Dean Stockwell, the Comeback Kid

Dean Stockwell in Wim Wenders’s Paris, Texas (1984)

In 1984, Dean Stockwell, who has passed away at the age of eighty-five, launched what he referred to at the time as his “third career.” In his late forties and frustrated by the undemanding roles he was landing in forgettable movies, the former child star moved his family to New Mexico, where he was selling real estate to make ends meet. In her outstanding tribute at, Sheila O’Malley tells the story of how, two years before, Stockwell approached David Lynch as the director was preparing to shoot Dune.

Lynch, clearly thrown off, told Stockwell that his cast was complete. Then John Hurt exited the project, and the role of Doctor Wellington Yueh went to Stockwell. Only later did Lynch confess to Stockwell that if he looked “a little strange” when they first met, it was because “I thought you were dead.”

It must have been around the same time that Harry Dean Stanton recommended Stockwell to Wim Wenders, who was looking to cast the role of Walt Henderson in Paris, Texas. Having abandoned his wife and son, Stanton’s Travis wanders the desert in west Texas, and it’s his brother Walt who throws him a lifeline. As the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw sees it, Walt’s “concern and own tacit emotional pain were the bedrock on which Travis’s story was placed.”

Paris, Texas took Stockwell to Cannes, where he had won best actor awards for his performances in Richard Fleischer’s Compulsion (1959) and Sidney Lumet’s Long Day’s Journey into Night (1962). Dune famously flopped. But two years later, Lynch gave Stockwell the role for which he may well be best remembered. In Blue Velvet (1986), Dennis Hopper’s Frank Booth is pure evil clutching a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon, and the man Frank looks up to is Ben.

Stockwell had only one scene in which to sell his interpretation of Ben, and he made it one of the most electrically creepy scenes in all of cinema. To play the criminal who lip-synchs to Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams,” Stockwell looked to one of Carol Burnett’s creations—“this super snooty woman”—for inspiration. “Every choice Stockwell made,” writes O’Malley, “the mostly sleepy half-closed eyes, the way they suddenly open wide, showing the whites, like a shark (or like Carol Burnett), the eyebrows lifted in disdain, his lips twisted up in a mild snarl, the unexplained ominous bandage on his hand,” was “designed to highlight the strangeness of the character, and his potential for unpredictable danger. Stockwell had no desire to explain the mystery. The mystery was the point.”

Stockwell was born into show business, drafted onto the stage, and then almost immediately whisked off to Hollywood. His mother, Nina Olivette, was a vaudevillian, and his father, Harry Stockwell, voiced the Prince in Disney’s first animated feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), and played Curly, the leading role in the 1943 Broadway production of Oklahoma! Dean was only six when he made his own Broadway debut in Paul Osborne’s The Innocent Voyage. A talent scout for MGM saw him and signed him to a seven-year contract.

In George Sidney’s Anchors Aweigh (1945), he plays a kid who wants to join the Navy, and as O’Malley notes, “opposite Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra, he glimmered with cuteness and innocence, totally lacking the irritating over-trained precocity of most child actors of the era.” Stockwell won a Golden Globe for his performance as the son of Gregory Peck’s widowed journalist in Elia Kazan’s Gentleman’s Agreement (1947). He played a war orphan in Joseph Losey’s The Boy with Green Hair (1948), which Richard Combs, writing for Film Comment in 2004, called “a parable, a children's story, a moral fable, a quasi-mystical message film.” Losey himself insisted that it was “not an antiwar picture as a concept, as a device—it was anti-racist.”

Throughout his life, Stockwell told interviewers that no one had ever asked him if he wanted to be an actor. He most definitely did not. He hated the repetitive drill of rehearsals and multiple takes, and he especially hated being called on to cry. In Dick Moore’s 1984 collection of testimonies from former child actors, Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star: And Don’t Have Sex or Take the Car, Stockwell wrote: “I couldn’t wait to get pimples. I couldn’t wait to get awkward. I ruined my posture. I did everything, just to get out of it.”

When he was sixteen, he walked away, took a series of odd jobs, and then returned when he realized that he wasn’t trained for anything but acting. He was twenty. O’Malley notes that “this period—from 1957 to 1962—is often overlooked, and it's one of the most interesting phases in his career.” She recommends seeking out his work in television on shows such as Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Johnny Staccato, and The Twilight Zone.

Within just a few years, Stockwell decided he needed a second break. “In the 60s, when we had the hippies and Haight-Ashbury and the love-ins, I dropped out of my career and just went with that,” Stockwell told Lawrence Van Gelder in the New York Times in 1987. “I found that very personally fulfilling because I didn’t have much of a childhood.” Still in San Francisco, he slipped back into the business by joining Jack Nicholson, Susan Strasberg, and Bruce Dern in the cast of Richard Rush’s Psych-Out (1968). He plays Dave, a doomed hippie who, as Kim Morgan has written, is always “waxing philosophical about everything, and he’s critical, but he seems like walking death throughout the movie because it’s going to be hard to really live like that.”

The cast also included Henry Jaglom, who would go on to direct Stockwell and Dennis Hopper in Tracks (1976). In 2007, Sheila O’Malley wrote about five of her favorite Stockwell performances for what was then the House Next Door (the piece is now up at Slant). Tracks features one of them. Hopper plays a soldier returning from Vietnam to bring home the body of a fallen friend. On a train, he meets Stockwell’s mysterious Mark. “Stockwell is at his wittiest and most charming here,” wrote O’Malley. “To me, the part is reminiscent of his most endearing qualities as a child actor. He’s fresh, he’s funny, he’s spontaneous, he’s responding not just to external stimuli, but to some kind of internal dialogue that we can never know. He’s always thinking, pondering, speaking out, and, of course, listening. Just watch Stockwell when he’s listening.”

After New Mexico and the mid-1980s comeback, Stockwell worked with Francis Ford Coppola (Tucker: The Man and His Dream) and Robert Altman (The Player) and scored his first and only Oscar nomination for his turn as Tony “The Tiger” Russo, the comedically intimidating mobster in Jonathan Demme’s Married to the Mob (1988). He had just signed up to costar in the television series that won him another round of fans from a new generation. Quantum Leap ran for five seasons and starred Scott Bakula as Dr. Sam Beckett, a physicist yanked through time over and again. With each leap, Stockwell’s Admiral Al Calavicci holographically appeared to help Beckett return to the present.

The two actors grew close over the years, and Stockwell was finally enjoying his work. When the news of his passing was announced, Bakula released a statement, noting that Stockwell “had a soft spot for every young actor who came on our set. He was very protective of their rights and safety and always checked in with them to make sure that they were okay. His big-hearted response to the kids made all of us take notice and be better guardians ourselves.”

For news and items of interest throughout the day, every day, follow @CriterionDaily.

You have no items in your shopping cart