
the kind of director with whom I enjoy working. DUNE was a lot of fun."
The actor's admiration extends to producer
Rafaela De Laurentis, whom he credits for carrying the project to its
successful conclusion. Like many other production members, Stockwell had read
Frank Herbert's novel years ago. An avid DUNE fan, he was well aware of the
inherent difficulties of translating the Herbert masterwork from print to
film. "At the time I read the book," Stockwell explains, "I
NEVER thought of DUNE in terms of a movie, because there's so much internal
"If somebody had handed me the book and
asked me about making it into a movie, I would have read it in a different
way. I still would have been sceptical, because the obstacles to its
conversion into a film were formidable. I think that fact was proved with the
efforts of various other filmmakers to bring it to the screen, and failing.
It wasn't until Rafaela De Laurentis tackled DUNE that it came about.
"I've worked with many wonderful,
wonderful producers. But, in all honesty, I must say that Rafaela is the
hottest producer with whom I've ever worked. She has the knack for it. It's
as natural for her as walking is for a baby. It just comes so easy to her,
feels at ease. You're not going to take
advantage of Rafaela, because of her strength, but she doesn't put undo
pressure on everybody, and things work themselves out because of her
attitude. She's remarkable."
Despite his previous experience filming in
Mexico, Stockwell admits that the shooting conditions for DUNE were
"pretty rugged." He adds, "but, I was fortunate, in that my
costumes were made of simple cloth. David has this thing for RUBBER. He has a
fascination - you could even call it a
PASSION - for rubber. He feels that nothing
looks like rubber, and he's correct I'm sure.
"Working with the designer, he designed
all the soldiers' outfits to be made out of rubber. Some weighed 160 pounds.
The lightest ones, I think, were 70 or 80 pounds. All out of rubber, in the
summer, in Mexico! So, you had many people passing out. As I said, I was
lucky because I just wore a light cloth costume.
"I was down there for eight weeks, and I
shot for six. I knew about the smog and the altitude. Their air pollution in
Mexico City is pretty wicked. It's worse than LA. I think it's the worst in
the world. But everything that I did on DUNE, was shot on soundstages. So, I
didn't have the good - or bad - luck to have to go out in the desert to
shoot. That must have been rougher still."
Shooting in such a large city far away from
home for a long period of time can in-still a sense of isolation among a film
company. Yet, according to Stockwell, the loneliness blues didn't infect
DUNE. "You didn't really have time to feel isolated," he says,
"even if you weren't shooting every day, which was the case with many of
us. Mexico City may be a big town, but the hotels where production people
were placed were all in a central location. A long taxi ride to the studio,
by the way. Most of the talent stayed in the 'Pink Zone' two or three
different hotels, all within a few blocks.
"If you were working, then, of course,
everything was taken care of. But if you weren't then you would be walking
around the block and there would be Sting, or Max von Sydow, or here comes
the cameraman. If you went to dinner, there would be Rafaela and a group at
restaurant. Go to another restaurant, and
there would be David and somebody else. It became like a film festival
because of the international atmosphere."
Stockwell found working with the international
cast to be a pleasure. "It's a very gratifying feeling whenever you work
with really top-notch, world-class actors," he says. "Of course, it
does one's ego good. But, also it's very, very enjoyable, because you're
aware of their competence, their professionalism and their total commitment.
You can count on those actors, and that makes your work easier.
"I'm a big fan of Max von Sydow [who
plays Imperial Ecologist Liet-Kynes]. It was a gas to meet him and share a
scene with him. That was a trip. There aren't too many people who I get a
little flustered about. But I was really impressed. He's very down home,
personable and sweet. A very sweet man. He told me that he had admired
something that I had done, and that just floored me. To have someone whom you
really admire tell you that he liked something you have done is really great.
It makes you feel wonderful.
"I also very much enjoyed working with
Ken McMillan [who portrays the evil Baron Harkonnen]. He's a very dedicated,
madman kind of actor. Ken and I spent quite a bit of time together on days
off. We would go visit some little town or something. I enjoyed his company.
He's an actor's actor if ever there was one."
Stockwell's favorite scene in DUNE may turn
some moviegoers' stomachs. "I believe that, after people have seen the
film, they'll remember it," he comments. "As everyone knows, Dr.
Yueh is working for both sides. At a certain point, before all hell breaks
loose, when everyone is aware
that there's a traitor in the house of
Atreides but not WHO, there's a little scene in Dr. Yueh's autopsy lab.
Bodies of Harkonnen soldiers are laying around. A new body has just been
delivered. Yueh has a kind of X-ray arrangement above the table. You see him
with this body lying
there, and suddenly he sees something imbedded
inside the body. It's a tube with a message for him from the Harkonnens,
which has to do with the plans for overthrowing the House of Atreides.
Whereupon, he is obliged to take a scalpel and SLICE THIS BODY OPEN, then
reach his hand
into this body and fish around to find the
"We shot the hell out of this scene,
close-ups of my hand going into this body and fishing around. It was a big
makeup deal. They had a fake body which was fantastically well done Everyone
on the set was queasy from watching. If it had been my first movie, I
probably would have
fainted. It was pretty weird."
For many movie fans, Dean Stockwell's name
conjures up an image of a curly-haired twinkly-eyed child star of the 1940s.
The son of a Broadway performer (who voiced Prince Charming in Disney's SNOW
WHITE), was born in North Hollywood in 1936 and made his acting debut at age seven,
along with his younger brother Guy (later also a screen actor), in a stage
production of THE INNOCENT VOYAGE.
"Today, a child performer is not so
unusual," Stockwell remembers. "But in those days, there was a
very, very small handful of kids making movies. There was me, Margaret
O'Brien, Roddy McDowall, three or four others and that was it. So, I was an
oddity in life. I didn't consider myself an oddity, but everyone else did.
And I didn't really have an education. In those days, the studio system was
set up to enable children to work. They couldn't have a full school day, just
three hours of schooling daily, five days a week. And when the kids were actually
filming, then the study time was in increments of 15 minutes. You would
shoot, rush back for another 15 minutes of books, and then back to the
cameras again. You tell me someone who can really learn the basics of
reading, writing and arithmetic that way."
During those years, Stockwell charmed
audiences in numerous films, mostly at MGM. In the musical ANCHORS AWEIGH
(1945), he co-starred with Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly. He also appeared in
THE GREEN YEARS (1946), GENTLEMAN'S AGREEMENT (1947), THE BOY WITH GREEN HAIR
THE SECRET GARDEN (1949), and KIM (1950).
"THE BOY WITH GREEN HAIR was, strangely,
a pleasure for me," Stockwell says, "because somehow I got a fix on
what it was about, what it really meant. It was an anti-war film. The kid was
a war orphan. His hair turned green in order to symbolize that there
shouldn't be any more war, because it created war orphans. It was a very
strong film and many people involved with it were accused of being
Communists. But I really took that film to heart, although it was exceedingly
difficult for me because I had a bad time with the wigs. I got a scalp
lasted for a year and my head was all raw and
bloody. But it didn't matter because the movie was important to me. It was
By age 16, Stockwell decided to leave acting.
"I had been very successful," he explains. "I had made some
classic movies. But all I knew of life and the world was being in a strange
environment and making these movies. Some part of me guessed that there was a
little bit more to life. I wouldn't be able to get a perspective on what I
was going to do until I got away from movies So, I cut off completely, as
soon as I graduated high school and left. My mother knew it was inevitable.
The last two years, I had gone to a public high school, and it was disgusting.
Impossible. They all hated me and it was weird. So, I travelled all over the
States. I changed my name and no one knew who I was. I didn't come back until
I was 21."
Upon his return to Hollywood, Stockwell
started doing television, managing to survive the transition from child actor
to mature performer. He received the Cannes Film Festival's Best Actor Award
twice, once in 1959, at age 23, for COMPULSION, a role he created for the
again in 1962 for A LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO
NIGHT, in which he played Edmund Tyrone.
Fantasy fans may recall American
International's 1970 version of THE DUNWICH HORROR. Stockwell was the evil
Wilbur Whateley. "I don't remember how I got involved in that
movie," he reminisces. "I had been - and still am, of course - an
avid H. P. Lovecraft fan, and I was
excited at the prospect of doing something
based on Lovecraft. However, the movie was pretty watered down. I don't think
it really had any direct relation to where Lovecraft was at. It was a genre
film, and they stuck his name on it. I don't know how many people who go to
those films are really aware of Lovecraft's
writing. His work was quite a bit more intense than that film. For one, there
was no girl in Lovecraft's novelette. They added Sandra Dee. Then, they had a
model of her to lay on the altar, because her mother didn't want her half naked
"It was done in a silly, tongue-in-cheek
way. At least, that's the way I did the role. The best thing in THE DUNWICH
HORROR is a scene towards the end, where the guy takes the girl up and sticks
her on the altar and does these incantations. It was indicated in the script
that he opens
his shirt. In Lovecraft's story, there's an
indication that he has very weird stuff on his skin. So, I arranged to have a
friend of mine, George Herms, a fine artist, paint my chest. He came down to
the set and spent four hours in the morning, doing what looks like runic hieroglyphics,
all on my chest. Those stand out when I open up my shirt and you see all
these weird calligraphies on my body."
In 1973, Stockwell appeared in the offbeat
horror comedy, WEREWOLF OF WASHINGTON. "I thought it had a great deal of
potential, even while we were shooting it," the actor remembers.
"But, with the way it was edited, it became a disaster. It was a
werewolf movie and a political
satire at the same time. As it was being shot,
the Watergate break-in occurred. Just by coincidence, many things in the
script corresponded to the figures of that day. The character lived in the
Watergate, looked a little like John Dean, and was dating the President's
The first person he killed when he turned into
a werewolf was Martha Mitchell. It was very crazy and had potential, but it
got mucked up."
Stockwell, who lives in New Mexico, now has a
10-month-old son, Austin, a name which he "stole" from David
Lynch's son. "It was great working with Lynch on DUNE," Stockwell
notes. "By the way, he and Rafaela are now going to do a much, much
smaller film, BLUE VELVET, and he wants me
to do a cameo role in it."
DUNE, opening December 7, is a long-awaited
science-fiction epic carrying with it the hopes and aspirations of SF fans.
Their opinions will help determine its eventual financial success or failure.
"This is not a novel experience for me," Dean Stockwell comments.
"I've had that experience several times - in doing COMPULSION, which, at
that time, was a number one bestseller. SONS AND LOVERS was a classic in
English literature. A LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT is one of our greatest plays.
So, that wasn't new. With DUNE or any other adaptation, you just get a
feeling that you should trust the people who are responsible for the overall
project, then contribute what your overall talents allow you to
contribute.....and then hope for the best!"