Dean Stockwell: "Everything Is Falling Into Place"
By Jonathan Marlow

April 10, 2005 - 11:58 PM PDT




2004 was something of a breakthrough year for the CineVegas Film Festival, thanks in large part to the presence of Dennis Hopper on the Creative Advisory team, as Hannah Eaves noted that summer. One of the highlights of the festival was a screening of Joseph Losey's The Boy with Green Hair (1948), the film that made Dean Stockwell, not even a teenager yet at the time, a much sought-after if reluctant star.

Following the screening, Jonathan Marlow spoke with Stockwell about his wide-ranging and unique career.


Q:   Do you have fond memories of working with Robert Ryan on The Boy with Green Hair?

Stockwell: I remember that he was uptight [a characteristic of several adult actors that worked with Stockwell when he was young].

Q: He seemed to underplay his role against you. He doesn't seem to open up very much. It's just a framing device, but...

Stockwell: I think he was playing cop. [Ryan plays a psychologist. However, all of his scenes take place at a police station].

Q: Ryan miraculously escaped the blacklist even though many of the folks associated with this film and Tender Comrade were pulled down. Obviously this didn't affect you or your career. You were too young.

Stockwell: Yeah.

Q: You came back to film after doing a number of other things. How different was your experience when working on Psych-Out? Obviously the whole film community had changed from your times as, for lack of a better term, a child star.

Stockwell: When you've had a career a long time - Dennis [Hopper] will tell you this - there are parts that come along and that you accept because you're an actor. That's what you do for a living. If you get an offer, you have the choice of either accepting it or saying, "Bye bye." It's not wise to just turn things down. So I was offered this thing in Psych-Out and I thought it was an absolutely horrible, a stupid fucking capitalization on hippies. I tried to remove the character I was doing a little bit from what they really were trying to do. I don't think I was successful. It was impossible to be successful. It was a very unusual cast. Granted, everyone...

Q: Jack [Nicholson] and Bruce [Dern]... Susan Strasberg, right? Did you every study with Lee [Strasberg, Susan's father and teacher at the Actor's Theater in New York]?

Stockwell: No, I didn't study with anybody.

Q: Good for you.

Stockwell: I went to some acting classes in Hollywood because there were so many fucking beautiful girls. I just learned by myself in my own way when I was a kid.

Q: What you bring out of your performance in The Boy With Green Hair? It's very naturalistic. I think that's why it really stands out. You carry the entire film by yourself [although Pat O'Brien certainly helps].

Stockwell: That's what I figured was the way to do it. Do it the way that people would like. I had a nickname at MGM that was "One-Take Stockwell" because I wanted to get it the first time. What people didn't realize is the reason that that happened was that I didn't like being there. I didn't like doing this at all and I didn't want to do more than one. I just wanted to get it right and I knew just how people would like it. The way I did it was try to act naturally. I was an actor. And I found I could do it like that.

Q: You didn't have any trouble whatsoever as far as remembering lines? This was a pretty challenging role.

Stockwell: No, I had photographic memory when I was a kid. I still can memorize lines very easily.

Q: And where do you think that comes from?

Stockwell: I don't know. It's just a trait.

Q: You said you were first hired with your brother [Guy Stockwell - they both appeared together in The Green Years and The Mighty McGurk]. Did your brother share this trait? Did he have that same quality to just read a script and be able to...

Stockwell: No, it was a little more difficult for him, but he could do it. He did some contract movies for Universal as a young kid, Beau Geste and things like that. He was an acting teacher for a while.

Q: Much of your experience acting when you were young made you less interested in working in film, rather than more.

Stockwell: That's right. When I graduated from high school, I didn't know if there was an agreement between my mother, who was my legal guardian, and the studio. They had the option to renew [my contract] and we had no option at all. I think that the phenomenon of, what they call the awkward age of kids, was part of it. They couldn't see how they were going to cast me now that I was turning seventeen. So they let me out of it and I just took off. If I hadn't, I don't think that I would have survived since those years when I was anonymous kind of offset all those years of stardom. It was like The Boy with Green Hair. All the kids didn't like me because I was a movie star.

Q: Much later, you became associated with playing the ultimate outsider with your role in Blue Velvet. How much of what you created was taken from the script? What influence did Carol Burnett have on your characterization of Ben?

Stockwell: Well, I stole it. You know that thing that I do with my eyes? Carol Burnett had a character of this super snooty woman and she was always like this. I stole it and I told her one time and she laughed her head off.

Q: It's fantastic that you were certain enough with how Dennis [Hopper] would play his character that you could play against it. It's obviously an unforgettable role. Not to go roughshod over your career but, after a number of wonderful roles in Compulsion, Long Day's Journey Into Night, Tucker: The Man and His Dream and Paris, Texas, you moved into episodic television for a few years. After doing features for so long...

Stockwell: It was fantastic. There was a check every episode. The circumstances were great. Scott Bakula is just a fucking terrific guy. We got along famously and worked together beautifully [on Quantum Leap]. He had the much more difficult part in terms of hours of work. I get to go in and play golf in the afternoon, come in the next day and do one little scene. Ideal for me. I loved the show. I thought it was a cool show.

Q: Well, you were very fortunate in that the show has such a great premise. It really has endless possibilities. Do you think it's very likely that this backdoor pilot for a revisited Quantum Leap: A Bold Leap Forward will lead to a new series?

Stockwell: They were trying to get a script for it [the script was evidently finished recently by Trey Callaway] and Don Bellisario [creator of Quantum Leap] is doing not only JAG, but he's had the spin-off of JAG. So he's doing two shows at the same time, writing most of the new shows and offshoots himself. He just couldn't devote the time to do it so it's been postponed. I think when Don is freed up and his show is sailing along merrily, without needing so much hands-on time from him, he'll have more time to turn back to this and it could get finished next year. He wants to do it, I want to do it and they want to do it.

Q: You have a bit part in Jonathan Demme's remake of The Manchurian Candidate.

Stockwell: A very small part and to this day I just can't figure out why they wanted me to do it.

Q: Do you understand why they wanted to make the film in the first place?

Stockwell: Yeah.

Q: Why? The time is right to do it again?

Stockwell: These guys were brainwashed and implanted in the Gulf War. It's pretty strong.

Q: The script is pretty strong?

Stockwell: But I think he wanted me to do it because of Meryl [Streep]. There are a couple little things, little teeny things. But he wanted someone who could stay on the screen with her. Someone that she would respect and appreciate.

Q: ...and he immediately thought of you?

Stockwell: I guess so. She was funny. When I met her in Jonathan's dressing room, she came in and, when she looked over and laid eyes on me, she squeaked and jumped in the air. I thought that I'd frightened her or something. I had to go hug her. So I guess she liked some stuff I did. She's number one. She's the best actress I've ever seen.

Q: Was she familiar with your work with Jonathan Demme on Married to the Mob? Had she seen that?

Stockwell: I don't know. I called her "your greatness."

Q: You were nominated for an Academy Award for your portrayal of Tony Russo.

Stockwell: I had gotten a little comedian movie called Palais Royale just prior to Married to the Mob, but I didn't mention anything about it to Jonathan. But I had played a mafia felon on this Toronto-set little movie. There's a thing in the theater in New York where you take a play and you sort of test it out, ahead of time, before you bring it into Broadway. I had taken this role in this Canadian movie and taken all the loose ends out of it and tightened it up. I had already done the part, but Jonathan didn't know it. I did the same character, I just had to write over it and put Married to the Mob.

Q: You had it knocked out.

Stockwell: When I was doing the shoot in New York, I had come into the hotel, going all over, getting in the taxi, go into the restaurant, the waiters all over, I had this attitude and I kept it with me all the time and people treated me different. People were actually intimidated and took extra care of me because I just would nail them like that guy did in the movie.

Q: You started the collage work in the 1950s?

Stockwell: Yeah, I met this fellow [Wallace] Berman [the so-called "father of the California assemblage movement"] in 1956, or maybe '55, in Santa Monica on the street, and he invited me up to his place. He was an extraordinary looking guy. This is 1956 and he had long hair.

Q: That was obviously very unusual at the time.

Stockwell: Nobody had long hair then! There was something in his eyes that I had never seen and have never seen since. So I gladly accepted his invitation and went to his little tiny house planted within Beverly Glen and Hillside. It had all this work by a lot of different people. I'd never seen anything like this stuff. It just completely changed my life. Everything that was happening in art, subsequently, came from them.

Q: There is definitely a connection between you and Dennis. For instance, he's been a photographer for ages. Is it something particular about working in Hollywood during that period that allowed you to find these other outlets outside of acting to express yourself?

Stockwell: Well, it seems that meeting Berman may not have happened if I had been somewhere else at another time. That's where it happened. I mean, Dennis was making photographs. I don't know who he would tell you was his first influence. Berman influenced everyone in that town; anyone who came in contact with him would never forget it. There was just something special about him. It's part of my fate to have met him and to have pursued art since. Now, I've never exhibited art. I have one piece that Dennis owns. I gave it to him years and years ago. It dates from about the mid-60s. It was seen by a curator from the Whitney Museum. They were putting together their "Beat Culture of the 60s."

Q: How did they see the piece?

Stockwell: They were looking for pieces. This one curator saw it [in Dennis Hopper's collection] and they said, "Who's that?" He said, "Dean Stockwell."

Q: Both you and Dennis collect as well?

Stockwell: Yeah, but Dennis is more of a collector. I accumulated; a lot of them were given to me. I haven't bought that many. He's had three collections. One burnt in a fire, the tax man took another. The pieces he still has are incredible. It's one of the greatest collections in the world. Rauschenberg, Warhol, Bruce Connor... myself! That's the only piece I've ever exhibited anywhere prior to 2003.

Q: That's a big jump from one piece to a solo show [The Spagyric Eye, last September at the R.B. Ravens Gallery].

Stockwell: Yeah, that's a big jump. Only recently - the end of last June [2003] - out of nowhere I started making a serious body of work of collages and then started making these pieces in the computer that I print myself. I make limited edition prints and I combined those pieces for the show. There are 42 pieces in the show.

Q: Did Ray Trotter [owner of R.B. Ravens] coax you into putting this show together?

Stockwell: No, I picked him. I did. I picked him. I said, "Listen, I've been making some pieces I want to send you in an email and see what you think." By the time he got twelve of them he said, "Man, I've got to show them."

Q: The process sounds pretty unique. How long were you working on the pieces that would appear in the show?

Stockwell: About twenty of the collages were made in six weeks. I was up until four in the morning every night. They just came out like sausages and each time I was like, "Where the fuck did that come from?" After I finished two large ones, I started working with the computer. Then I bought the printers so I could print. So you have 22 one-of-a-kind paper collages and twenty prints in editions of ten and some up to 25. It is by far the most important thing I've ever done. This far exceeds anything I've done in acting. It's just not even worth commenting.

Q: Why now? What prompted this burst of activity?

Stockwell: I think that the time is right. The place that I wanted to show is tops. The time of year I wanted to show is perfect. Everything is...

Q: ...falling into place, exactly the way it's supposed to.