Bright Lights After Dark gives a “Happy Birthday” shout-out to one of America’s finest character actors, Mr. Dean Stockwell. He was born Robert Dean Stockwell on March 5, 1936 in North Hollywood, California, which by our calculations would make him well over 50. (Math is not one of our strong points.)
Who in Hollywood has had more comebacks? He began his career as an unusually sensitive and intelligent child actor, appearing in such well-remembered fare as Gentleman’s Agreement (Elia Kazan, 1947), The Secret Garden (Fred M. Wilcox, 1949), Stars in My Crown (Jacques Tourneur, 1950), and – most indelibly – playing the title role in Joseph Losey’s feature debut, The Boy With Green Hair (1948). And then, for a few years, his career faded.
Stockwell’s first big comeback was in the late ’50s/early ’60s when, as a young man, he played a trio of characters based on real life. In Richard Fleischer’s Compulsion (1959), he and Bradford Dillman played a pair of wealthy thrill-killers modeled on Chicago’s Leopold and Loeb. Stockwell played the sympathetic one, the one who killed because he was ordered to by his master/lover. (Cf. Farley Granger in Rope (1948), based more loosely on the same case.) In Sons and Lovers (Jack Cardiff, 1960), adapted from D.H. Lawrence’s autobiographical coming-of-age novel, Stockwell played the D.H. Lawrence character, an English coalminer’s son. In Long Day’s Journey Into Night (Sidney Lumet, 1962), based on Eugene O’Neill’s autobiographical drama, Stockwell played the young tubercular O’Neill. He received acting awards at Cannes for his work in Compulsion and Long Day’s Journey, but in neither case did the award go to Stockwell, alone. In both instances, he was honored as part of an ensemble (along with Dillman and Orson Welles in Compulsion; along with Jason Robards, Katherine Hepburn, and Sir Ralph Richardson in Long Day’s Journey).
In 1960, Alfred Hitchcock seriously considered casting Stockwell as Norman Bates in Psycho, but the part went to Tony Perkins instead. Stockwell got the consolation prize of starring in an episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour entitled “Annabel,” adapted by Robert “Psycho” Bloch from a novel by Patricia Highsmith (The Talented Mr. Ripley, Strangers on a Train). Like most of Highsmith’s protagonists, Stockwell’s role in “Annabel” was a variation on her “Ripley” character and, arguably, Stockwell embodied the author’s conception of that character better than anyone who has played the role before or since. This led to several more television roles, and by the late ’60s, Stockwell was relegated to films aimed at the “youth” market: Richard Rush’s Psych-Out (1968), Daniel Haller’s The Dunwich Horror (1970), opposite Sandra Dee (alas), and Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie (1970).
Stockwell’s second comeback came in 1984, when he was brilliant playing Harry Dean Stanton’s straight-laced brother in Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas, and also appeared in David Lynch’s Dune. In 1985, he played a corrupt criminal defense lawyer in William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in L.A. In Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986, above), Stockwell was unforgettable as “Ben,” eerily lip-synching to Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams.” 1988 brought two more plum roles: an Italian godfather in Jonathan Demme’s Married to the Mob, and as a paranoid Howard Hughes in Francis Coppola’s Tucker. The latter, hardly more than a cameo, was about the creepiest – and most convincing – portrayal of Hughes yet seen on screen. (Apologies to Messrs. Robards, Jones, and DiCaprio.) Stockwell had by now proven himself an extraordinary performer who always brought much more to a role than appeared on the page.
And then – another hiatus. The ’90s and 2000s brought plenty of television work – Quantum Leap, and most recently, Battlestar Galactica – but where are the really juicy film roles?
Come back to the big screen, Dean. We miss you.