Childhood actors are a rare breed. Some tire of the early pressure and sink into a rebellious mire. Some simply grow up and bow from public sight. Some return as aged adults in TV series. Only a handful successfully shed their chipmunk charm and mature into grown-up film stars.
Dean Stockwell, 55, has done all of the above.
"One of my priorities is survival," he said one hot afternoon at lunch in Malibu, near his home. His face was tight, his expressions sparing. He dragged on one of his Chavelo cigars, and behind the veil of smoke you almost could make out the curly-haired, cherubic orphan who warmed hearts in the 1948 anti-war fable, "The Boy With Green Hair."
He exhaled and the boyish illusion quickly dissipated with the smoke.
"I think that would be a priority for any healthy-minded person, regardless of what their career was, or what it entailed," he continued, his voice gravelly, halting. "You want to survive. It ain't easy. It ain't easy when you can breathe in stinkin' air, and the environment is going downhill fast. It just ain't easy, you know?"
Stockwell is surviving these days as a wisecracking hologram on NBC's "Quantum Leap." The show came on the heels of Stockwell's first Oscar nomination for his role as Tony (The Tiger) Russo in "Married to the Mob."
He says he took the role in the TV series for his family--his wife, Joy, and two small children, Austin and Sophia. With the calm that comes with experience, Stockwell coolly waved off the notion that film actors can get trapped in television.
"I think it's obviously not a concern of mine, because I chose with my own free will to do a TV series," he explained. "And I chose to do one right at a time when I was enjoying my greatest success in films. I'm a father to my children, and that's my greatest responsibility in life. I mean, if I can work in Los Angeles and be able to see them all the time, isn't it to my advantage?"
Perhaps it's not surprising that Stockwell is so devoted to his children. The one-time childhood star was pushed into theater by stage parents at age 7. Two years later, he signed as a contract player at MGM, making his film splash in 1945 with Gene Kelly in "Anchors Aweigh." Over the next seven years, he did 17 MGM films.
At 16, Stockwell bid anchors aweigh to Hollywood. To escape the pressure he changed his name and roamed the countryside for five years, picking up what odd jobs he could. With no real skills, however, he returned to acting in 1957--this time as an intense, young leading man. He won acting awards at Cannes Film Festival for 1959's "Compulsion" and 1962's "Long Day's Journey Into Night."
Then, amid renewed success, he did the classic '60s dropout, taking a three-year break this time. He hung out in Topanga with Dennis Hopper and Russ Tamblyn.
The layoff hurt, and Stockwell spent years trying to climb back into Hollywood. "The (best-acting) scrolls from Cannes, I threw in the fireplace one night," he said, shaking his head. "I don't know. I couldn't get any work. I was depressed. I was (angry) one night and I threw 'em in the fire."
In 1982, shortly after he married Joy, Stockwell abandoned his flailing acting career a final time to sell real estate in Santa Fe, N.M. But almost as soon as he left town, Hollywood came looking for him.
Stockwell took supporting parts in a rash of movies, finally rediscovering the warm, familiar spotlight in David Lynch's disturbing 1986 thriller "Blue Velvet," in which he played a dark pimp in white drag who coos while torturing a girl.
"I didn't feel that I was taking a chance with 'Blue Velvet,' " he said. "I felt I was hitting the nail on the head. Dennis (Hopper) played an unforgivable psycho in the film, and I was supposed to be someone he admired. I realized I had to be stranger than he was."
In some ways, Stockwell, an avowed environmentalist (he's doing a voice for the upcoming environmental cartoon "Captain Planet"), has become an empathetic and enduring symbol of change over the decades to the fans who grew up and changed with him.
"When you come right down to it, each and every one of us is absolutely alone. I mean, at the end of it all. And we sense that all through it," he said evenly.
"So we tend to identify with people who represent our aspirations. And it gives us reassurance in a sense. It gives us, maybe gives us, strength to face our own aloneness."