"Dean Stockwell: Interview"
by Craig Edwards
Psychotronic Video, 1995
Dean Stockwell was born Robert Dean Stockwell on March 5, 1936, in North Hollywood. He's been acting in movies now for more than 50 years. His mother Betty Veronica was a singer. His stage actor father Harry Stockwell was the voice of Prince Charming in Cinderella (50). His younger brother Guy (born in 38) is also an actor.
"My mother was in vaudeville, but after she had her children, she quit working. My father had a contract to make some films at one point, but that didn't work out. He did Oklahoma on Broadway, replaced Albert Drake in the lead in Oklahoma." Dean made his stage debut n 1942 in The Innocent Voyage. "My parents were splitting up at the time. My father heard about this play that was looking for a bunch of kids, like twelve kids. He told my mother about it, and she, for no particular reason, decided to take my brother and me down to audition for it, and we were both hired on and we were in the play. Subsequently, a fellow from Metro Goldwyn Mayer studios saw the play and they asked me to do a screen test and then I was signed to a contract. I started with a film called Anchors Aweigh."
Stockwell played Kathryn Grayson's little brother Donald in Anchors Aweigh, a splashy MGM color musical starring Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra. It's the one where Kelly dances with an animated Tom the mouse. The same year Stockwell was also in The Valley Of Decision, set in 1870s Pittsburgh and starring Gregory Peck and Abbott And Costello In Hollywood. "The deal with that was, Abbott and Costello were on the MGM lot, getting into all their antics and stuff. At one point they either ran or walked through the studio's schoolroom. In that way, I was in the film, sitting there in the schoolroom with Margaret O'Brien, and I think Elizabeth Taylor was in there too. She was very gorgeous, she had just finished National Velvet, so she was very young and very gorgeous. I wouldn't say I had a crush on her, but I had an appreciative eye for her. The school was divided into two rooms, with the younger kids in one room and then a different room and teacher for the kids who were more like high school age. Elizabeth and another young starlet, named, I believe Shirley Jones palled around as teenagers, since they shared a mutual view of the world and it excluded the younger kids most definitely!"
Stockwell continued working at MGM until 1950, but for him, it wasn't the dream job it sounds like. "I didn't enjoy acting particularly, when I was young. I thought it was a lot of work. There were a few films that I enjoyed, they were comedies, they were not important films, weren't very successful, so I was always pretty much known as a serious kid. I got those kind of roles and I didn't care for them very much."
In Song Of the Thin Man (47), the 6th and final feature of the popular series, Stockwell got to play Nick Jr., the son of Nick and Nora Charles (William Powell and Myrna Loy). "I have very positive feelings regarding both of them, they were very sweet people, especially Myrna Loy. And that cute little dog, Asta. I liked that little dog."
Gentleman's Agreement (for 20th Century Fox) was another serious film. It was controversial for 1947, with its anti-Semitism storyline (changed from homosexuality in the novel). Gregory Peck plays a writer who pretends to be Jewish. Elia Kazan directed. "Gentleman's Agreement, I didn't like doing at all, because it was so serious. In other words, when I would find out I was going to do another movie, my mother would always bring that news to me, and the first question that I would always ask was, 'Is there a crying scene in the movie?' And there almost always was, and then I would be totally depressed about that. I hated the idea of it, but I was under contract and I couldn't get out of it. And there was very definitely a crying scene in this picture, and I had to sort of do a little softshoe to divert the director away from me. He was coming over to me and saying, 'Try to think of a puppy dying,' and all this shit. He was from the Actor's Studio, Kazan. And I just sort of nodded yeah, yeah, yeah, and then I would go off by myself and irritate my eyes, bring tears, and go in and do the damn scene. I didn't want to think about dead puppies, for Christ sake! And I got the idea that Gregory Peck didn't like working with a kid. You know that old axiom in Hollywood, 'avoid working with kids or dogs.' For that reason I didn't feel much warmth from him. From my vantage point, from reading the material and having to speak the lines, I knew what it was about, and it seemed like it was something special. The same thing with The Boy With Green Hair. It had its controversial aspects at that time."
In Joseph Losey's The Boy With Green Hair (48), Stockwell is a kid who becomes a social outcast when his hair turns green. The color release from RKO featured Robert Ryan, Pat O'Brien and the debut of little Rusty Tamblyn. It was the first feature Stockwell carried as a star, but he didn't feel any more pressure. "No, just that there was another of those damned crying scenes! That was basically all I was concerned about, I always found that a difficult experience to have to do." Some viewers figured Stockwell's hair was dyed. "It was a wig. There were several of them, and they were very expensive. They were made from French women's hair and a couple of them were made so they could shave the hair off. They were a huge pain in the ass and I really didn't like it. But I did like doing the movie for the reason that I thought it was an important movie. We had been involved in the Second World War which had just ended a few years before this. I had been very aware of the experience of the war from the newspapers and newsreels and everyone's conversations, the consciousness of it all through my childhood, so I felt this was making an important statement because it was an anti-war film. And that's why a lot of the participants were branded Communists and put on the Hollywood blacklist. That included the director Joseph Losey, the producer Adrian Scott and the writer, it screwed up a lot of lives. It was really horrible. But during the production, I did feel that I was part of something that meant something to me, it was important."
The next year (49), he starred in The Secret Garden, as the depressed rich kid who has been convinced that he's crippled by his depressed absent father. It's a great looking b/w MGM movie based on the famous children's book by Frances Hodgson Burnett (Francis Ford Coppola backed the recent remake). The excellent cast of the original includes Margaret O'Brien, Herbert Marshall and Elsa Lanchester. The sequences in the garden are in color. "More crying scenes! And temper tantrums! But I enjoyed very much working with Margaret, she was a very talented little actress. I thought we worked well together."
Kim (50), Stockwell's last MGM movie co-starred Errol Flynn. It's based on the classic Kipling novel set in 1880s India. "Kim was great because of Errol Flynn. I really liked Errol, he was always very straight with me, not patronizing at all. Very cool. Of all the people I worked with, he was my favorite, along with Dick Widmark and Joel McCrea. Those were just wonderful people." The Richard Widmark movie was Down To the Sea In Ships (49) from Fox and McCrea starred in Cattle Drive (51) at Universal.
In 1952, at the age of 16, Stockwell entered the University of California but dropped out after a semester and a half. He later told an interviewer that he received a psychological deferment and stayed out of the service because he was against the Korean war ("I took drugs, pretended I was a fag." – from an interview by Dick Moore). He spent several years (as Robert Stockwell) wandering around America doing jobs including hammering railroad spikes and picking fruit. After a few TV roles, he re-started his film career. He was 21.
Gun For A Coward (57) is a Cinemascope and color Universal western. Fred MacMurray, Jeffrey Hunter and Stockwell star as brothers. The Films of Universal book says Stockwell, "self-consciously apes the late James Dean." The Careless Years (57) was a teen romance from United Artists directed by Arthur (Love Story) Hiller. Stockwell plays a student who goes off to Mexico with Natalie Trundy so they can marry but her father brings them back. "I can't think of who else was in that that anyone would know, I've just lost the names. It was about a boy's school somewhere back east. Apparently there was a series of novels about this boy's school. And this was one of them. I enjoyed it because there was some comedy in it. No crying scenes!"
Compulsion (59) was the first really important grown up role for Stockwell. It's based on the famous 1920's Leopold/Loeb murders, also the basis for Hitchcock's Rope (48) and Swoon (92). The Cinemascope Fox film was directed by Richard Fleischer and co-starred Bradford Dillman, Diane Varsi and Orson Welles. Stockwell played Judd Steiner (the Nathan Leopold role). "I had done the play of Compulsion on Broadway with Roddy McDowall. That was a very difficult experience. It was a depressing subject matter, I mean gruesomely depressing to live through every night. And I was the only one from the cast of the play that was cast in the movie. I was a little upset at the way the movie was done. But, you know, I just did the best I could with my role, and that was that. I spent no time with Orson Welles. I found him most disagreeable and very badly behaved to other people, bordering on sadistic. It was not pleasant at all." Fox has recently released Compulsion (on tape and laser disc).
Sons And Lovers (60) was a British film based on a story by D.H. Lawrence. "That was a very delightful film to do. It was difficult for me because I was the only American in it, and the character I was playing was really autobiographical of D.H. Lawrence who was like this icon to the English. And here I am with these great English actors and I had to affect an English accent for the first time. I brought it off fairly well, I was not criticized for being an American in it after it was done, so I felt it was quite an accomplishment. I had a fantastic time working with Wendy Hiller and Mary Ure and Trevor Howard and Donald Pleasence, aw, God, they're wonderful people! Brilliant talents. It was a privilege for me." It was directed by Jack Cardiff, better known as a cinematographer. "He had done a Smell-O-Vision picture (Scent Of Mystery) before this and I don't think he directed many more films. He was a brilliant, brilliant photographer, but I didn't feel he was a director. Certainly not of actors, anyway. We would go off by ourselves and work our things out. That happens sometimes."
The high quality roles continued with Long Day's Journey Into Night (62) which was filmed in New York City. "That, again, was a great experience. Certainly one of the highlight films that I've done in my career. Great writing, on the highest level, by Eugene O'Neill, and a mind boggling cast, Katie Hepburn, Sir Ralph Richardson and Jason Robards. I still pinch myself to believe that I worked with those three people! And the director, Sidney Lumet, was divine. It was a great experience."
Stockwell had married actress Millie Perkins (Diary Of Anne Frank, Wild In The Country) in 1960 but she divorced him in 62. The former model later temporarily retired after acting in Wild In The Streets (68) written by her second husband, Robert Thom. After the divorce, Stockwell dropped out of film work again, lived in Topanga Canyon then Haight Ashbury and hung out with people like Allen Ginsberg, Jack Nicholson and Dennis Hopper. "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." (from an '88 interview in Vogue).
Stockwell worked on TV but only acted in two more features released during the 60s. Rapture (65) was made in France. "Rapture could have been interesting but didn't turn out to be that interesting. It was a little film with a girl named Patricia Gozzi who had a great deal of success in a film (Sundays and Cybele) prior to this one. I don't think she went on to a career after that. But I had a hell of a time working in France. I loved it! The director, John Guillermin, was kind of a maniac. He's known to be a maniac, and he is! I got along with him pretty well, though. But, I don't think it was a good film."
Stockwell was the mysterious, long haired Dave in Psych-Out (68) the AIP LSD hit directed by Richard Rush and produced by Dick Clark. Although his role was small, he was top billed with Susan Strasberg. Dave lives in an attic and is visited by other characters for answers. "I did not enjoy that very much. On the positive side, I think that was the first time I met Jack Nicholson, but that's the only time I ever worked with him. Bruce Dern was on the picture and because of Blue Velvet, I've been asked if Laura Dern was around the set as a child, but I don't recall that she was." The Dunwich Horror (also from AIP) was released in 70. Stockwell starred as Wilbur Whateley (wearing a mustache). "That was very amusing. Again, I had a little problem with the director, Daniel Haller. I guess he wasn't so bad. I did that very tongue in cheek, I think wisely so (laughs). It was kinda fun. I happen to be a fan of H.P. Lovecraft, and it was nothing like H.P. Lovecraft, so that was a little disappointing. Kinda sophomoric, not what you really call a horror film, whereas Lovecraft's writing can be quite scary at times."
Then Stockwell flew off to Peru to be in Dennis Hopper's The Last Movie. "The Last Movie is still ahead of it's time, because it's a non-linear movie and I think there's a lot of brilliant stuff in it. It was a great pleasure to work with Dennis on it and we had a wild time down there in Peru. I got to see some of the most astounding places in the world down there in Peru, pre-Inca stone work and so forth, stuff that I otherwise never would have gotten the chance to see. That's one great thing about my profession, traveling to locations. Going to Peru is, well, if you ever have an opportunity in your life to go there, you should do it because it is absolutely mind boggling. What stands out mostly is the feeling that one has in a place like that. It's almost spooky. You feel a presence there, almost like a magical force. It sticks with you in your life. When you see the works of these people, and nobody really knows who they were. They're called Incan, but in reality there are three different periods represented, and the most amazing is the pre-Inca stuff because it pre-dated the Spaniards. When the Spaniards got there, the Inca people didn't know who had made these things. They didn't know! This stuff is more extravagant than the stone work on the pyramids. It's of a different style, a more abstract style, it's not geometric. I'm telling you, there are stones larger than a VW bus that are way the hell up in the air. It's amazing. That has had a profound effect upon my life."
It was not the first time Hopper and Stockwell had worked together. "I had done a television show with Dennis called The Greatest Show In Earth (in 63), with Jack Palance. We played these two goofy guys on it, and that was the first time I worked with him. I had met him even before that. I had met him while I was doing Compulsion in 1959. We hit it off pretty well then, and we've grown closer and closer, we're like best friends."
The Loners (72), a biker movie, was the last feature produced by the legendary Sam Katzman (he died in 73). Stockwell starred. "That was a mess. Another maniac director, Sutton Roley. Totally crazy." The Werewolf Of Washington (73) was a Watergate themed horror movie. "The Werewolf Of Washington is probably the most disappointing end result of a film that I can remember. The concept of it, and the screenplay for it, had a brilliant edge to it. It was satirical, political, funny, witty and wonderful. The problem was the fella that directed it, Milton Moses Ginsberg, who arrived at the wherewithal to make this film because of the success of a film he'd made just prior, which was his first. It was called Coming Apart, with Rip Torn, Viveca Lindfors and Sally Kirkland.
"Torn played a psychiatrist who was recording with a film camera his sessions with his patients. And he'd set the camera up to shoot through a two way mirror. So the camera was locked off during the whole film. It never moved. And there is nothing of the technique and complexities of filmmaking involved in shooting a film with a camera that doesn't move. So he went into this next movie, and it became very clear very quickly on the first day of shooting that he knew nothing about shooting a movie. So we had a major disaster on our hands. I never worked harder on a movie. Physically it was just punishing. It took three hours to put this damn werewolf thing on, and two and a half hours to take it off every day. It just killed me. And then to see it come out as a mess was just . . . it was just the opposite of another film I did, Paris, Texas. I thought that was going to be a disaster, and it came out great!" (laughs).
None of Stockwell's 70s movies were very popular or well distributed and some are extremely obscure. Win, Place Or Steal (75) is a PG rated racetrack comedy starring Stockwell and Russ Tamblyn (who had also appeared in Boy With Green Hair and The Last Movie). South Pacific Connection (75) from the Philippines is a 19th century period film with Spanish villains. It stars Roland Dantes (a former Mr. Phillipines) who specializes in Arnis (stick fighting). Stockwell co-stars with Nancy Kwan and Gilbert Roland. "That was a martial arts movie. You know, there are movies in my resume, a lot of them, the bad ones, that I had to do because I had to work. I didn't have any choice in the matter. It wasn't until Paris, Texas in 1984, through Married To the Mob in 1988 that I started to have a little choice in what I was doing. So once in a while I would have to do something like this South Pacific Connection in the Phillipines that's lower than a B, it's an F movie." Henry Jaglom's Tracks ((76) was a very serious movie starring Dennis Hopper as a disturbed Nam vet taking the body of a friend home on a train.
In 76, Stockwell met Joy Marchenko in Cannes. She became his second wife and they had two children (Austin and Sophia). In 77, Stockwell did photography for the cover of Neil Young's American Stars and Bars LP. He also wrote a script with Young called After The Gold Rush. Alsino and the Condor (81) filmed in Nicaragua, was nominated for the best foreign language film Oscar. Stockwell played an American military advisor who befriends a peasant boy who joins guerrilla fighters. It was a Nicaraguan/Mexican/Cuban/Costa Rican co-production, directed by Chilean exile Miguel Littin who also directed Stockwell in Sandino, which was not released.
Wrong Is Right (82) is a political satire by Richard Brooks. Sean Connery plays a reporter that discovers that the entire world is run by the CIA. Ads for the Columbia release featured an H bomb cloud with a smile face on it. "There was a very interesting director, Richard Brooks. God rest his soul. He could be very tough on people, but he had a twinkle in his eye. And Sean Connery was wonderful. I had a good time with that one. I mean, it wasn't much of a part, I wasn't getting good parts then. It was a little part."
Human Highway (82), is an end of the world musical comedy. Stockwell co-directed with Neil Young and also plays the owner of a diner and gas station near a faulty nuke plant. Young and Russ Tamblyn are comic, dimwitted mechanics. Dennis Hopper plays two roles and the members of Devo move nuclear waste. "That didn't turn out so good. But that was a lot of fun (laughs). That was like getting to make a movie with a bunch of your buddies and it's kind of dizzy, and you all love it, but then it's done and nobody else does (laughs). But I love Neil. Dennis, of course was in it and Russ Tamblyn, a dear friend. We were buddies making this movie." Warner Reprise released Human Highway on tape (not long after it was reviewed in Psychotronic Video). These movies (all with political messages that didn't go along with then president Reagan or the mood of the country) were seen by so few people, that by the early 80s, Stockwell was actually rumored to be dead. Actually, he was in Santa Fe, selling real estate and raising his family.
To Kill A Stranger (released in America in 85) but filmed several years earlier was directed by Juan Lopez Montezuma in Mexico. Donald Pleasence plays a war hero who is killed while trying to rape star Angelica Maria and his crime is covered up. Montezuma is known for his bizarre 70s horror movies (Dr. Tarr's Torture Dungeon, Sisters Of Satan and Mary Mary Bloody Mary) but Stockwell wasn't impressed. "To Kill A Stranger is very important to me, not for the film itself, but in a certain linkage of events that happened because I got that film. Firstly, I got it because somebody else had fallen out of it. I got it out of the blue and zipped down there to make this film and it was a terrible thing. The writing was awful and the people didn't know what they were doing. But it was a job, it was a payday.
While I was there, I heard that De Laurentis was prepping Dune at Churubusco Studios with this guy David Lynch. So I asked the producer of this Stranger movie if he would do me a favor and introduce me to Lynch, if it could conveniently be set up. He took me over there and we met Lynch in the commissary. He was having lunch and I introduced myself to him and told him I was a big fan of Frank Herbert's books. Now, this was several months before they were to start shooting it. And I told him I would love to be in it, but he told me that unfortunately it was cast. I was very disappointed and I said, 'thank you, and it's nice to meet you and I hope you make a wonderful film.' Strangely enough, I had forgotten that David Lynch had been to my house, in the past and had shown a film! But this was in the days when I was kinda wild, and I just didn't remember, I had phased it out of my head. He showed an early film called The Grandmother at my house in Topanga. I had forgotten it totally. So some time went by and I had come back to the states and I was doing some television show. And my agent called and said that all of a sudden some so-and-so fell out of the Dune movie and Lynch wanted me to do the part! And that wouldn't have happened if I hadn't been in Mexico doing this other stupid movie. I called Lynch up and it was very funny what he said to me on the phone. The first thing he said was, 'Listen, I want to apologize if I acted strangely when I saw you in Mexico but I thought that you were dead.' I said, 'Oh, well, I'm not. I'm glad I'm not and I'm glad I'm going to be working with you.' And I think he had somehow confused me with that young actor from Shane, Brandon DeWilde, because he had passed away in a car crash a few years before that. But it was very fortuitous that I went down there and did Dune, because then Blue Velvet came from that."
"There sure were a lot of talented people involved with Dune. I think Rafaella De Laurentis, it was really her picture, and I think she approached it, I don't want to be critical of her, what happened was the film was set up so that there were four units that were shooting simultaneously. There was the principal unit, which was David Lynch and the principal actors, at the same time there was a whole other unit shooting battle scenes with the Mexican Army dressed up. There was another unit shooting special effects stuff with the worms and stuff and there was another unit that was shooting inserts and detail work. And Lynch did not oversee any of the other stuff! And I thought the worms were a disaster. And that's the major thing in Dune! And there were Academy Award winning people doing it! And it came back dumb. And the battle scenes were a joke. All these hot, tired guys out there barely moving. So I think that was the real problem putting the film together. I thought the stuff Lynch did was fantastic."
Stockwell co-starred with Harry Dean Stanton and Nastassia Kinski in Wim Wenders' Paris, Texas (84). "Again, that was one of those lucky things. I was living in New Mexico at the time. I had just gotten married and I had virtually quit the business, because I couldn't get any work. A few little things trickled in, like some television shows. Then one day I heard there was going to be a party after the Santa Fe Film Festival, which no longer exists now. Dennis was going to be there, he was in town. I was very depressed at the time because I couldn't get any work, but I decided to go into town and see Dennis. And Harry Dean Stanton was at this party. And I hadn't seen Harry Dean for ten or twelve years. I sat down and talked to him for a while then I said goodbye to him and Dennis and left the party and came back home and was depressed again.
"Some time went by, like a month and I get a call. Harry Dean is going to do this movie with Sam Shepard and Wim Wenders and he thinks I should play his brother in it. And Wim Wenders himself came to Santa Fe to see me and he said, 'Yeah, Harry's right, you'll be perfect.' And that would not have happened if I had not decided to go into town late one night because of this party. It's weird how these things work out, it really is weird. But let me get back to what I said earlier about this movie. I thought this film was going to be awful. We had a lovely time shooting it, it felt great and Wim was terrific, but when it was done, I came back to New Mexico and Wim sent both Harry Dean and myself tapes of a rough cut. Now, some films you can see from the rough cut are going to be great. But with a film by this guy, now, this film had no action in it at all. No action, no heavy tension, nothing that would put you on the edge of your seat, that's for sure. It didn't have any music either. Harry Dean called me and said it looked like captured enemy footage (laughs), that was his description of it. And I broke down and cried after I saw the tape. I saw it by myself in a room and I broke down and cried, I was so disappointed. But when he finally fine-tuned it, it became magical! Each cut would lead into the next image with such perfection of timing that it held and held. And it was good and it won the Grand Prize at Cannes. It was amazing."
1984 was a comeback year for Stockwell but one project from that year was from the bill paying days. Sweet Smell Of Death was a Hammer studios project. "That was a TV movie, a whodunit kind of thing. There are certain projects I take more seriously than others, that I'll lend certain facets of myself to more willingly. And there are others where I'll do my work in an ultra simple way. Just sort of do what I feel I'm obliged to do, what I'm paid to do. I don't fool myself that I can go on a big creative bender (laughs), and there are a lot of those! The opposite side of that is Blue Velvet, where the guy calls up and says 'would you like this part?' and you can do anything you want. I made that whole character up. I did the wardrobe, I did the makeup, everything. Made it up out of my own demented head. I knew this guy should be weirder than Dennis' character. But it fit the project. I enjoy watching some of the characters I've done, like Al on Quantum Leap and Blue Velvet because it's zany, and that's the part of my work that I like the best. Some writer in Rolling Stone said about Blue Velvet that I created a new high water mark for alien humor in that film (laughs)!"
Stockwell had a great comedy role as Tony "The Tiger" Russo in Jonathan Demme's Married To the Mob (88) and was nominated for an Oscar. "That's the favorite part I've ever had in a film. I just felt that that part was just perfect for me and I had a way to approach it that I thought was just right and it turned out that way. I loved Jonathan Demme and he let me run with it and do what I wanted with it and it was a fantastic experience. And of course, it was very important for my career. It was astounding. I got a lot of recognition. I got the National Board of Review award, the New York Film Critics award and the Oscar nomination. Of course, I didn't get the Oscar, but it was very moving. Some people might pooh-pooh it and say it didn't mean anything, but it does. It's really gratifying to get the recognition from your peers."
Stockwell's brother Guy, another actor who seemed to have disappeared after the 60s, surprised many viewers when he showed up as the (huge) Mexican circus knife thrower in Jodorowsky's Santa Sangre (89). Some other notable roles for Dean Stockwell in recent years were in Coppola's Gardens Of Stone (87) and Tucker: A Man and His Dream (88), and in two Dennis Hopper directed movies: Backtrack (a.k.a. Catch Fire) (88) and Chasers (94). He was also in Friedkin's To Live And Die In L.A. (85), the very popular Beverly Hills Cop II (87) and Altman's The Player (92).
Meanwhile, Stockwell became well known to TV watchers as Al on the popular Quantum Leap which is still showing in syndication. In a recent TV movie, he even played Madonna's father.
Asked to sum up his long career, Stockwell puffed on his cigar and said, "It's been a long hard road. Some parts of it were pretty bumpy, but the last few years have been pretty smooth. And I can't wait to see where the road leads from here."