Dean Stockwell




Interview by Julian Schnabel

From INTERVIEW Magazine, March 1990


He plays a holographic travelling scientist who steps in and out of time - a role which recently won him a Golden Globe award for best supporting television actor.

We were sitting in his trailer. It was literally his trailer, and he was pleased as punch to be renting it to the show. Talking with him is a great pleasure. He's the guy behind all the characters he's portrayed, from Ben the suave nut case in BLUE VELVET to cigar-smoking Tony the Tiger in MARRIED TO THE MOB. Despite his life's work of pretending, he's very realistic. This makes him worldly and world-conscious. In addition to talking about him, we talked about payloads of plutonium going up into the atmosphere on the space shuttle (a practice he and his wife, Joy, have fought against), pollution, government chainsaw distribution in the Amazon rain forest, the future…

JULIAN SCHNABEL: Where are you from, Dean?

DEAN STOCKWELL: I was born in Hollywood. I left when I was an infant. I lived in Boston, in Chicago, on Long Island, in Manhattan. My mother's family was from New York. She had a bunch of sisters. Italian family.

JS: Show-biz family?

DEAN: My father was a singer in musical comedy. A tenor. He was the voice of Prince Charming in SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS. My mother had been in the business, in vaudeville, but she gave it up when she had children.

JS: You were a child star. How did it begin?

DEAN: My father heard about this play where they were looking for children of various ages. And my mom decided, "Well, what the hell." We went to the audition. First they picked my brother to be in the play; then they saw me, and picked me too. Well, the damn play ran for nine months. I was seen by a talent scout.

JS: Do you remember what the play was?

DEAN: THE INNOCENT VOYAGE. It was based on a novel by Richard Hughes called A HIGH WIND IN JAMAICA. I had curly hair and fancy clothes – the middle-aged women who came to the show would say, "Wasn't he cute?" Anyway, there was going to be a screen test . . . not for me but for a guy, interestingly enough, named Wally Bogue, whose thing was to blow up balloons and make them into little animals. They wanted a child to be there with him, to look at him doing it. And that's what I did in the screen test; it was seen by MGM, and they signed me to a contract to make movies.

JS: Weren't you Kim? You worked with Errol Flynn - it's like touching the hand that touched the hand.

DEAN: Yes, that was me in the movie of Rudyard Kipling's KIM. That's when I was about fourteen. But before that I was in ANCHORS AWEIGH, a mega-musical with Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly, Kathryn Grayson, Jose Iturbi . . . a hundred pianos on the set in the Hollywood Bowl. In it I was running away from home to join the navy. I was not very smart, I guess.

JS: How many movies have you done altogether?

DEAN: I don't know exactly. Around sixty. And many television shows. And a number of plays. Two Broadway plays. And plays in dinner theater, during the years when I couldn't get work - I found I could get it as a recognizable name, sort of a washed-up guy who goes into dinner theater.

JS: What do you mean by "washed-up guy?"

DEAN: For over fourteen years I had difficulty getting arrested. That's when I was doing the dinner theater. I would get maybe one guest shot a year on a TV show. All that would be my income for the year. Over that fourteen-year period - from, say, 1968 to '82 - I probably averaged $10,000 a year in income.

JS: Must have been hard buying those cigars.

DEAN: But I was single. I had no whatchacallits - dependents - so I could get by. I had a mortgage, believe it or not: $148 a month, on a house in Topanga Canyon. But it was difficult, because I was confident of what I could do, but you can't do it unless you get the job. Dinner theater was hard work, but it was enjoyable, because it's mostly comedy, and I like doing comedy. It's very interesting to me that the angle on me now is that I'm having a comeback - my "third" comeback. It's really
my second comeback, if you count it correctly, and it's the third phase of a career.

JS: Did it begin with BLUE VELVET?

DEAN: That was a big kicker. But it wasn't the beginning; really the beginning was PARIS, TEXAS.

JS: How'd you get that chance?

DEAN: My luck changed. A lot of people have said to me that they respect the way I've been able to choose the right things to do and build on them. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Whatever came was the only thing there. There were no options, no "Do you want to do this one or that one?" That one turned out to be PARIS, TEXAS, and the other turned out to be BLUE VELVET. Here's how they came about. I did a film in Nicaragua - just before I got married - that I was very proud of: ALSINO AND THE CONDOR. Miguel Littin directed it. I got the role because Dennis Hopper couldn't do it, and he said, "Why don't you see if Dean'll do it?" I'd just finished doing another film for Littin called SANDINO. I had no idea if I would work again. I left L.A., moved to New Mexico, and got a real-estate license. It had been eight months or so since I finished ALSINO AND THE CONDOR when I went down to Mexico to do another film - one that never got released here and never will. It was a three-week job. While I was down there, I heard that David Lynch was at the same studio preparing DUNE. I had read the DUNE book and loved it, so I made an effort to go meet David and said, "I'd like to be in your movie." He said, "Sorry, it's all cast." And I said, "Nice to meet you. I'm a fan." Later he told me something funny about that meeting. He said, "If I looked a little strange when you walked into the commissary, it was because I thought you were dead."
Anyway, I went back to Santa Fe. All of a sudden there's a part in DUNE, 'cause the guy, John Hurt, had scheduling problems. And David had remembered me. I finished DUNE and scraped enough cash together to start building a small house in Santa Fe. Nothing much happened. I was sweating - am I going to have to do this real-estate stuff? - when I got a call: Dennis was in town and there was going to be a party for the closing of the Santa Fe Film Festival. Harry Dean Stanton would be there, too. I was asked to go. I left Joy with the kid. [JILL INSERTS EDITOR'S NOTE HERE - DEAN MUST BE TALKING ABOUT A BILLY GOAT. AUSTIN WASN'T BORN YET. :-) ]. I saw Dennis and Harry Dean. I went home, worrying about the real estate. A month goes by and I start getting these calls from Harry Dean and an agent, saying that Sam Shepard and Wim Wenders are writing this movie for Harry Dean, and Harry Dean thinks I should play his brother. If I hadn't gone to the party he would not have thought of me.

JS: The romantic dilemma of PARIS, TEXAS - the sense of Orpheus descending and rising again - is certainly something that is not foreign to your own life, and it's a great film. But your role as Ben in BLUE VELVET was the kind of showstopper that electrifies the screen.

DEAN: BLUE VELVET helped everybody - except commercial filmmakers. It helped independent filmmakers. It helped adventurous filmmakers. It helped guys willing to go out on a limb, because here was someone going out on the farthest limb you can imagine and making it. It helped Dennis, it helped me, it helped Isabella Rossellini. It certainly helped David Lynch.

JS: You must have had to dive deep into the bad-gene pool to come up with that character.

DEAN: I knew that what I was doing was going to be as off-the-wall as the rest of the movie and hopefully even more so. In fact, that is what I was striving for.

JS: In real life were you ever in a room like that, with that kind of abandonment of moral code?

DEAN: I had no model for my character, if that's what you mean. But I've been around all sorts of weird scenes and stuff, sure. You know, it's a long life; you run into things like that. One of the things I was playing was heroin. People ask, "Was that junk you were on?" What else could you possibly be on where you fall asleep standing up? But the character really just came out of my imagination and out of a desire to make him more extreme than Dennis's character, who was the weirdest antagonist ever in a film. I was the guy he looks up to and admires - black-on-black.

JS: The murderer sees the degenerate as the poet.

DEAN: And thinks he is suave.


JULIAN SCHNABEL: You're not very old to have disappeared and reappeared so many times. It must be exhausting. What happened?

DEAN: There's not an easy answer. One is that the revolution of the '60s came along. I called my agent and said, "I'm not going to work for like three years, Steve." So I didn't. Then, when I needed to work, to pay the minuscule mortgage and get back into it, I found it difficult. The story before that is I had given up the business when I was sixteen because I needed to get away from the focus on me; it was too intense all through my childhood, and I wanted to experience anonymity. In the early '50s the first place I went was to the University of California in Berkeley, because my brother was there. I didn't really go there to go to school; I went to get away from other things. I dropped out because I refused to clean my rifle in ROTC. Then I just travelled around the country doing odd jobs until I was twenty-one.  When I was a kid I was under contract to MGM Studios. Each year they would renew the contract. It was presented to me that when I finished high school I wouldn't have to continue this if I didn't want to. So I set my sights to that. I didn't enjoy the experience of being a child actor all that much. I wanted to be like everybody else. I didn't appreciate the process of acting; I didn't want to work at the time. When I came back into the business, it was because there was nothing else I had any training in. So there I was, in my early twenties, trying to get into acting again. Although I did it, and experienced some luck at it, and did some good work, I was not able to enjoy it or
to really accept it as being what I do. At the same time I was meeting the bohemians of the time. 

JS: Like who?

DEAN: The Beatniks, and these were very profound people. What they were into seemed to have so much more credibility, to me, than what I was doing. I didn't even like to admit that I was an actor.

JS: Which profound Beatniks do you mean?

DEAN: Wallace Berman, Bruce Conner, George Herms, Jay DeFeo, Allen Ginsberg, Larry Ferlinghetti, Ken Price - oh, Jesus, I lose track of them all. Gregory Corso, David Meltzer, Philip Lamantia, Robert Duncan . . . now they're part of history. Then this music came along, and these four guys with long hair. The only person I'd known in my life with long hair - who I met in '56 - was Wallace Berman. He used to hide out in Beverly Glen, because he knew people would get on his case about his hair.

JS: During that period, if you had what would be considered bohemian leanings - and I don't mean if you were lazy - could that affect your ability to secure work?

DEAN: I don't think so. I think in this business it's more "What have you done lately?" I've told this story before, but I remember hearing from people in the business that some producers were telling casting people they really wanted to get a Dean Stockwell type for a role. And I couldn't even get into the office.

JS: I was thinking about you yesterday, and about acting. It occurred to me that there's an actors' fraternity of misfits, almost a breed of people. Each of you guys is the quintessential actor/character. I would say that Harry Dean Stanton and Jack Nicholson would qualify as people belonging to this group that we see in and out of the movies, whose being seems to insist on a certain kind of existential dilemma. I feel these different people recognize something about life that often turns out to be part of the subject matter of the films they act in - and that's why there are certain kinds of actors who make certain kinds
of movies. That's why a filmmaker like David Lynch would be attracted to someone like you or Dennis Hopper. There's a need in the world right now for the kinds of movies that David Lynch or Wim Wenders would want to make, and there's a need for the kind of actors who epitomize their image of life. What do you think these actors have in common, and what do you think this quality is that I'm talking about, that you share? 

DEAN: The common denominator that I've been able to come up with is mystery.

JS: What do you mean by mystery?

DEAN: You could say there is something more mysterious about them than you're going to find in the next guy. The examples would be Montgomery Clift, or Gerard Philipe, or Jimmy Dean, or Brando, in different degrees. There's something about them as opposed to other great performers - even one who I think is the greatest film actor of all, Spencer Tracy - who didn't have that mystery. Whatever this quality of mystery is that I'm talking about, I've had a response to it. And I found, as I became an adult, that that's what I was responding to as a viewer, but I didn't appreciate that I was involved with that same element as an actor until much later. I was a fan of these people; I didn't consider that I shared something with them. Where this quality
comes from I'm not sure. I can't speak for anyone else. But I feel that, in my work, I'm dealing with something that is quintessentially mysterious, and I prefer and am inclined to deal with it in a mysterious way. On a lot of levels. For instance, I do anything I can to avoid discussing how I'm going to do what I do, with the director, with other actors, with anyone.

JS: Watching you work, I've noticed you seem like a ghost till you materialize to do your bit.

DEAN: I prefer to keep my role completely off the boards. If I'm working with actors who cannot do their job without going into a lengthy, probing, analytical discussion of whatever the acting situation is, I will participate with them to a degree. They may even be under the impression I'm participating fully. But I'm not. That way of working has nothing to do with the process going on in me. The process in me started with me at such an early age that analysis didn't enter into the equation at all.

JS: When?

DEAN: At six or seven years old. I, like a very young graphic artist or a young musician, just had an innate ability to perform, and it was recognized, and that's what kept me doing it. My problem was that I was unable to appreciate it at all when I was a kid.

JS: Well, it's funny, because I was talking to Jack Nicholson about you yesterday, and he said, "He's the boy with the green hair." THE BOY WITH GREEN HAIR was the first film that I saw that terrified me.

DEAN: It did? How old were you when you saw it?

JS: When did that film come out?

DEAN: It was made in 1946, but it may have come out later than that.

JS: I must have seen it when I was about twelve years old. I think they showed it at school. The notion of the boy's would-be friend saying, "It's O.K., just come to me; I won't tell them where you are," and then grabbing him, yelling out something like "He's here, I've caught him!" terrorized me. That scene is what sticks in my head. The boy thought he had a friend there, and then the guy turned him over to the pack of other children hunting him.

DEAN: Well, that moment wouldn't have had that effect on you if you hadn't developed a sympathy with the character prior to that. All through my life I've been told by people that that movie had an extraordinary impact on them. A psychological and emotional impact. 

JS: The funny thing is that I can't remember why the boy's hair turned green.

DEAN: That's interesting about that movie - countless times people have said the same thing about it. No one remembers why the kid's hair turns green. It turns green for no apparent reason. Then he's persecuted because he's got this green hair, so he runs away. He runs into the woods and finds, in a clearing, these smoking ruins with these children there, with bandages and crutches and stuff, and bleeding, and they tell him they're spirits of children that have been made war orphans. And
they tell him that his hair does indeed have meaning: it's a symbol that there shouldn't be any more war. Then he comes back into town with a feeling of purpose and goes to all the people that have been putting him down, telling them the reason his hair is green, but they end up making him shave it off, because it threatens them, because it's different. So in other words you're talking about an antiwar movie done in 1946.

JS: Right . . .

DEAN: . . . with a mythological turn to it. And a metaphysical turn to it. A lot of the principal people involved were, as a result of that film, blacklisted. Joseph Losey left the United States and never came back. And there was a bunch of others. I'm not talking about the blacklists that everyone knows about; I'm talking about prior to the Hollywood blacklist. I'm surprised I wasn't blacklisted, but I was only twelve years old or something.

JS: By 1956 you were already a legend to some people.

DEAN: Well, as a child actor, yes.

JS: Jack Nicholson told me that when he saw you James Dean was dead, but you were like the living James Dean.

DEAN: What I think that means is that this guy came on the scene, James Dean, and made a huge impact right away. And then he's taken. So everyone felt a great loss. And then here I am, and the impression is I look like him, and I did nothing to discourage that. At that time I didn't have a really strong identity of my own. And I let that happen.

JS: There's a high casualty rate in this sort of situation. If you look at an artist like Jean-Michel Basquiat, who wasn't as young as you were when he got attention, there's a combination of things that will make it possible for some people to survive and others not to.

DEAN: I have to state unequivocally that I don't believe I would have survived my childhood if I'd had any other kind of mother. My mother was great. She was very loving and sympathetic and protective. The fact is, there was only so much she could do. The minute I was called in to work, I had to deal with that myself. The process of being a professional actor at that age obviously had a lot to do with forming my personality. Being an actor is the ability to expose oneself – to expose inner emotional, psychological, mental workings. But you can't take yourself too seriously. If you do, you won't be able to separate
yourself on the necessary levels. You reduce yourself, reduce your horizons. You have to be able to have a huge, panoramic overview of yourself, and then also see the particular parts. The first idea of acting that I got came from my mother. It was very simple and concise. She just said, "Be natural and be yourself." Which sounds very easy, like that Beatles song where Ringo sang, "All I have to do is act naturally."

- The End -