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5 for the Day: Dean Stockwell

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5 for the Day: Dean Stockwell

In June of this past year, I popped in Long Day’s Journey Into Night, directed by Sidney Lumet, a movie I have seen countless times and felt like seeing again. I suppose I was in the mood to plummet into a pit of Irish-based despair or something like that. I have to admit that most of my other viewings were focused either on Hepburn or on Robards, and I took Ralph Richardson for granted (a huge mistake!), and barely noticed Dean Stockwell (as Edmund, the younger brother, and Eugene O’Neill’s alter ego). But for whatever reason, in my viewing this past June, all I could look at was Stockwell. The part is under-written (ask anyone who has played it), and except for one or two crucial monologues, and the important plot-point of his creeping tuberculosis, he doesn’t have much to do. He has to sit around, helplessly, watching his family shatter. Not an easy thing to do for an actor. Who has to ACT. Reminds me of a great line from one of my acting teachers who would say to an actor who was overly obsessed with tears, or emotion: “Remember the name of your job. It’s ACTor. Not FEELer.” Edmund, at times, is written just to stand around and FEEL. It’s tough to make that part active. But Stockwell, at least for me in this past viewing, became the linchpin, the core of that entire movie. He is how we see all the others. It is crucial that he be sympathetic and lovable, because he is our way in. Stockwell is marvelous in that part, and since it’s not as showy as the others, he doesn’t quite get the credit that I believe he deserves. He could have just stood around in the background emoting, and “feel"ing—being tragic and general and Irish—but he doesn’t. He somehow makes that part active. He makes listening itself seem active.

Long Day’s Journey began my own long journey into Stockwell’s entire career. I’ve been aware of him for years, naturally. The guy has always been there. I saw Married to the Mob. I saw Blue Velvet. I even grew up watching movies like The Secret Garden and The Boy with Green Hair on channel 56 in New England, afternoon double-features. But I didn’t put it all together, the true scope of this man’s career, and his very specific gift, until I watched Long Day’s Journey last June and decided to see for myself, again, what this wonderful character actor was all about.

In his Biographical Dictionary of Film, David Thomson writes about Stockwell:

With the TV series Quantum Leap and with his regular work as a supporting actor in movies, Dean Stockwell may never have been better known. Yet he has experienced so many stages and changes already—the piercing child; the beautiful yet not quite penetrating young lead; the wanderer, hippie, and biker; the realtor in New Mexico; and now, for a decade at least, the versatile, reliable, yet never quite predictable character actor who seems blessed to play men brushed by the wing of uncommon experience—as if they might once have had green hair.

Longevity is the name of the acting game. Survival is the name of the game. Most stars have a shelf-life. They trade on their youth and beauty, they get the plum parts, and when that beauty fades, they either segue into character parts, or their career ends. Someone like Dean Stockwell avoided that issue, although he had other issues. He was never a Brando, or a Wayne—someone who tapped into the zeitgeist of the moment, and then had to either go with it or perish. Dean Stockwell has worked steadily since his debut in 1945 (in Anchors Aweigh, with Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra), although he has taken some self-imposed hiatuses. He was one of the most successful child actors of his time. He was under contract at MGM, and went to school at the Little Red Schoolhouse on the studio lot, where Roddy McDowall and Elizabeth Taylor were his classmates. Stockwell found acting to be an incredibly tedious thing to do, and he was known, even then, as “One-Take Stockwell”, because he hated the repetition. There are stories, from back then, about how he would request not even having a rehearsal for crucial scenes. He just wanted to get up and do it, and have the camera catch it, and have it be OVER. He was just a little kid.

When his contract was up, he walked away from acting for a couple of years. He saw his contract as a prison sentence, and he felt dominated by it. He came back to acting in his early 20s and had a spectacular decade of work, including Long Day’s Journey Into Night, before walking away again. This time, he walked away because it was the 1960s, Flower Power was raging, and he wanted to participate in it fully. He had never had an adolescence, he figured it was about time. He moved to Haight-Ashbury and dropped off the grid. He did a couple movies here and there, and then, when he decided he wanted to go back to work, he found that his name had dried up in Hollywood. The doors would no longer open. Then followed a long dry spell for him, the longest in his career. For about 15 years, he struggled. He did theatre, he did television, he did television movies, he raised hell with his best friend Dennis Hopper, he moved to Taos, New Mexico, he got his real estate license.

The breakthrough came in the 1980s, when David Lynch gave him a crucial part in Dune, which eventually led to Paris, Texas, a film that was an unexpected underground hit, with much praise coming his way in particular (he played the quiet concerned brother of Harry Dean Stanton). Blue Velvet followed, and his eerie terrifying scene is one of the take-aways from that film. Who doesn’t remember that scene? The mid-80s is when it all came back together for Dean Stockwell, and it came back together on his terms, bringing him satisfaction and joy. He has said that he didn’t actually enjoy acting until he was well into his 40s. You can tell, in all of these parts, that he has found a new kind of freedom and passion for his work… something that is quite different from the truly natural ability he had as a young child. Married to the Mob got him his first and only (so far! I live in hope!) Oscar nomination, and that led to Quantum Leap, a phenom in its own right. Since then, he has worked steadily, not in starring parts, but as a reliable character actor of the old school. (Think about his hysterical turn as the desperate screenwriter in The Player!) He still lives in Taos, he’s an artist (collages, mostly, although he’s been moving into sculpture as well), he appears as a regular on Battlestar Galactica, and age is settling well on him.

It is hard to think of another child actor of that time who has had such a long career. Roddy McDowall was one, but many of them lost their chops in the segue to adulthood. They couldn’t make the transition, or the public wouldn’t accept them as teenagers or adults. Stockwell walked away, at the crucial moment, disappeared from public consciousness at age 16, and when he returned, he was a young man in his 20s, slim, intense, with James Dean good looks. He didn’t segue to adulthood—he “quantum leaped”, so to speak. And so he survived. Thank God for that.

I wanted to pick “5 for the Day” that might be a bit off-the-map, since Stockwell’s career has been so varied. There are movies out there that might not be as popular, but he’s terrific in them, and they’re all worth seeing.

1. Compulsion (1959); directed by Richard Fleischer; based on the best-selling novel by Meyer Levin; starring Dean Stockwell, Bradford Dillman, and Orson Welles: The movie is based on the Leopold/Loeb murders, although the names have been changed. The first half of the film is devoted to the carrying-out of the “perfect” crime, and the twisted homoerotic relationship between Judd Steiner (Stockwell) and Artie Strauss (Bradford Dillman). The second half of the film shows the trial, where Jonathan Wilk (Orson Welles) appears as the defense attorney of Judd and Artie. Wilk is based on Clarence Darrow, who in real life defended the boys with a ringing closing argument (12 hours long!) that became (to this day) an indictment of the institution of capital punishment in this country. Because Compulsion was filmed in 1959, the gay relationship between the two boys could not be made clear or explicit. But, boy, is it in their behavior. It’s amazing what they got away with here. Perhaps separately they would not have done what they did, but the combination of their two personalities, and how they continuously dared one another to go further and further, creates a murderous entity.

Dillman is the alpha of the relationship, he’s a mini-fascist, who controls Stockwell’s every move. Stockwell, the nervy snotty intellectual, needs Dillman’s approval and love. It is not just something he wants, it is something as essential to him as air or food. Stockwell is terrific in this part, just terrific. Judd Steiner is an intellectual prodigy, a budding ornithologist (his room is full of dead birds) and a loner. Girls find him odd, kind of off-putting. There’s a scene at a speakeasy, where flappers Charleston about, bootleg booze flows, and the camera pans across the crowd and lands on Stockwell, sitting at a table with a girl he likes and pontificating about Plato’s view of childrearing. You know, he’s a weirdo. But there’s something in the performance that is touching—you can feel his fragility. This is not a well person. He has split parts of himself off, into compartments, and as the realization begins to dawn on him that he and Dillman have been found out, that their perfect crime was not so perfect after all, the terror is palpable. You can feel the knot in his gut. It’s all in his acting. It’s a tour de force, as far as I’m concerned.

Dillman, as the alpha, is also good, although he does a bit too much maniacal “Look how crazy I am” laughing. Stockwell never hams it up. His talent is such that it has always led him to the most truthful simple expression. Even as a child he had none of that shrill precocious obnoxiousness so common to so many child actors. He always seemed real, like a real little boy. And here, in what could have been a highly mannered actor-y part, he underplays, he hides and deceives, and yet, what he is really playing (and why I think this performance is so good) is how much he loves Artie Strauss, his partner-in-crime. The script might have not been explicit, due to the mores of the time, but Stockwell plays it anyway. It gives the film a pulsing sense of tension and agony that would otherwise not have been there. It could have been a melodrama, and it is that, to some degree. But it’s also a twisted love story, breathtaking in its courage (if you see it in the context of the day and age it was made). Stockwell, with his twitchy head movements (very much like the birds that this character loves so much), his sensitive humorless face, his precise way of moving (this guy is wound tight as a top), and his sudden bursts of rage whenever anyone dares to criticize his “friendship” with Artie, is marvelous. Well worth seeing.

2. The Werewolf of Washington (1973); directed by Milton Moses Ginsberg: Oh, how I love this campy movie. It was made during the dry spell of Stockwell’s career, the long decade of the 70s. Stockwell plays Jack Whittier, White House Press Secretary, who, unfortunately, is also a werewolf due to an encounter with a wolf in Budapest one misty terrible night. The film is obviously meant as a political satire, not just a scary werewolf movie. It was made in the early 70s when cynicism about the Nixon administration was reaching its peak. As they were filming the movie, the Watergate break-in occurred, and that sort of killed the satirical appeal of the film, which was pretty much dead in the water when it opened. Things had become far too serious, and a film which proposed to laugh at the boobs in Washington didn’t have much of a chance in the tense atmosphere of those days. Jack Whittier even lives in the Watergate. The coincidences abound. Stockwell, with his slicked-to-the-side haircut, his immaculate appearance (well, except when he becomes a raging hairy werewolf, of course) is reminiscent of John Dean. But see the movie now, and see it in its original campy spirit, and it’s a blast. One of the reasons I really love this performance is because of where Stockwell was at in his life when he filmed it. He was struggling, he had become anonymous again, he had lost his cache as a star. He was job to job to job; it’s easy to be wonderful when you have the plum parts offered to you, when every decision in Hollywood somehow includes YOU. But when you are outside that charmed circle, when the material offered to you is not quite up to the level of your gifts, how do you survive then? How do you, to quote Tim Gunn, “make it work”?

Stockwell plays the part of Jack Whittier straight, as straight as can be, as though all of this is completely real. He has a big job, he has the ear of the President (who is a moron), and yet ... when the moon is full ... ohhhhh noooooo here it comes again ... I’m becoming a werewolf again ... someone help me before I kill again!!! There are scenes where he is in meetings with the joint Chiefs of Staff, and he can feel the change beginning. He tries to keep it together, tries to hold back the werewolf transformation ... but as we all know, once you are a werewolf you can’t just say, “You know what? Not tonight, I’m busy…” My favorite scene in the film is when Stockwell and the President are bowling in the White House bowling alley. The moon is rising outside. Stockwell, already a wreck emotionally, puts his fingers into the bowling ball, and then, tragically, his hands begin to swell up into the tell-tale wolf claws. He cannot get his fingers out of the bowling ball. Meanwhile, the President, bowling in the next lane to his heart’s content, jabbering on and on, remains oblivious. I cannot describe how funny and how awful it is to watch Stockwell try to get his fingers out of that bowling ball, while not letting on that that is what he is doing. This is not an actor wink-winking at the audience, saying, “Ha ha, I know this is stupid, but let’s get through it anyway”—as so often happens in campy movies. Stockwell plays it real. You can feel the pressure on his fingers, you can feel his growing desperation to get out of there… he is going to become a werewolf in front of the President of the United States, and that just cannot happen! It’s one of my favorites of all of Stockwell’s acting moments.

3. Kim (1950); directed by Victor Saville; starring Errol Flynn, Paul Lukas, Dean Stockwell: Based on the Rudyard Kipling story of the same name, this movie has it all: wonderful performances, adventure, humor, and it still works today. It hasn’t paled or lessened in its appeal. Errol Flynn plays Mahbub Ali, the Red Beard, and Dean Stockwell, 12, 13 years old, plays Kim, the little English boy who paints his face dark to pass as an Indian local. He lives on the streets because he can’t stand school, and he knows how to survive. He runs errands for people, eavesdrops, does favors, aligns himself with the powerful, and, in general, evades capture by those who want to civilize him. Stockwell is in almost every scene of this film. Errol Flynn has a much smaller part in terms of screen time (and he’s terrific, man, what a pro!). But it’s Stockwell who carries the movie. You never for once doubt that he is who he says he is. He has stunts to do, he runs around barefoot, climbs trees, has crying scenes, he has scenes which show how precocious Kim is sexually (his lecherous wink at the Indian woman he gives a message to in the middle of the night), he’s funny, he’s touching, and also, the language he has to speak is quite flowery and poetic. Stockwell manages it all. Not once do you feel he is out of his depth.

Stockwell has spoken at length about Errol Flynn, and how much he appreciated Flynn’s no-nonsense acceptance of him, a young boy, as a collaborator and friend. They truly had regard for one another, and it’s apparent in their dynamic on screen. I especially love the scene where Stockwell sits in a tub of soap and water, naked, and Errol Flynn stands over him, scrubbing the dark paint off of Stockwell’s skin. They chat, they banter all the while, and sometimes Flynn scrubs too hard, and you can see Stockwell squirming, trying to get away, and there’s something so natural in their rapport, so unselfconscious. You believe they are friends. And you can feel Flynn’s generosity towards his young co-star. Stockwell never forgot him for that. He said, years later, “I’m not saying I’d recommend him for the rest of society. It just so happened that at that time of my life—I was twelve or something—he was what he was: a truly profound, nonsuperficial sex symbol. He was the fucking male.” Great movie, a great romp.

4. Tracks (1976); directed by Henry Jaglom; starring Dennis Hopper, Dean Stockwell: One of the first films to deal with Vietnam veterans and their challenges in coming home, Tracks is a small treasure. In true Jaglom fashion, there is an improvisational feel to it. The majority of the film was shot bootleg style, on an actual train, where the crew would move from car to car, picking up shots, plopping the actors down in the middle of actual passengers to play a scene, moving on to the next car… no “professional” extras were used, just the people who happened to be on the train at the time. The commentary track on the DVD, with Jaglom and Dennis Hopper, is invaluable. Dennis Hopper plays 1st Sergeant Jack Falen, fresh out of Vietnam, and he is accompanying a dead body across the country. Things are surreal for him to say the least. He is on the train for 4 or 5 days. He circulates. He meets people. He meets a girl. He’s odd, he’s haunted, he’s trying to act his way back into being normal. He befriends a guy named Mark, played by Dean Stockwell. Mark wears a flowery shirt and turquoise jewelry, so you might think that he would be hostile towards a man in uniform, given the feeling of the day. But that’s not the case. They click. They click as men. They sit in the dining car and chat up girls. They hang out together, and have long conversations.

Nothing happens in the movie for 95% of it, and for me, the ending—where something suddenly happens, with a bang—doesn’t quite work, but it’s forgivable. I understand the impulse, and I understand the point Jaglom is trying to make. It just doesn’t work for me because I was so riveted by the rest of the film, its aimlessness, its weird observations of human behavior, and its beauty. There are shots of Hopper, sitting alone in an empty car, dusk outside, his silhouette blue and shadowy against the twilight. We can only imagine what he is thinking. Stockwell is at his wittiest and most charming here. 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. I’ve always thought that Humphrey Bogart is best when he’s listening to others. It’s almost like he makes the other actor more interesting, just because of how he is listening to him. Stockwell has that. He takes Hopper in, he watches, he listens—not just to the words, but to what is not being said. It’s also wonderful because you know what good friends the two are in real life. There’s nothing about their dynamic that doesn’t feel real and unselfconscious. The camera is there, yes, to capture the moment. But Stockwell and Hopper barely seem aware of it. They are too engrossed in their own conversation.

5. Quantum Leap (1989 - 1993): With Rear Admiral Al Calavicci, you can sense Stockwell at the height of all of his powers. He has said that he prefers comedy to drama, he likes to keep things light, and as a child he dreaded “crying scenes” so much he would lose sleep the night before filming. The best thing about his portrayal of Calavicci is how broad it is, how he got to include all aspects of his personality—the cynical, the macho, the lecherous, the funny, the passionate. Calavicci, a man who was MIA in Vietnam for 5 years and given up for dead has a regard for the underdog, for those who may be “lost”. He thinks everyone is worth saving. And yet he is completely lacking in sanctimonious earnestness. Imagine how insufferable Quantum Leap would have been if Al Calavicci had been more of a “touched by an angel”-type observer, someone who was passionate about the “greater good”. Not that Calavicci doesn’t want to put right what once went wrong—he does. But he also usually has some naked girl in his bed back home when he is called to Sam Beckett’s side, and so he is, obviously, distracted from the task at hand. And when, later, we discover Al Calavicci’s secret, what it was that he once had lost, the one thing he can never get back, it all makes sense, and it packs quite a punch because we have come to care about the man.

I loved the show when it was originally on, and I have been having so much fun reacquainting myself with it. It kind of slipped off the rails in the final season (like: evil leapers? Really? Huh.), but to my taste, it never forgot its mission. And it never forgot that the strength of the series was in the friendship between Sam Beckett (Scott Bakula) and Al Calavicci. Quantum Leap was not an ensemble series. It was about the two of them. They are so much fun to watch together. Stockwell, in his 50s, became more famous than he had ever been as a child actor. Suddenly, his ship came in. Couldn’t happen to a better person.


In October, I flew to Taos, New Mexico, to go to an exhibit of Stockwell’s artwork. He was there, in his black hat, his bolo tie, his black jeans. A marimba band played outside the gallery, and Stockwell danced around, his ubiquitous cigar in his mouth. He chatted with friends who had shown up, he was gracious to the fans who approached him (you could totally tell which ones were Battlestar Galactica fans), and he seemed to enjoy himself completely. His art is wonderful, reminiscent of the collages of Joseph Cornell, and I walked around the gallery, soaking them all in. I had some very odd moments when I would glance over at Dean Stockwell, deep in conversation with a friend, or jamming out to the music, and I would see him as the little boy from Secret Garden, or The Boy with Green Hair. The ghost of his younger self hovers around him, my associations with him through the years superimposed over his 71-year-old still vital self. What a survivor. I do not know the man, so I do not know what his ghosts might be, his unresolved issues, his regrets. It’s not for me to know. But from my perspective, being in his presence, all I was aware of was my overwhelming gratitude to this man for his long career, his hard work, and his talent. It seems to me that he has always been there. How lucky we are to have him.

At the end of the night, the spectacular Taos sunset gleaming in the sky, Stockwell’s art dealer, RC Israel, who had befriended me earlier in the night, took me over to say hello to Stockwell. He had already introduced me to Dean multiple times, so it was like Groundhog Day. Israel said, “Dean, have you met Sheila O’Malley?” Dean, cigar in his mouth, said dryly, “About 4 times now, Israel.” Looking back on the moment, I just have to laugh. Dean Stockwell was “over” me! My life is now complete.

Stevie, my friend who had accompanied me to the exhibit, said to Stockwell at one point, when the two of us were standing there, outside the gallery, “Mr. Stockwell, Sheila just loves you.”

Stockwell grinned, gave me a kind of awkward one-armed hug, and corrected the sentiment gently, “No. She loves my work.”

Truer words…