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Dean Stockwell, cult star of ‘Blue Velvet’ and ‘Quantum Leap,’ dies

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

Former child star Dean Stockwell, the Oscar-nominated actor who turned his back on Hollywood again and again only to earn cult status in “Blue Velvet” and “Married to the Mob,” has died.

The veteran actor, who appeared in more than 200 roles that spanned film, television and theater, also starred in the movies “The Boy With Green Hair,” “Anchors Aweigh,” “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” and David Lynch’s “Dune.” He found fame on TV in the sci-fi series “Quantum Leap” and “Battlestar Galactica.”

Stockwell died early Sunday at age 85 of natural causes, agent Jay Schwartz said Tuesday in a statement to The Times. Schwartz was uncertain where Stockwell died.

“I had the pleasure of working with Dean Stockwell for a short period of time before his retirement from the entertainment industry,” his former manager Lesa Kirk said in a statement to The Times. “Dean was gentle, gracious and one of a kind, a class act. Dean will truly be missed.”

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Stockwell was very much a child of Hollywood: He was born Robert Dean Stockwell in North Hollywood in 1936 into a show business family, complete with stage parents. His father was Harry Stockwell, who voiced Prince Charming in Walt Disney’s 1937 animated classic “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” and his mother, Betty, was an actress and dancer. His younger brother, Guy Stockwell, was an actor who appeared in dozens of movies and TV shows and later became an acting coach before his death in 2002.

A handsome, clean-cut Dean Stockwell, in the 1950s.
Actor Dean Stockwell in December 1959.
(Associated Press)

Stockwell’s parents pushed him into theater at age 7, and as a young boy he made his Broadway debut with his brother in 1943’s “The Innocent Voyage.” Two years later, he signed as a contract player at MGM, where he made his film debut in “The Valley of Decision” with Greer Garson and Gregory Peck.

That same year he made a splash in Gene Kelly’s classic musical comedy “Anchors Aweigh,” alongside Kelly, Frank Sinatra and Kathryn Grayson. Over the next seven years, he appeared in 17 MGM films, including “The Green Years” (1946), “Gentleman’s Agreement” (1947), “The Boy With Green Hair” (1948) and “The Secret Garden” (1949).

By 15, he’d already made 20 films but disliked the attention, so he bid farewell to Hollywood in 1952, when he was just 16. To escape the pressure of stardom, he changed his name and roamed the country for five years, picking up what odd jobs he could.

But with few marketable skills, he returned to acting in 1957, appearing in a Broadway production of “Compulsion” as the intense leading man. He reprised the role for the 1959 film adaptation and won an acting award at the Cannes Film Festival for his performance. He also appeared as Edmund opposite Katharine Hepburn and Ralph Richardson in the 1962 film version of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” That performance earned him another Cannes award.

The actor married “The Diary of Anne Frank” star Millie Perkins in 1960, but they divorced two years later. Despite his renewed success, Stockwell took a three-year break from the industry in the 1960s and became a self-proclaimed hippie, hanging out in Topanga Canyon with actors Dennis Hopper and Russ Tamblyn.

Three years ago Dean Stockwell decided to bring his 40-year, 55-film career to an abrupt end.

He made another comeback in the early 1970s, appearing in several television and film roles, only to leave the business again in 1976. He met his second wife, Joy Marchenko, on the beach during the 1976 Cannes Film Festival, and they wed in 1981.

Stockwell returned to Hollywood again, making his directorial debut with Neil Young in the offbeat apocalyptic comedy “Human Highway,” which he co-wrote and starred in with Hopper and Tamblyn, in 1982. But again he abandoned his acting career and sold real estate in Santa Fe, N.M.

“The [best acting] scrolls from Cannes, I threw in the fireplace one night,” he said in a 1990 interview with The Times. “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.”

But almost as soon as he left town, Hollywood came looking for him again.

Stockwell took supporting parts in a string of films before running into director David Lynch in Mexico City. Lynch said he thought Stockwell had already died.

“This person looked familiar, but [I told myself] it couldn’t be who I thought it was, and it made me feel a little nutty,” Lynch told The Times in 1990. “Then I realized it was Dean, and he was alive.”

Dean Stockwell, right, and Scott Bakula in the TV series "Quantum Leap"
Dean Stockwell, right, and Scott Bakula in the TV series “Quantum Leap,” which aired from 1989 to 1993.
(Steve Fontanini / Los Angeles Times)

The duo worked together on Lynch’s 1984 adaptation of “Dune,” in which Stockwell played the evil Dr. Wellington Yueh. He stuck with Lynch when the director began filming “Blue Velvet,” in which he played a pimp who coos while torturing a girl.

“I didn’t feel that I was taking a chance with ‘Blue Velvet,’” Stockwell told The Times. “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.”

Still, Stockwell said he never felt he belonged in the mainstream of show business.

“I’ve always felt I was off to the side, somehow,” he told The Times in 1986. “People are always asking me: ‘Why do you keep making these offbeat movies?’ The answer is: They’re the only ones offered to me usually.”

But Hollywood eventually took notice and Stockwell earned a supporting actor Oscar nomination for Jonathan Demme’s 1988 comedy “Married to the Mob,” playing mafioso Tony “The Tiger” Russo.

Childhood actors are a rare breed. Some tire of the early pressure and sink into a rebellious mire.

Fresh off the nomination, Stockwell took on the role of Adm. Al Calavicci, a wise-cracking hologram and best friend to Scott Bakula’s time-traveling physicist, on NBC’s sci-fi series “Quantum Leap” from 1989 to 1993; he won a Golden Globe Award in 1990. The series earned both men a cult following that continued when Stockwell played John Cavil on Syfy’s acclaimed “Battlestar Galactica” from 2006 to 2009.

“How lucky were we to get him?” Bakula, who met Stockwell during their 1988 audition for “Quantum Leap,” said Tuesday in a statement to The Times. “A few months later he would be nominated for an Academy Award for his role in ‘Married to the Mob,’ but he was stuck with us. Serendipity? All I know is, he never tried to get out or complain, he loved the role and the show and the rest was history.”

Stockwell went on to appear in several more films, including action-thrillers “Air Force One” with Harrison Ford in 1997 and “The Manchurian Candidate” in 2004. He also had recurring roles in the short-lived series “The Tony Danza Show” and “JAG.” In 2014, he reunited with Bakula for a guest appearance on “NCIS: New Orleans.” In his later years, the pair also made the rounds at various comic book and sci-fi conventions.

An avowed environmentalist, Stockwell voiced eco-villain Duke Nukem in the 1990s environmental cartoon “Captain Planet and the Planeteers.”

His admirers raised the $30,000 sponsorship fee for the actor to get a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame by recycling bottles and cans.

Actor and longtime friend Tamblyn, who starred with Stockwell in “The Boy With Green Hair” and Hopper’s “The Last Movie” (1971), was among those who paid tribute to Stockwell.

“Dean. My oldest friend. A godfather-figure to my daughter, Amber. Brilliant artist. Loving dad. We met on the set of The Boy With Green Hair, stayed close til his last breath,” Tamblyn tweeted. “Rest easy now, brother. Give Dennis a hug from me when you see him on the other side.

Lydia Cornell, who worked with Stockwell on the “Quantum Leap” pilot, tweeted that he “always had a mischievous glint of humor in his eyes.”

His “Battlestar Galactica” costar Edward James Olmos also recalled their years working together.

“A true giant of a human being has passed,” Olmos tweeted. “I was so fortunate to have worked with him on Miami Vice and Battlestar. I will cherish the years we spent together He was a gift to all who truly knew him.”

Alex Winter, of “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” fame, praised Stockwell as well.

“Dean Stockwell was one of the greatest actors of his generation,” Winter wrote on Facebook. “Less showboaty and affected than many of his more famous contemporaries, but often more nuanced and interesting. I wanted him badly for my Showbiz Kids doc but he politely refused, he was done with the camera. RIP.”

Stockwell is survived by his wife, Joy, and their two children, Austin and Sophie.


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