Few actors have had the career that Dean Stockwell had. Few others have gone from child lead to leading man to character actor as successfully as Stockwell. It seems as though he was born to act, and his screen presence and talent was clear from the get-go. Stockwell was also a rare actor to have successes on the big screen, the little screen, and the stage (on top of that he also did work on the radio). It is difficult to overstate Stockwell’s impact on the entertainment business and on films in general. No matter what kind of film person you are whether that be a classic movie buff, a cult movie fan, or a New Hollywood aficionado, you are a fan of Stockwell’s.
Stockwell is not the only actor in his family. He was the son of Broadway actors Harry Stockwell and Elizabeth Stockwell. His father is known to film buffs if not by name then by voice as his musical talents were lent to films most notably as the Prince in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). On top of these connections, his stepmother was vaudeville dancer Nina Olivette and his older brother, Guy, was also an actor. Still, it would be young Dean who would make the biggest name for himself. MGM signed Dean Stockwell after seeing the seven-year-old perform in a theater production of The Innocent Voyage. This put Dean among MGM’s line of child actors who were taught schooling as well as the fundamentals of acting at MGM. MGM’s acting teacher who taught many of the studio’s stars even singled out Stockwell as likely the best actor she ever taught.
Stockwell’s film debut came in The Valley of Decision (1945) alongside Greer Garson and Gregory Peck. The part was generally a typical child actor’s role, but he was given a larger presence in Anchors Aweigh (1945) as Kathryn Grayson’s nephew who practically gets adopted by sailors Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly. Stockwell cited Sinatra as an influence on him (along with future co-star Errol Flynn). Stockwell’s adorable (but not overtly cloy) performance in Anchors Aweigh led to more roles for the upcoming child actor.
Next in line was the lead role (the lead as a child anyway) in The Green Years (1946). He then worked among other child actors in Home, Sweet Homicide (1946) and was also one of a number of child performers to make a film opposite Wallace Beery with Stockwell’s outing being The Mighty McGurk (1947). Stockwell’s other roles at the time include playing Janet Leigh’s younger brother in The Romance of Rosy Ridge (1947), Nick and Nora’s son Nick Jr. in Song of the Thin Man (1947), and Gregory Peck’s son in the Best Picture Oscar-winner Gentleman’s Agreement (1947). Stockwell received a Golden Globe for “Best Juvenile Performance” for his role in Gentleman’s Agreement and acting-wise it gave Stockwell one of his strongest parts to date. One of the movie’s best scenes has a teary-eyed Stockwell recount to his father how he was bullied at school because the other kids used anti-Semitic attacks/slurs against him. Gentleman’s Agreement doesn’t hit as hard as it once did (when it was released in 1947), but that scene still works and has stood the test of time well.
Dean Stockwell then moved to more leading roles with him playing the title character in The Boy with Green Hair (1948). Stockwell gives one of his best performances as a child performer in the movie as a war orphan whose hair suddenly changes color which serves as an allegory for the movie’s anti-war message. Stockwell’s leading roles continued with Down to the Sea in Ships (1949), The Secret Garden (1949), Stars in My Crown (1950), The Happy Years (1950), Kim (1950), and Cattle Drive (1951). It is safe to state that at this time Stockwell achieved the title of “child star” rather than “child actor.” While Stockwell tended to work alongside adult stars in his films (Richard Widmark in Down to the Sea in Ships, Joel McCrea in both Stars in My Crown and Cattle Drive, and Errol Flynn in Kim), he managed to often take the most screentime in his films and be the aspect of the movie that sticks with the viewer after it is over. You may watch Kim because Errol Flynn’s name is on it, but you remember it for Stockwell more.
I am a fan of many of Stockwell’s early vehicles, but his career was only just beginning and they were just a step in his long, winding career. Unlike most child stars in the limelight who often go through the awkwardness of puberty on-camera, Stockwell stepped away from the big screen for a few years and returned older and more mature for Gun for a Coward (1956). He also played the lead role in the teen drama The Careless Years (1957). Despite these efforts, it would be Stockwell’s reprisal of his stage role in Compulsion (1959) that would put him on the right track. Stockwell plays the movie’s main focus who is a nihilistic student who tests his theory by participating in a murder with his loony friend (played by Bradford Dillman). The movie was a reimagining of the Leopold and Loeb murder with Orson Welles playing the lawyer based off Clarence Darrow. All three actors were awarded “Best Actor” at the Cannes Film Festival, but it is Stockwell who probably makes the strongest impression on audiences in the movie. A certain scene between Stockwell and co-star Diane Varsi has remained burned into my brain since I first saw the film years ago.
Stockwell continued his successful leading man trend with the Best Picture nominee Sons and Lovers (1960) alongside acting heavyweights Trevor Howard and Wendy Hiller. The film was director Jack Cardiff’s adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s famous novel about a young man in a coal-mining town who is manipulated at home by his mother. For his performance, Stockwell received a “Best Actor – Drama” nomination at the Golden Globes. Stockwell took in more acting honors with his performance as Edmund Tyrone in Sidney Lumet’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1962) based off Eugene O’Neill’s praised play. The movie sticks close to the play while still allowing the camera to move around and be the audience’s eye into the family’s descending madness. Once again, Dean Stockwell won “Best Actor” at the Cannes Film Festival for his performance as did his terrific co-stars Ralph Richardson, Katharine Hepburn, and Jason Robards. Stockwell is one of only two other actors to win “Best Actor” at the Cannes Film Festival more than once (Jack Lemmon and Marcello Mastroianni are the others also with two wins each).
Stockwell played another leading man role in John Guillermin’s Rapture (1965) co-starring Melvyn Douglas, Patricia Gozzi, and Gunnel Lindblom. The film lost money at the box office which is unsurprising since the movie feels like a foreign-made arthouse movie but has gained a small following since then and Guillermin has even cited it as his favorite film he directed. Maybe the offbeat nature of Rapture rubbed off on Stockwell as afterwards, his movies tended to be counter-culture fare including Psych-Out (1968) and The Last Movie (1971). Stockwell’s 1970s films range from tolerable to awful, but the 70s were generally a confusing time to make movies and Stockwell is hardly the only pre-70s name with a batch of bad movies covering the decade.
The 1980s were much kinder to Stockwell with the actor playing a major role in the classic Paris, Texas (1984) directed by Wim Wenders. Stockwell became acquainted with David Lynch around this time as well and Stockwell would act in the director’s Dune (1984) and famously in Blue Velvet (1986). Stockwell also went on to receive an Oscar nomination for “Best Supporting Actor” for his comedic role in Married to the Mob (1988).
Stockwell’s film credits towards the later part of his career include To Live and Die in L.A. (1985), The Player (1992), and Air Force One (1997). Still, Stockwell’s most notable contribution in the latter half of his career wasn’t from films, but television playing Admiral Al Calavicci in the action/adventure sci-fi series Quantum Leap (1989-1993) alongside Scott Bakula. Most people will always think of Stockwell with a cigar in his mouth and his red-tinted shades. Stockwell received four Emmy nominations for his performance but unfortunately never won. He did win a Golden Globe, though, for his role (the Golden Globes clearly loved Stockwell). Outside of Quantum Leap, Stockwell’s TV credits include Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Wagon Train, The Twilight Zone, Dr. Kildare, Bonanza, Mannix, Mission: Impossible, Columbo, Ellery Queen, Miami Vice, and Murder, She Wrote.
Outside of making films and TV, Stockwell was also an artist who designed album covers including for his friend Neil Young’s American Stars’n’Bars album. Stockwell was also friends with Russ Tamblyn since childhood when they both were child actors (like Stockwell, Tamblyn started out as a child actor graduated to leading man roles and then became a character actor). Stockwell is the godfather of Tamblyn’s famous daughter, Amber Tamblyn. Politically, Stockwell was an environmentalist who campaigned for Democratic candidates in the past. In his romantic life, Stockwell was married twice with both marriages ending in divorce (his first marriage was to actress Millie Perkins).
Stockwell died of natural causes on November 7, 2021 at the age of 85. Stockwell had retired from acting before his passing and had left a wide variety of films and television for media fans to binge through. How many actors can say they acted in movies made by Elia Kazan, Joseph Losey, Jacques Tourneur, William A. Wellman, Richard Fleischer, Jack Cardiff, Sidney Lumet, Wim Wenders, David Lynch, Robert Altman, and Francis Ford Coppola? Stockwell will always have his name on a diverse filmography of movies and his career spans from the 1940s to the 2010s so there will always be plenty of material to dive through. Still, he does manage to leave us still wanting more.