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Farewell Dean Stockwell: His Years of Weirdness

  Dean Stockwell (1936-2021) will likely be most remembered for the work of the later years of his career, post-Oscar nomination for Married to the Mob in 1988 and into subsequent television series Quantum Leap (1989-93), a science fiction show with a new character for star Scott Bakula to play every week, while Stockwell played his holographic sidekick from his future. He stayed with science fiction with Battlestar Galactica (2004-09) when it was rebooted, his other high profile TV role, but these character acting showcases did nothing to remind audiences of what a strange path he had taken towards respectability in the industry, as from the late sixties to the mid-eighties, things got weird for the child star turned hippy dropout.

After being established as a major star before he was ten years old, something he purported not to enjoy, it seemed as if Stockwell may be on course to burn out as he matured, leaving college to aim to revive his past stardom, but he did fairly well with acclaim for Compulsion and Sons and Lovers following. But he still wasn't happy, and after a failed marriage to actress Millie Perkins he joined the counterculture in California, absent from the screen. The film that indicated where he was heading was 1967's Psych-Out, made with pals Jack Nicholson, Dennis Hopper and Bruce Dern, among others, which embraced the new hippies and crafted a way out melodrama among their denizens. But it was the dawn of the seventies that really suited his new outlook.

Yes, guesting on television provided him a regular income - he did episodes of shows like Mission: Impossible, Columbo and The Streets of San Francisco, among many others - but if you want to see where his heart lay, watch the movies he made. Psych-Out had suited him to a tee, so he stuck with the Roger Corman crowd at American International Pictures to take the lead alongside Sandra Dee in The Dunwich Horror (1970), adapting the H.P. Lovecraft tale. Now, Lovecraft and the old pulp and horror writers like him were enjoying a second wind of popularity at the time, to be superseded by the rise of the next generation of horror writers as the genre boomed, but Howard Philips held an extra interest for how mindbending his fiction was, ideal for the psychedelic approach.

Yet with Sandra Dee as the ultimate sacrificial victim? She had been the picture of wholesome respectability from Gidget onwards, though A Summer Place had been a little racy for its day, but she made a curious partner for Stockwell as he seduces her with his dark arts intellectualism in a coastal town ripe for invasion by the Great Old Ones. He was obviously responding to the pretensions in the screenplay and playing it cool as he leafs through the Necronomicon and intones the chants to revive the unspeakable ghastlies from beyond space and time, but Sandra was all at sea, supposedly performing a nude scene which gained the film some publicity, but pretty blatantly using a body double. With its overlit, TV movie look, the movie never embraced its possibilities.

However, Stockwell was just getting going, as his next movie would be the brainchild of the man who he stayed disarmingly loyal to for decades: Dennis Hopper. Hopper had just directed and starred in unexpected blockbuster Easy Rider, which shocked the Hollywood establishment who did not know what to make of it, so gave a budget to various talents associated with it and hoped for the best. The seventies movie brats (mostly) out of film school would soon usurp these upstarts, and not many jobs would come the way of the likes of Hopper or Stockwell or many of their contemporaries who were not able to secure a profile like, say, Jack Nicholson did, but Stockwell had his TV work to fall back on, and every so often gained a role in a movie, often a cheapo one.

But The Last Movie (1971) was not cheapo, it was quite expensive after the cast and crew had flown out to Peru to make it. Hopper wrote and directed, a real passion project for him, but once finished after a year of editing (and tinkering) it was barely released and became a cause celebre among cult flick fans, partly because of its audacious, Alejandro Jodorowsky-indebted techniques, and partly because of its remarkable cast. Stockwell being one of Hopper's best buds, he was among his coterie flown out to make this, though as it transpired there was little for most of them to do but mill about on the screen. He played Billy the Kid in the B Western made as part of the plot and appeared throughout the first half hour (where the title of the movie doesn't deign to appear).

The conceit here was that Hollywood was fake, and when the local villagers take up the B movie's mantle and emulate the filmmakers by "shooting" their own movie with wooden cameras and equipment, they are more authentic by dint of using real bullets for their shootout. Yet watch how Hopper's character's last moments replicate the acted death scene of Stockwell's an hour and a half before as an indication of the director's respect for his old friend. Slammed by critics and audiences alike, The Last Movie existed on terrible bootlegs for decades before being spruced up so you could actually make out the celebrities who showed up in it, most of whom were off their faces on cheap cocaine, marijuana and acid (the exchange rate was beneficial to American druggies in Peru).

Stockwell kept plugging away, though as the seventies wore on the business lost interest in him, his filmography including misfiring satire The Werewolf of Washington and another Easy Rider hanger on Henry Jaglom's Vietnam drama Tracks, which barely anyone saw. The TV roles kept coming, but with the eighties it seemed finally obscurity was threatening him, with another friend Neil Young putting him in musical curio Human Highway in 1982 amid Hart to Hart and The A-Team episodes. However, in 1984 Wim Wenders cast him in international cult favourite Paris, Texas as Harry Dean Stanton's baffled brother, and David Lynch liked him and cast him in Dune; that film flopped, but the collaboration led to one of Stockwell's greatest, Lynch's Blue Velvet, where his unforgettably strange Ben lipsyncs to Roy Orbison's In Dreams.

He was more or less relegated to ensemble parts by this point, but The Legend of Billie Jean and To Live and Die in L.A. kept the cult flag flying; then Married to the Mob happened and the mainstream finally embraced him once again, though still a far cry from dancing with Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra in Anchors Aweigh as he had at the beginning of his career. However, take a look at Joseph Losey's The Boy with Green Hair in 1948: Stockwell actually liked appearing in that subversive little picture, and you can trace it through the rest of his filmography with the movies that sustained his following. Cult movies at the last stages of his enduring stint on the screen included The Player, CQ and Buffalo Soldiers, though it was Battlestar Galactica on TV that kept him visible, playing one of the scheming Cylons, and he retired after 2015 when he suffered a stroke. From major child star to hippy celeb to dependable TV guest star back to cult star and beyond, there was nobody who quite had a career like Dean Stockwell.
Author: Graeme Clark.


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