Taking Stock of the Stockwells

Actor Dean Stockwell (1936-2021) passed away about a year and a half ago, and I contemplated a post on him at that time, as I considered doing a piece on him long before that, but my good friend Sheila O’Malley, who actually met him, wrote a pretty definitive and effusive obit for RogerEbert.com, so I figured the job was effectively done. I’d certainly have nothing to add. But learning this morning of Stockwell’s show biz roots (he was a second generation performing artist) seals the deal for inclusion in our own annals. We like performing families! Thus we provide a broader overview of the entire bunch:

Dean’s father Harry Stockwell (1902-1984) is most widely known as the voice of the Prince in Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). Originally from Kansas City, his biggest success was on the Broadway stage. His early shows included Broadway Nights (1929), Earl Carroll’s Vanities (1930), and As Thousands Cheer (1933-34). Then came his brief Hollywood stretch when he appeared in Broadway Melody of 1936, Here Comes the Band (1935) with Ted Lewis, All Over Town (1937) with Olsen and Johnson, and the Disney picture. He returned to Broadway for George White’s Scandals (1939). In 1943 he replaced Alfred Drake as Curly in the original production of Oklahoma! and he later toured with Carousel. He was also in the show Marinka (1945) and the 1946 revival of The Desert Song, as well as the 1946 film Rhapsody in Blue.

Stockwell’s first wife (and Dean’s mother) was Italian-American Betty Veronica (1910-1993). Now THERE’S a name for Archie lovers! Betty had performed in vaudeville and was in the chorus of the hit Joe E. Brown musical Twinkle Twinkle (1927) as well as My Princess (1927) with Hope Hampton and Robert Woolsey, and the 1930 edition of Earl Carroll’s Vanities, which is where she met Stockwell, whereupon she retired from performing to marry. The pair divorced in 1947, right around the time their kids were beginning to work in pictures.

Harry Stockwell was married to Dorothy Tucker from 1950 to 1962. A dancer, she performed in the Broadway productions of Pins and Needles (1937-40) and Finnian’s Rainbow (1947-48)

Nina Olivette (1907-1971) was the most notable of Harry Stockwell’s three wives on her own account, at least from a show biz point of view. Olivette was a second generation dancer; her Polish-born mother had her own ballet company and danced in vaudeville. Nina started out dancing with her mom’s troupe but suffered an injury that prevented her from the demands of ballet. She dealt with the setback by developing comical routines out of popular dance crazes for the vaudeville stage. She was initially paired with a girl named Violet Carlson in a two-act called the Lachmann Sisters. When quite young she was drafted by the producing team of Jones and Green (A.L. Jones and Morris Green) for their tab shows and revues. Her notable Broadway shows were Captain Jinks (1925) with J. Harold Murray and Joe E. Brown, and Hold Everything (1927) with Bert Lahr.

Her Hollywood period began when she was cast in Paramount’s 1930 screen version of the musical Queen High with Frank Morgan, Charles Ruggles, and Ginger Rogers. Around the same time she danced in several English musical comedy films starring Leslie Fuller and Syd Courtney, all directed by Monty Banks: Not So Quiet on the Western Front, Kiss Me Sergeant, Why Sailors Leave Home, and What a Night! She continued touring in musical shows throughout the 30s and ’40s and appeared in two addition films The Pretty Pretender (1937) with Bernice Claire and Boys Will Be Girls (1938) with Leslie Fuller and Nellie Wallace. In later years she became a designer of ladies’ fashion accessories and did some designing for Your Show of Shows. She was married to Stockwell from 1963 until her death.

Dean’s older brother was Guy Stockwell (1933-2002). The boys appeared together on Broadway in The Innocent Voyage (1943) with Herbert Berghof and Oskar Homolka. Without Dean he appeared in the comedy Chicken Every Sunday (1944-45), launching his screen career immediately after that. As a young man he was one of the founders of the Los Angeles Art Theatre, and appeared in The Beat Generation (1959). In addition to scores of TV credits, he appeared in such films as Blindfold (1966), The Plainsman (1966), a remake of Beau Geste (1966), The Gatling Gun (1971), It’s Alive (1974), The Disappearance of Flight 412 (1974) and Airport 1975. He retired in 1990.

Dean Stockwell’s career is interesting in that it takes shape in several successive clumps or phases where he came in and out of the public’s consciousness over the course of many decades.

From the first, he was a more successful child star than his older brother. His first starring role was the title character in the quirky Joseph Losey classic The Boy with Green Hair (1948), but you can also see him in Anchors Aweigh (1945), Abbott and Costello in Hollywood (1945), Song of the Thin Man (1947), Gentleman’s Agreement (1947), The Secret Garden (1949) and Kim (1950), among several others.

As a young man in the late 1950s and early ’60s, he took to serious acting, and could be seen on numerous live TV dramas. His stock went up a notch when he co-starred in the original 1957 Broadway production of the thinly veiled Leopold and Loeb telling Compulsion, as well as the 1959 screen version. From 1960 to 1962 he was married to Millie Perkins, star of The Diary of Anne Frank. His films of this period include the 1960 screen adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, and Sidney Lumet’s 1962 film of Long Day’s Journey Into Night with Ralph Richardson, Katharine Hepburn, and Jason Robards. He was also in John Guillermin’s 1965 French-American art film Rapture.

Much like Perkins, Stockwell got heavily into the hippie counterculture in the mid ’60s and even dropped out of acting for awhile. During this time he forged a bond with fellow future David Lynch muse Russ Tamblyn. When Stockwell returned to the screen, it was in appropriately trippy stuff, such as AIP’s Psycho Out (1968) with Bruce Dern, Jack Nicholson, and Susan Strasberg and The Dunwich Horror (1970) with Sandra Dee, as well as The Last Movie (1971) Dennis Hopper’s mind-blowing follow-up to Easy Rider.

Werewolf of Washington (1973) was a witty Nixon-era satire, but most of Stockwell’s roles throughout the ’70s were in television, on shows like Columbo, McCloud, Ellery Queen, Police Story, and The Streets of San Francisco. Coincidentally I have seen a couple of the obscure movies he made during this period, the 1977 tv movie A Killing Affair, in which Elizabeth Montgomery and O.J. Simpson play a mismatched pair of homicide detectives (!) and She Came to the Valley (1979), one of the very westerns made during that period, which starred Ronee Blakley and Scott Glenn (both from Robert Altman’s Nashville), and country singer Freddy Fender as Pancho Villa! He was also in Henry Jaglom’s 1977 Vietnam drama Tracks with Dennis Hopper

In 1982 Stockwell collaborated with Neil Young on Human Highway, which they co-wrote, co-directed, and co-starred in, along with Hopper, Tamblyn and the then-ascendent Devo! This seems to have rehabilitated Stockwell’s career and he proceeded to have his finest decade at this stage, working with Wim Winders and Sam Shepard (Paris, Texas, 1984), David Lynch (Dune, 1984 and Blue Velvet, 1986), William Friedkin (To Live and Die in L.A., 1985), Francis Ford Coppola (Gardens of Stone, 1987; Tucker: The Man and His Dream, 1988, The Rainmaker, 1997), Jonathan Demme (Married to the Mob, 1988 and The Manchurian Candidate, 2004), and Robert Altman (The Player, 1992). This is quite a list of prestige directors. From 1989 to 1993 he co-starred on the original Quantum Leap with Scott Bakula.

He worked steadily throughout the next couple of decades, culminating with Max Rose (2016), a film which has accrued magic for being the last picture several of its cast including star Jerry Lewis, Stockwell and Mort Sahl, and one of the last of Fred Willard and Rance Howard, aided by the additional magical casting of Claire Bloom, Ileana Douglas, and Kevin Pollak.

A stroke took Dean Stockwell out of commission after Max Rose. But what a loopy, gonzo, unique career, eh? From The Boy With Green Hair, to the thrill killer in Compulsion, to the Lovecraftian witch freak in The Dunwitch Horror, to his preening, dandyish gangster in Blue Velvet, to tales of time travel? A lot of integrity seemed to underwrite it all, combined with a major willingness to take risks. One of a kind.

For more on vaudeville history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous