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Dean Stockwell, whose eclectic seven-decade career included the leading role in The Boy With Green Hair, an Oscar nomination for Married to the Mob and a starring turn on Quantum Leap, has died. He was 85.
Stockwell died Sunday of natural causes, family spokesperson Jay Schwartz told The Hollywood Reporter. Rep Lesa Kirk added he died surrounded by immediate family members in New Zealand.
Signed to an MGM contract shortly after he made his Broadway debut at age 6, Stockwell stepped away from show business at least three times, only to return. His many memorable characters included the traitorous Dr. Wellington Yueh in David Lynch’s Dune (1984) and the pansexual pimp/drug dealer who lip-syncs Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams” in Blue Velvet (1986), another Lynch classic.
Stockwell also played Howard Hughes in Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988), the second of three films he made for Francis Ford Coppola; appeared as Harry Dean Stanton‘s brother in Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas (1984); and stole scenes as a desperate movie agent in Robert Altman’s The Player (1992).
The cigar-loving actor enjoyed great success at Cannes, sharing best actor “cast” honors at the festival with the likes of Orson Welles, Ralph Richardson and Jason Robards for his work as one of the two arrogant teen killers in Compulsion (1959) and as the terminally tubercular Edmund — Eugene O’Neill’s alter ego — in Sidney Lumet’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1962).
In Joseph Losey’s antiwar allegory Boy With Green Hair (1948), Stockwell, then 11, starred opposite Pat O’Brien as Peter, an orphan who wakes up one morning and discovers that his hair has mysteriously turned bright green. The kid actor wound up with a scalp infection that lasted for more than a year.
A few months earlier, Stockwell had received a special juvenile Golden Globe for playing widower Gregory Peck’s son in Gentleman’s Agreement (1947).
In the Mafia satire Married to the Mob (1988), directed by Jonathan Demme, Stockwell’s Tony “The Tiger” Russo bumps off Frank “The Cucumber” de Marco (Alec Baldwin), then romantically pursues his widow, Angela (Michelle Pfeiffer).
“No character has ever come to me as clearly, as easily and as fully as Tony. It was almost as though I had done it before in another life,” he told Film Comment in a 1988 interview. “I don’t know whether it is because I’m half-Italian or that I’ve never had the opportunity to do this type of role before — a woman-chasing, amoral, top-dog don. But I just lit up the minute I read it, and I didn’t have to touch it. There! Solid. Completely.”
Stockwell scored Emmy nominations in four consecutive years for starring as Admiral Al Calavicci, a streetwise hologram, opposite Scott Bakula on the 1989-93 time-traveling NBC series Quantum Leap. He also had a recurring role on CBS’ JAG, another series created by Donald P. Bellisario.
In his Biographical Dictionary of Film, David Thomson called Stockwell a “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.”
Robert Dean Stockwell was born on March 5, 1936, in North Hollywood. His parents were actors; his father, Harry, was a musical comedy performer who provided the voice of Prince Charming in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). Meanwhile, his older brother, Guy Stockwell, also would become an actor and star in the 1966 remake of Beau Geste.
When he was 7 — about the time when his parents split up — the curly-haired Dean (and his brother) were cast in the Broadway comedy Innocent Voyage. He was spotted by an MGM talent scout and signed, then attended the Little Red Schoolhouse on the studio lot, where Roddy McDowall, Elizabeth Taylor, Jane Powell and Russ Tamblyn were fellow students.
Dean. My oldest friend. A godfather-figure to my daughter, Amber. Brilliant artist. Loving dad. We met on the set of The Boy With Green Hair, stayed close til his last breath.
— Russ Tamblyn (@RussTamblyn) November 9, 2021
Stockwell then made an auspicious movie debut as a runaway child in the famed musical Anchors Aweigh (1945) alongside Frank Sinatra, Kathryn Grayson and Gene Kelly.
The ensuing years saw Stockwell appear in such films as The Green Years (1946), Song of the Thin Man (1947) — as William Powell’s son, Nick Charles Jr. — Deep Waters (1948), The Secret Garden (1949) and as the title character in Kim (1950), playing a British orphan disguised as an Indian local.
“I think that my acting was strictly intuitive, from the beginning, and has always remained that way,” he told Film Comment. “I resisted any attempts by anyone to assist me. Even when I first started acting, when I was six or seven, I always knew, when I was doing a scene, if it was right. I don’t know how I knew, but I knew.”
Stockwell remained under contract with MGM until he was 16, when he decided to leave the business. He finished up at Hamilton High School in L.A. and briefly attended college at U.C. Berkeley before traveling around the country.
When he returned to show business some five years later, Stockwell found the going tough until he landed on Broadway in Compulsion, Meyer Levin’s adaptation of his novel based on the Leopold & Loeb trial.
He and McDowall starred as the brazen duo who think they have committed the perfect murder before Stockwell reprised his role for the Fox film version directed by Richard Fleischer. (Bradford Dillman replaced McDowall in the feature.)
Stockwell then played an overzealous military man on the 1961 Twilight Zone episode “A Quality of Mercy” and spent a season in 1965 as a colleague of Richard Chamberlain on Dr. Kildare.
He took another three-year break from Hollywood in the mid-’60s and hung out in Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco before returning for such films as Richard Rush’s Psych-Out (1968), The Dunwich Horror (1970) and Dennis Hopper’s ill-fated The Last Movie (1971).
He and Hopper were great friends, he told the L.A. Times in 1988. “We used to run around a lot. The beat clubs. The jazz joints. We were pretty wild,” he said of his Blue Velvet co-star. “Barney’s Beanery was our real spot. We started going there back when it was an artists’ hangout.”
His film résumé also included Jack Cardiff’s Sons & Lovers (1960), Rapture (1965), The Loners (1972), the campy The Werewolf of Washington (1973), Henry Jaglom’s Tracks (1976) in another pairing with Hopper, Richard Brooks’ Wrong Is Right (1982), William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in L.A. (1985), Coppola’s Gardens of Stone (1987) and The Rainmaker (1997), Beverly Hills Cop II (1987), Sandino (1991) and Air Force One (1997).
The late Demme once said that he didn’t know what to expect when he worked with Stockwell on Married to the Mob — “which is probably what makes him so intriguing. All I knew was that whatever Dean would do would be completely different from the last time I saw him.
“Whenever he’d come to the set, we’d treat him as Tony the Tiger, bowing and scraping, paying homage to him. Dean was completely in character — talking like a gangster, walking like a gangster, always rolling his neck around like he was ready for a massage.
“Then he’d look around the set — very imperially — and say, ‘It’s so nice to see how you people operate in the movie business.'”
Among his more idiosyncratic projects, Stockwell starred in Nicaragua’s Alsino and the Condor (1982), which was nominated for the best foreign-language film Oscar, and in the Mexican movie To Kill a Stranger (1983). Around that time, he left the business again to sell real estate in New Mexico.
He had a recurring role on Battlestar Galactica and reunited with Bakula in 2002 and 2014 for episodes of Star Trek: Enterprise and NCIS: New Orleans, respectively.
Stockwell also co-wrote and co-directed with Neil Young the 1982 anti-nuke film Human Highway. He first met the musician when both were living in L.A.’s Topanga Canyon, and an unproduced screenplay by Stockwell served as Young’s inspiration for the landmark 1970 album After the Gold Rush.
“He recorded it all at his house studio there in Topanga, and I was there for the whole recording. It was wonderful,” Stockwell said in 2012.
An accomplished artist, Stockwell also designed the cover art for another Young album, 1977’s American Stars ‘n Bars. He was known for his collages and dice sculptures.
In 1982, Stockwell married Joy Marchenko, a textiles expert whom he had met in Cannes, and they had two children, Austin and Sophia. His first wife was actress Millie Perkins. He also dated “Mickey” singer Toni Basil for a time.
In a statement, Bakula called his Quantum Leap co-star “a dear friend and a mentor.”
“In spite of having a career that came and went several times during his 70-plus years in the business, he was always grateful and delighted to have the chance to keep working,” he said. “The only time he ever complained was when we called him on the golf course and told him we were ready for him to come to work! He used to announce his presence on the soundstage (if we hadn’t already caught a whiff of cigar smoke trailing in behind him) with a bellowed, ‘The fun starts now!’ Truer words were never spoken.”
12:30 p.m. Added statement from Scott Bakula.
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