What it was like to spend a day with Dean Stockwell, one of Hollywood’s kindest stars

A man in a geometric red blazer, black trousers, patterned shirt and skinny tie holding a cigar.
Dean Stockwell as Admiral Al Calavicci in “Quantum Leap.”
(NBC / NBCUniversal via Getty Images)

When I was informed in 1988 that Dean Stockwell would be one of the stars of a new TV series I had been asked to design the costumes for, I was overwhelmed. The actor, who died this week at age 85, had always been one of my favorites.

I was also hesitant to meet him; I had been disappointed before by prominent film stars who turned out to be impossible-to-please divas. I had learned not to walk into any room expressing great admiration for anyone because usually they were as plastic as the celluloid their pictures were shown on.

After reading the intriguing script for this new series, “Quantum Leap,” about a time traveler and his holographic assistant, I wondered how futuristic they would want me to make Dean’s hedonistic character. Producer Don Bellisario, who I had worked with before on “Battlestar Galactica,” gave me great leeway: make his attire whatever I thought future fashion might evolve into, he said, then add a bit of sartorial flash.


Yes, I thought; it would create a full-on impression that would be the key to Dean’s raunchy, holographic Al.

Dean Stockwell, Oscar-nominated star from “Blue Velvet” and “Married to the Mob” who left Hollywood again and again, has died.

To get away from the formality of my stuffy studio office, I suggested meeting Dean on Melrose Avenue, where we could glance through several of the many trendy men’s boutiques, then discuss his look over coffee. I would also try to persuade him into a casual, informal fitting, giving me an opportunity to find out what cuts and colors he was into and what wardrobe issues I might have to deal with if it came down to buying off the rack. Plus, such a jaunt would be more entertaining than confronting him with a list of questions in my cubicle.

Punctually at 10:30, when the majority of the shops opened, Dean drove up in a dark sedate car, parked on the street and joined me. Wearing a snap-brim straw hat, dark glasses, and an unconstructed jacket; a beige, un-pressed dress shirt; jeans; and nondescript oxford shoes, Dean was obviously not into fashion. Not in the least.

A sketch of a man in red pants and a black-and-white patterned vest with his hands lifted inquisitively
A sketch of one of Dean Stockwell’s costumes in “Quantum Leap.”
(Courtesy of Jean-Pierre Dorléac)

After a handshake and several nods in greeting with witty quips, we went into a store, where I held back while he perused the dismal merchandise: gray, beige, stone, charcoal and black. Nothing in the latest styles struck me as anything I would like to see on his character.

When the aggressive salesman started bothering him, he left the store disgruntled. We walked along the block and window-shopped before stepping into another men’s boutique, where I soon discovered — as he tried on a few items with color that piqued his interest immensely — that buying anything off the rack, including shirts, would require more work in altering them than manufacturing something unique from the very beginning.

At coffee, I pulled out a folder of quick sketches I had done of crazy lapels and collars for shirts, along with abstract ties with Swiss-cheese holes in them. Dean, who then confessed to being tired from house hunting — his wife had spent the night sleeping in the driveway of a place they were considering buying to check out the noise on the street — was overjoyed by the presentation. Because he had been making movies for so long, he knew what would work and what wouldn’t on him, but he didn’t have many hard-and-fast rules: He would wear anything but fuchsia. He disliked heels on shoes despite the fact that he was rather short in stature.

‘Quantum Leap’ star Scott Bakula pays tribute to his dear friend, mentor and former co-star Dean Stockwell, who died Sunday at 85.

As for fittings, we nixed them: Dean had done so many of them in his life, he found them time-consuming and dull. He’d rather be surprised by my designs when he saw them for the first time, he said.

So, after a one-time meeting with Tomas Velasco, the head tailor for the studio’s costume department, to take his sizes, I rarely saw Dean in my office for the five years I designed the show. (The exception? A wild, nightmarish amalgamation of Christmas, present and future, I did for the Christmas episode “A Little Miracle,” which had to be rigged for flying.) Instead, I would read the script, discuss Dean’s look with Don Bellisario, have Tommy make up one of my outrageous sketches, and send the outfit to the set for him to wear on the day it was required.

Dean would put it on, step out of his trailer and then parade about the set like a king in his outlandish ensembles, grinning happily.

Throughout the five years I designed the series, Dean proved to be the most professional actor I would ever work with. I can think of only a few others who were as cooperative, kind, considerate, sincere and appreciative: Henry Fonda, Fred Astaire, Sam Shepard, Stephen Collins, Roddy McDowell and Dean’s “Quantum Leap” co-star, Scott Bakula, among them. Though I will always have the memory of our shopping trip on Melrose Avenue, I will miss him dearly. The screen has lost one of its very best.

Jean-Pierre Dorléac is an award-winning costume designer for “Quantum Leap,” “Somewhere in Time” and “The Blue Lagoon.” He is also the author of “The Naked Truth: An Irreverent Chronicle of Delirious Escapades” and “Abracadabra Alakazam.”