RIP Dean Stockwell, a 70-Year Hollywood Renegade

Forced to support his family as a child star of the 1940s, Dean Stockwell embraced the counterculture of the 1960s while cutting his own path through eight decades in Hollywood.

Dean Stockwell at the New York Film Critics Awards in 1989. (Catherine McGann / Getty Images)

It’s endearing to find out that actor Russ Tamblyn (West Side Story, Twin Peaks) considered Dean Stockwell “my oldest friend,” and paid tribute to him upon Stockwell’s death on November 7, tweeting:

We met on the set of The Boy with Green Hair, stayed close till his last breath. Rest easy, brother. Give Dennis [Hopper] a hug from me when you see him on the other side.

Stockwell is chiefly remembered now for his brilliant performances later in life, in roles such as the perplexed but loving brother of Harry Dean Stanton’s wrecked antihero in Paris, Texas; as the louche, menacing, lip-syncing Ben in Blue Velvet; as would-be lady-killer mobster Tony “The Tiger” Russo in Married to the Mob; and on television, the beloved, high-living, cigar-smoking Admiral Al Calavicci in Quantum Leap.

But Stockwell’s acting career ran for an astonishing seventy years, running on a parallel track with lifetime pal Tamblyn’s. He and Tamblyn — initially billed as “Rusty” Tamblyn — both came out of the gate fast as kids of entertainment industry families and successful child actors at MGM Studios back in the 1940s. Tamblyn, though two years older than Stockwell when they met, got a later start in film and was playing his first part, a small nonspeaking role in the fantastical antiwar drama The Boy with Green Hair (1948), which starred Stockwell.

An exceptionally beautiful and gifted child, Stockwell was playing leading roles at a very young age in Anchors Aweigh (1945), Gentleman’s Agreement (1947), and The Secret Garden (1949), whereas Tamblyn didn’t make his mark in major roles till Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), Peyton Place (1957), West Side Story (1961), and The Haunting (1963).

By the time Tamblyn’s stardom was sinking into low-budget exploitation film roles in the late 1960s, and he was disaffected enough to quit acting, Stockwell had long since dropped out, come back, and was ready to drop out again. He’d graduated the studio lot version of high school at age sixteen, enrolled in and dropped out of UC Berkeley, then struggled with hard labor jobs like fruit picking and railroad work through the early 1950s. But he felt helpless to sustain himself that way for long, and grimly returned to the only profession he knew well.

Mainly relying on guest-starring roles on television shows, he eventually landed a lead role in the Broadway play version of Compulsion, based on the Leopold and Loeb story, which led to his acclaimed performance in the 1959 film version, costarring Orson Welles and Brad Dillman. That and his sensitive performance in the Eugene O’Neill alter-ego role of Edmund Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey into Night, starring with Katharine Hepburn, Ralph Richardson, and Jason Robards, were the triumphs of this short phase of his career.

As times changed, and the studio system collapsed, both Stockwell and Tamblyn left acting and threw themselves into the same wild, arty, druggy Topanga Canyon counterculture community, becoming even closer friends and frequent creative collaborators with visual artists George Herms and Wallace Berman, rocker Neil Young, and actor Dennis Hopper. It was a life that appealed to him so much, he became a full-time artist after his retirement from acting in 2015, exhibiting his work under his full name, Robert Dean Stockwell.

As Stockwell summed it up cheerfully, “I did some drugs and went to some love-ins. . . . The experience of those days provided me with a huge, panoramic view of my existence that I didn’t have before. I have no regrets.”

Both Stockwell and Tamblyn made spectacular returns to performing in middle-age, coming back with the weathered, worldly, amused look of people who’ve done a lot of intense living over the years. Both became beloved character actors, and both owe a debt to David Lynch for giving them perhaps their most memorable later-life parts, with Tamblyn as Dr Lawrence Jacoby in Twin Peaks and Stockwell as Dr Yueh in Dune and, especially, Ben in Blue Velvet.

The interrupted phases of Stockwell’s career resulted from his youthful dislike of a profession he didn’t choose for himself. For all his success, he was a real child-labor casualty. Stockwell’s parents were showbiz people — his father Harry Stockwell, a noted stage and film actor, and his mother Elizabeth Veronica, an ex-vaudevillian. They split up when he was six, and after that, he was effectively the breadwinner of the family, the main support of his mother and brother Guy, though Guy was a child actor as well. He struggled with the responsibility of “being a worker when you’re that young,” and asserted that, “If it had been up to me, I would have been out of it by the time I was ten.”

This was in spite of the fact that he was a natural film actor, with an instinctive approach he mastered early that stayed with him for life: “I use my intuition. Somehow I was able to find an accommodation with the camera as a child and it became almost like an ally. I got on very intimate terms with it.”

He particularly hated the intense, dramatic roles that were mainly assigned to him as a child because he was so good at performing emotional outbursts. In The Secret Garden (1949), the majority of his scenes as the sickly, imperious scion of the house, the son of a wealthy, morbid, hunch-backed widower who shuns him, are screaming tantrums. He and the film’s main child star, Margaret O’Brien, who was even more famous for her ability to go into hysterics on cue, make a marvelous pair of angry, bereft children who decide to chart their own course in life when all the adults prove to be useless.

When assigned a new script, Stockwell would ask his mother if there was a dreaded crying scene, “which there always was.” He much preferred comedy, and friends talked about him as hilariously funny in ordinary life. Stockwell remembered wistfully his seeking out of parental figures in his movie roles, and he felt a lifelong drive to find comedy parts that allowed him to play the “zany” instead of the lugubrious aspects of life and his own personality.

Therefore, it was hitting the jackpot to be cast as the son of Nick and Nora Charles, famously played by William Powell and Myrna Loy in the last of their successful Thin Man screwball comedy/detective film franchise, Song of the Thin Man (1947). Stockwell recalled, “I have very positive feelings regarding both of them, they were very sweet people, especially Myrna Loy. And that cute little dog, Asta. I liked that little dog.”

Stockwell acknowledged that his relentlessly hard-working, high-pressure childhood haunted him. Even when his career was staring to thrive again by the late 1960s, he said,

I wasn’t getting anything out of it personally. What I was looking for I was finding in another place, which was in that revolution. The ’60s allowed me to live my childhood as an adult. That kind of freedom, imagination and creativity that arose all around was like a childhood to me.

It’s a rare talent that can drop out of the entertainment industry repeatedly and keep clawing its way back into the limelight. Stockwell’s hardest struggle came in the early 1980s when he was able to generate so little work, he got his real estate license out of sheer desperation, and was preparing to make that his career and live permanently with his wife and children in Santa Fe, New Mexico. His friend Harry Dean Stanton called just in time to tell him about a costarring role in the Wim Wenders film Paris, Texas, and from then till his retirement from acting in 2015, the offers kept coming. And by that time, he found he’d finally learned to love his profession.

But about his extraordinary abilities — just look again at his amazing work as gangster’s henchman Ben in Blue Velvet: his disturbingly beautiful dance-step sway out beyond the curtain lip-syncing to Roy Orbison’s eerie, keening “In Dreams,” while his boss, psychotic drug lord Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper), stands watching in a state of pent-up anguish, mouthing the lyrics in silent communion. And all the lived-in details of Ben’s character — the ruffled shirt, the bandaged hand, the slick, practiced use of cigarette holder and lit-up microphone — add to the shocking impact of Stockwell’s “intimate” alliance with the camera. He’s the key to one of David Lynch’s greatest scenes, terrifying beyond what one can sum up easily.

Born to play in Lynch movies, Stockwell claims it was a total delight because it was the rare opportunity to go on a “creative bender”:

[T]he guy calls up and says “would you like this part?” and you can do anything you want.  I made that whole character up. I did the wardrobe, I did the makeup, everything. Made it up out of my own demented head . . . . Some writer in Rolling Stone said about Blue Velvet that I created a new high water mark for alien humor in that film! [laughs]

We’ll miss Dean Stockwell, because great effects in acting aren’t just achieved through talent, but also through lived experience that marks itself on the face, body, voice, and behaviors of a performer. Long-term, compliant film industry performers aren’t generally all that interesting, though immersion in Hollywood’s insular way of life can make them bizarrely fascinating in other ways (looking at you, Nicole Kidman), which at least is better than total blandness (Kevin Costner the president of this club).

Stockwell’s early immersion in, and repeated rejections of, Hollywood filmmaking, especially in favor the wilder experiences of what David Lynch calls “the art life,” gave him an ironic, outsider edge that remained whenever he came back to the fold. His face wound up with that lived-in look that’s a rough blessing on film.