Combustible Celluloid

Interview: Dean Stockwell

Dean Stockwell in Paris, Texas (1984)

At the Fifth Stage

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

June 7, 2004—Biographers will have an easy time with Dean Stockwell. The actor's career breaks very neatly into four parts: the child actor, the young man, the hippie and the character actor.

Born into a showbiz family in 1936 in Hollywood, Stockwell made his movie debut at age 8 in the MGM musical Anchors Aweigh. During a recent telephone interview, he says he doesn't remember his first day of work, but does remember that he didn't like it much.

"I found myself in a very weird world, this moviemaking. I was expected to do the same caliber of work as the adults, and at other times I would be reminded that I was a child. It was difficult. I had an understanding and I could do the work but I didn't like it. Other than two comedies and The Boy with Green Hair, I didn't enjoy acting at all."

The Boy with Green Hair (1948) was a bizarre, passionate anti-war film that changed many people's lives. In it, the 12 year-old Stockwell plays a war orphan whose hair turns green as a symbol for war orphans everywhere. The film marked the directorial debut of the celebrated Joseph Losey (The Servant, The Go-Between). "He was a very sweet man," Stockwell says. "I remember he gave me a puppy, a little dachshund. I named him Thief."

"It was special," Stockwell says of the experience. "But being an anti-war film at the time, there was a very influential right wing that created the blacklist. This was prior to the McCarthy witch-hunts. Losey went to England and never came back. While the film was being made I was unaware of that. I found out about it throughout the years. What did affect me was the content of the film. I took it very seriously. The other ones were just dropped in my lap, but I was very proud to do this role."

The actor dropped out of the movie business to go to high school, but re-emerged in his 20s. "I didn't have any training to do anything else in life," he says. He received some acclaim for his performances in Compulsion (1959) and Long Day's Journey Into Night (1962) before entering the "hippie" phase of his career, epitomized by the San Francisco Haight Street movie Psych-Out (1968).

It wasn't long before Stockwell burned out again, eventually moving to New Mexico and acquiring his real-estate license -- which he never used. "I was feeling pretty depressed," he says. While working on a "stupid Mexican 'B' movie," Stockwell learned that David Lynch was making Dune and managed to get an introduction.

"He said, 'I thought you were dead.' He had confused me with the kid who was in Shane," Stockwell says. (Brandon de Wilde died in a car accident in 1972.) Initially rejected, Stockwell landed the part of Doctor Wellington Yueh after another actor dropped out. Later that year, a film festival in Santa Fe put him in touch with Harry Dean Stanton, which led to his illustrious role in Paris, Texas.

"I never really liked acting until I was in my 40s," he says of this new period of creative character roles, which also included To Live and Die in L.A., Blue Velvet, Tucker: The Man and His Dream, Jonathan Demme's Married to the Mob -- his favorite role, for which he received an Oscar nomination -- and the popular cult TV show Quantum Leap.

For Lynch's Blue Velvet, he based his role of the bizarre, effeminate Ben on Carol Burnett. "I told her about it to her face and she loved it. Funny how things work."

And Demme recently cast him in a "teeny little part" in his new Manchurian Candidate remake. "I think it could be hot," Stockwell says.

It was also during this period that Stockwell's signature cigars started popping up from time to time, notably on Quantum Leap. "The cigar made its debut in Kim," he says, speaking of the 1950 film he made with Errol Flynn, based on the Rudyard Kipling novel. "I guess it was in the book; my character smokes these little cigars. I started smoking them for real years later in Nicaragua."

Now Stockwell has embarked upon what could be his fifth career stage as an artist. "I'm making collages and prints out of computer-made pieces. I'm having an exhibition in Taos, New Mexico at the RB Ravens Gallery in September, and then another one later in Monterey. There are 42 pieces in the show," he says proudly.

In a business where most child actors burn out quickly, Stockwell has shown remarkable staying power, especially with very few role models in the 1940s to learn from. "I attribute it to good fortune and fate," he says. "It amazes me that I'm still alive and that I'm still working."

Note: Stockwell passed away in November of 2021, at the age of 85.

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