Dean Stockwell, who just died at the age of 85, was not offended. He knew a lot of people felt that way. “I thought you were dead” is indicative of just how far out of the business Stockwell was in the 1970s and early 1980s. Once upon a time, he was ranked the #1 child actor in America. He wasn’t just a cute kid playing small parts in one or two scenes. Like Elizabeth Taylor—one of his classmates in the “little red schoolhouse” on the MGM lot—Dean Stockwell was a star, with featured roles in movies like “Anchors Aweigh” (his second film), “Gentleman’s Agreement” (where he and John Garfield walk off with the movie), “The Boy with Green Hair” (an anti-war film with a memorable poster), “The Secret Garden” (where his temper tantrum scene with Margaret O’Brien is worth the price of admission), and “Kim” (where he went toe-to-toe with Errol Flynn). He also played Nick and Nora Charles’ son in “Song of the Thin Man” and had the great honor of being spanked by William Powell. David Lynch, who remembered that beautiful child, looked at the 40-something man who approached him in Mexico, trying to put the pieces together. Why wasn’t Dean Stockwell still in the movies? Why weren’t directors casting him left and right? Where had he been all this time?
That’s a long story. Stockwell’s life featured multiple “disappearances,” some of which were involuntary, but some of which were conscious choices. He was born in California in 1936 to artistic parents, performers but not really “in the business.” His mother, Nina Olivette, had a career in vaudeville before settling down to have children. His father, Harry Stockwell, was a singer who did musical theatre (he was also the voice of the Prince in “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs“). A scout for MGM saw child Stockwell in a play and arranged for a screen test. Stockwell was signed to a seven-year contract. His second movie was “Anchors Aweigh,” where, opposite Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra, he glimmered with cuteness and innocence, totally lacking the irritating over-trained precocity of most child actors of the era. Dean Stockwell seemed real.
By the time he was ten years old, he was supporting his entire family. He viewed his contract as a prison sentence. He hated acting. When his contract was up, Stockwell walked away. He was 16. He hadn’t had a childhood or a proper adolescence. He wanted to make up for lost time. This was the first “disappearance.”
In the mid-‘50s, he was ready to return, and Stockwell’s timing coincided with the sudden death of James Dean, when the industry cast around desperately for the next sensitive-rebel-icon. Stockwell was a candidate, and he was offered the role in a potential James Dean “biopic” (which he turned down, sensing, correctly, that it would be a lose-lose project). By this point, Stockwell had blossomed into a beautiful young man, with Montgomery Clift’s dramatic coloring, pale skin, thick black hair. Due to Stockwell’s later mainstream success, this period—from 1957 to 1962—is often overlooked, and it’s one of the most interesting phases in his career.
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