Since seeing him in the 60s film Psych-Out, I’ve been on a little bit of a Dean Stockwell kick. It’s pretty funny, actually, that Psych-Out is the film that started me off on said kick. You’ve read about my experience with Rapture, and I’ve recently watched (or re-watched) twelve of his other films, plus a couple of his performances on the Alfred Hitchcock Hour. As far as I can tell, he’s been a workaholic all his life, with perhaps a few slightly less prolific periods (at least in terms of performing) in his late teens and then again in the mid-to-late 60s, when from what I’ve gathered he was busy doing the Haight-Ashbury thing with Dennis Hopper and friends.
In terms of breadth, his resume is impressive. In film, he’s worked with Abbott and Costello, Robert Altman, Lauren Bacall, Lionel Barrymore, Jeff Bridges, Sean Connery, Francis Ford Coppola, Willem Dafoe, Jonathan Demme, Melvyn Douglas, Errol Flynn, Harrison Ford, Jodie Foster, Katherine Hepburn, Wendy Hiller, Trevor Howard, Anjelica Huston, James Earl Jones, Elia Kazan, Gene Kelly, Janet Leigh, Jerry Lewis, Myrna Loy, Sidney Lumet, David Lynch, Herbert Marshall, Jack Nicholson, Margaret O’Brien, Gary Oldman, Reginald Owen, Gregory Peck, William Powell, Vincent Price, Jason Robards, Cesar Romero, Randolph Scott, Frank Sinatra, Harry Dean Stanton, Meryl Streep, Orson Welles, Wim Wenders, Teresa Wright, and Neil Young, among many many others.
His first film was released in 1945, when he was 9 years old, and he has completed work on two films that are tentatively scheduled for release this year. On TV, he has worked with loads of people as well, including Fred Astaire, Anne Baxter, Ralph Bellamy, Lloyd Bridges, Lon Chaney, Jr., James Garner, Paul Henreid, Ida Lupino, Karl Malden, Raymond Massey, Walter Matthau, Leonard Nimoy, David Niven, William Shatner, John Wayne, and Shelley Winters. A sampling of shows on which he has appeared includes Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Bonanza, Cannon, Chicago Hope, Columbo, The Drew Carey Show, General Electric Theatre, Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense, Hart to Hart, Hunter, Kraft Suspense Theatre, Miami Vice, Mission: Impossible, Murder She Wrote, Schlitz Playhouse, Simon & Simon, Star Trek: Enterprise, The Streets of San Francisco, The Twilight Zone (both the old and newer runs), and Wagon Train, and he’s played a recurring character on several shows, including Battlestar Galactica, Dr. Kildare, JAG, and–of course–Quantum Leap.
He’s hosted science shows, made TV movies, done the voice for an animated character, and appeared in pretty much every genre of film including Comedy, Drama, Documentary, Horror, Musicals, Romance, Science Fiction, Suspense, and Westerns. He’s acted in works by Roald Dahl, Ernest Hemingway, D.H. Lawrence, H.P. Lovecraft, and Eugene O’Neill. The guy’s been around. Oh, and he’s a visual artist as well. Presumably, he has rarely been bored.
After Psych-Out and Rapture, I think the next Stockwell film I watched was 1977’s Tracks, starring Dennis Hopper. In it, Hopper plays a Vietnam soldier on special assignment to take home his friend’s body on a train bound for California. Stockwell plays a fellow passenger who teams up with Hopper’s character to hit on a couple of ladies (art imitating life, probably). The handful of focused conversations between the two of them are among the best parts of the film. Tracks has potential, and I wanted to like it, but it’s indulgent and overly masculine (most female characters are sweet, sexy, and fairly stupid; they don’t say much, and they seem to be around primarily to meet men’s various needs), and it just doesn’t quite work.
Next I re-watched a film that is among the best in which Stockwell has taken part, 1984’s Paris, Texas. In it, Stockwell plays Harry Dean Stanton’s relatively stable and settled brother. Stanton reappears after a four-year disappearance, and Stockwell takes him in and tries to get him back on his feet and find out what happened. Stockwell and his wife have been caring for Stanton’s young son, who at this point sees the two of them as his parents. I had not seen this film for many years, and it affects me more now that I’m a married adult with a child of my own. It’s a Wim Wenders film and features Aurore Clément and Nastassja Kinski, so it’s got that wonderful freshness that comes of combining elements in a new way and in a new place, much like I see in a film like Rapture. This is a Great (captial G) movie.
After Paris, Texas, I moved back in time a bit to another impressive ensemble film, Sidney Lumet’s 1962 version of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night. In this film, Stockwell joins Katherine Hepburn, Ralph Richardson, and Jason Robards. Stockwell is Edmund, the film’s counterpart to O’Neill himself, Hepburn and Richardson play his parents, and Robards portrays Edmund’s older brother, Jamie, a role he played in the Tony Award winning Broadway premiere (which also starred Fredric March, Katharine Ross, and Bradford Dillman–Stockwell starred with Dillman in Compulsion in 1959).
The film is true to the stage play; it is intense, dramatic, and–at nearly three hours–unrelenting. As the O’Neill character, Stockwell does a lot of observing and reacting to his damaged family. At first blush, his performance might not always seem equal to those of his co-stars–Robards in particular really had his role down–but then again, Stockwell’s portrayal seems right. He seems tired. He’s the well-loved baby of the family, he’s supposed to be weak with consumption, and his is perhaps the least venomous role. In some ways, it’s the hardest of the four main roles to get right. So, if he’s not always quite as show-stopping as Robards or, in her brightest moments, Hepburn, that’s not really a knock on his performance. He still puts in an excellent turn here. If Paris, Texas is a Great Movie (with a capital G), then Long Day’s Journey Into Night is Fine Acting (in the stage tradition, with a capital F).
Three down, nine to go.