By Jonathan Marlow
April 10, 2005 - 11:58 PM PDT
2004 was something of a breakthrough year for the CineVegas Film Festival, thanks in large part to the presence of Dennis Hopper on the Creative Advisory team, as Hannah Eaves noted that summer. One of the highlights of the festival was a screening of Joseph Losey's The Boy with Green Hair (1948), the film that made Dean Stockwell, not even a teenager yet at the time, a much sought-after if reluctant star. Following the screening, Jonathan Marlow spoke with Stockwell about his wide-ranging and unique career.
Do you have fond memories of working with Robert Ryan on The Boy with Green Hair?
I remember that he was uptight [a characteristic of several adult actors that worked with Stockwell when he was young].
He seemed to underplay his role against you. He doesn't seem to open up very much. It's just a framing device, but...
I think he was playing cop. [Ryan plays a psychologist. However, all of his scenes take place at a police station].
Ryan miraculously escaped the blacklist even though many of the folks associated with this film and Tender Comrade were pulled down. Obviously this didn't affect you or your career. You were too young.
You came back to film after doing a number of other things. How different was your experience when working on Psych-Out? Obviously the whole film community had changed from your times as, for lack of a better term, a child star.
When you've had a career a long time - Dennis [Hopper] will tell you this - there are parts that come along and that you accept because you're an actor. That's what you do for a living. If you get an offer, you have the choice of either accepting it or saying, "Bye bye." It's not wise to just turn things down. So I was offered this thing in Psych-Out and I thought it was an absolutely horrible, a stupid fucking capitalization on hippies. I tried to remove the character I was doing a little bit from what they really were trying to do. I don't think I was successful. It was impossible to be successful.
It was a very unusual cast. Granted, everyone...
Jack [Nicholson] and Bruce [Dern]...
Susan Strasberg, right? Did you every study with Lee [Strasberg, Susan's father and teacher at the Actor's Theater in New York]?
No, I didn't study with anybody.
Good for you.
I went to some acting classes in Hollywood because there were so many fucking beautiful girls. I just learned by myself in my own way when I was a kid.
What you bring out of your performance in The Boy With Green Hair? It's very naturalistic. I think that's why it really stands out. You carry the entire film by yourself [although Pat O'Brien certainly helps].
That's what I figured was the way to do it. Do it the way that people would like. I had a nickname at MGM that was "One-Take Stockwell" because I wanted to get it the first time. What people didn't realize is the reason that that happened was that I didn't like being there. I didn't like doing this at all and I didn't want to do more than one. I just wanted to get it right and I knew just how people would like it. The way I did it was try to act naturally. I was an actor. And I found I could do it like that.
You didn't have any trouble whatsoever as far as remembering lines? This was a pretty challenging role.
No, I had photographic memory when I was a kid. I still can memorize lines very easily.
And where do you think that comes from?
I don't know. It's just a trait.
You said you were first hired with your brother [Guy Stockwell - they both appeared together in The Green Years and The Mighty McGurk]. Did your brother share this trait? Did he have that same quality to just read a script and be able to...
No, it was a little more difficult for him, but he could do it. He did some contract movies for Universal as a young kid, Beau Geste and things like that. He was an acting teacher for a while.
Much of your experience acting when you were young made you less interested in working in film, rather than more.
That's right. When I graduated from high school, I didn't know if there was an agreement between my mother, who was my legal guardian, and the studio. They had the option to renew [my contract] and we had no option at all. I think that the phenomenon of, what they call the awkward age of kids, was part of it. They couldn't see how they were going to cast me now that I was turning seventeen. So they let me out of it and I just took off. If I hadn't, I don't think that I would have survived since those years when I was anonymous kind of offset all those years of stardom. It was like The Boy with Green Hair. All the kids didn't like me because I was a movie star.
Much later, you became associated with playing the ultimate outsider with your role in Blue Velvet. How much of what you created was taken from the script? What influence did Carol Burnett have on your characterization of Ben?
Well, I stole it. You know that thing that I do with my eyes? Carol Burnett had a character of this super snooty woman and she was always like this. I stole it and I told her one time and she laughed her head off.
It's fantastic that you were certain enough with how Dennis [Hopper] would play his character that you could play against it. It's obviously an unforgettable role. Not to go roughshod over your career but, after a number of wonderful roles in Compulsion, Long Day's Journey Into Night, Tucker: The Man and His Dream and Paris, Texas, you moved into episodic television for a few years. After doing features for so long...
It was fantastic. There was a check every episode. The circumstances were great. Scott Bakula is just a fucking terrific guy. We got along famously and worked together beautifully [on Quantum Leap]. He had the much more difficult part in terms of hours of work. I get to go in and play golf in the afternoon, come in the next day and do one little scene. Ideal for me. I loved the show. I thought it was a cool show.
Well, you were very fortunate in that the show has such a great premise. It really has endless possibilities. Do you think it's very likely that this backdoor pilot for a revisited Quantum Leap: A Bold Leap Forward will lead to a new series?
They were trying to get a script for it [the script was evidently finished recently by Trey Callaway] and Don Bellisario [creator of Quantum Leap] is doing not only JAG, but he's had the spin-off of JAG. So he's doing two shows at the same time, writing most of the new shows and offshoots himself. He just couldn't devote the time to do it so it's been postponed. I think when Don is freed up and his show is sailing along merrily, without needing so much hands-on time from him, he'll have more time to turn back to this and it could get finished next year. He wants to do it, I want to do it and they want to do it.
"I knew just how people would like it.""This far exceeds anything I've done in acting."
back to past articles
In addition to his persistence in acquiring obscure films for GreenCine, Marlow is a writer, filmmaker, curator and occasional critic. Not necessarily in that order. He is also a dedicated skeptic.
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January 19, 2007. Micha X. Peled: The Lives of the Sweatshop Youth by Hannah Eaves
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