Dean Stockwell: The Quantum Leap star had a long history in Hollywood (and even starred with Sinatra!)

Actor Dean Stockwell history at ClickAmericana com

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Actor Dean Stockwell had a rich filmography way before Quantum Leap

While Gen Xers may recall Dean Stockwell most fondly for playing Rear Admiral Al Calavicci on Quantum Leap, he actually started out as a child actor and appeared in several films alongside well-known stars of the ’50s, including Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra.

From the movie Anchors Aweigh (1945)
With Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra in the movie Anchors Aweigh (1945)

Born on March 5, 1936, Stockwell’s early exposure to the world of entertainment, thanks to his parents who were both Broadway performers, set him on the path to a robust career in acting.

Stockwell dove headfirst into the performing arts. At the tender age of seven, the young talent stepped onto the silver screen with a role in The Valley of Decision (1945). From there, it was a constant stream of roles that helped him build a solid foundation in the industry.

In the 1950s, Stockwell portrayed diverse roles in various films, demonstrating his remarkable versatility. One standout role from this era includes his performance in Compulsion (1959), where he delivered a haunting portrayal of a disturbed law student.

In the late 1980s, Stockwell’s career experienced a resurgence. His role in Married to the Mob (1988) landed him an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Around the same time, he seized the attention of television viewers in the popular series Quantum Leap (1989-1993), earning a Golden Globe for his work.

Dean Stockwell in Quantum Leap TV show

Quantum Leap Volume 1
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While known for his roles in films and television series, Stockwell also dipped his toes into the art of directing. His directorial debut came in the form of Human Highway (1982), a musical comedy featuring a nuclear power plant worker. This multifaceted approach to his career only enriched Stockwell’s legacy in the entertainment industry.

Stockwell was part of Hollywood history — someone whose performances connected with audiences, leaving a lasting impact and setting a standard for future actors to aspire to. His illustrious career spanned over six decades, and his filmography includes more than 200 films and television series.

Dean Stockwell had a love-hate relationship with acting

Intriguingly, despite his successful and decades-long career, Dean Stockwell maintained an ambivalent relationship with acting. He once confessed to having a love-hate relationship with his profession, stating that he viewed acting more as a job than as a passion.

In fact, Stockwell even took a hiatus from acting in the mid-1960s. During this period, he immersed himself in the counter-culture movement, preferring the bohemian life and his paintbrush to the glitz and glamour of the silver screen. It was only a lack of financial security that brought him back to the world of acting.

Off the set, Stockwell was known for wanting privacy. He shunned the trappings of celebrity, and often retreated from the public eye, choosing instead to focus on his interests in the arts. Away from the spotlight, Stockwell was an accomplished painter and sculptor, and he reveled in the solace that his creative pursuits provided him.

Dean Stockwell in Police Story season 1
Cowboy-style Dean Stockwell in Police Story season 1

Ironically, his reluctance to fully embrace his fame is part of what makes his legacy so compelling. Despite his personal ambivalence, he managed to captivate audiences with his nuanced performances and undeniable on-screen charisma. His career exemplified an artist who managed to balance personal contentment with professional acclaim.

Whether it was his unique perspective, natural talent, or deep understanding of human emotion, Stockwell left an indelible mark on the world of film and television. Still, his legacy also serves as a reminder that the spotlight isn’t everything — that even in the midst of fame, personal fulfillment can be found away from the prying eyes of the public.

Although he died on November 7, 2021, we can still take a journey back in time to some old articles written about Dean Stockwell in the 1950s and 60s, plus a collection of some old photos of the actor from throughout his life.

The strange, private life of Dean Stockwell (1957)

You can probably take much of this story with a large grain of salt, but here’s how the life of young actor Dean Stockwell was described back in the late ’50s.

The strange, private life of Dean Stockwell (1957)

By Bob Monroe – Modern Screen magazine (1957)

“So long, Sonny,” a stagehand said to Dean Stockwell a couple of years ago; “See ya around the lot,” he called as he ambled off, a little behind the rest of the departing cast and crew of Cattle Drive. Dean felt a light touch on his arm. The script girl was standing in front of him.

“Hi,” Dean said. “Goodbye’s the word,” the girl said. She smiled. “Gee — here we’ve been working together for weeks, and I still can’t get over thinking of you as just a baby.

“Every time I walked on the set I expected to see you practically toddle in — and here you are, a great big gangling boy, going on sixteen any year now.” She laughed. “Well, it’s all over now. Bye-bye, kid.”

She reached out one well-manicured hand and ran it through Dean’s hair. “The tousle-headed boy,” she murmured. And then she was gone, too.

Young actor Dean Stockwell

For a long moment, Dean Stockwell stood staring after her, alone in the big empty room. Slowly he looked around at the scattered chairs, the camera dollies, the thrown-away scripts. And then he was running — off the set, across the lot, down the sunlit Hollywood streets.

Running home. And even then he didn’t stop; he climbed the stairs two at a time, gasping for breath, and paused only when he was in his own room with his door locked behind him.

“Never again,” he said aloud. And began to pull pictures down from the wall. Pictures of himself — glossy prints, newspaper shots, four-color magazine portraits. Stills from The ‘Boy With Green Hair’, from ‘Gentleman’s Agreement’, from ‘The Green Years’… Quickly he tore them down, ripping them to shreds.

Actor Dean Stockwell as a young adult

For a moment he stood puzzled in the middle of the room, trying to remember the other thing he had to do. Then he remembered. His scrapbook too was stuffed into the metal wastebasket in the corner of the room, on top of the torn and rumpled pictures. 

Then he struck a match, and sat on his bed and watched his past burn to ashes. When the flames reached the last little reap of newsprint, he reached into a socket and took out a piece of red silk.

He had found it one day, and on that day he’d gotten some wonderful new role or signed a fabulous new contract — he couldn’t remember anymore what it was that had happened to make him so happy, but it happened right after he found the piece of silk — so he had carried it for almost eight years, a torn bit of cloth that had been a good-luck charm and a symbol of dreams that were all to come true — a good-luck charm for a child.

He dropped the silk into the dying flame. Then he buried his face in his hands and began to cry.

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But at dinner that night, he was dry-eyed when he told his mother he would never make a movie again. His mother looked up from her plate, and her eyes weren’t even surprised, only tired, as she looked at her fifteen-year-old son with a weary love he had seen before.

Quietly she asked, “Dean, can you tell me why — why you’ve made this decision?”

Young Dean Stockwell

“I’ve got to find out”

Dean bent his head. Through these last weeks, knowing what he was going to do — had to do, he had known that was the question he would have to answer.

Time and time again he had worked out sentences that would explain why he had to quit. Sentences? Whole speeches!

Mom, he would say in his mind, it’s no good for me, this acting. I have to know if people want me — for myself. It sounds corny, but Mom, I’ve got to find out. Now. The only really happy time I can remember in my whole life is when I was a kid and went to public school every day like everyone else and never even thought about acting — except to brag to the kids about how you and Dad used to be on the stage.

But I never thought about it for me. Not for me, Mom. Oh, I had a ball all right, that first time, when you got me and Guy into that Broadway show — only the next thing I knew I was in another one. And then there was the movie contract and — Mom, I was so lonesome, so lonesome.

But how could he make her understand, when he knew she would say, “Why didn’t you tell me? Your father and I thought you were happy. We only wanted your happiness.”

All that petting and fussing — I felt like it didn’t belong to me. All those people saying, ‘ooh, what a sweet little boy, ooh, how talented, ooh, how cute’ — they weren’t talking about Me. They were talking about the child-star, Dean Stockwell, the little darling. What did they know about ME?

And I was scared that if I quit acting and just was me — no one would love me anymore. Maybe not even you and Dad. How does a kid know? And then — when you and Dad — broke up — and he moved out — well, a kid gets mixed up. He thinks ‘my father left because he doesn’t love me anymore’ my father’s smart, so he knows I’m a phony.

Mom, I’m older now, and I know that’s not true, but I still don’t know, and I have to know if people want me — for myself. It sounds corny, but Mom, I’ve got to find out. Now.

Young actor Dean Stockwell with his brother Guy in the 1940s at ClickAmericana com
Young actor Dean Stockwell with his brother Guy in the 1940s
His cross to bear

That was the way it went in his mind. But now, facing his mother across the table, he couldn’t say a word of it. Maybe because he didn’t want to hurt her, didn’t want her to think she had failed him.

So he finally looked up at her and said, “I just want to go to college. That’s all.”

So that year, when he finished high school, he went to college in the northeast, because his brother Guy lived there now and could keep an eye on him.

But in Guy’s neighborhood, everyone knew about his kid brother, the actor. They liked the shy, good-looking boy, and wanted to make him feel right at home — so they fired away — with questions about Hollywood and praise for Dean’s talent. But Dean didn’t know it was their way of making friends. They were nice people. They just didn’t know.

And on the campus, half the fellows fawned on him — and the other half turned their backs on “that snooty movie star.” Girls he avoided, terrified of asking for a date — because maybe he’d get turned down.

And if a girl did accept a date, something cruel in Dean’s head buzzed over and over, she’s accepting just to tell her friends she went out with a movie star. She doesn’t give a hang for me.

One man, an upperclassman, took him aside one day. “Let me give you a piece of advice. I have a friend who’s a big track star,” he told Dean. “He could never get away from it either. Learn to live with it, man. It’s your cross to bear — stop fighting who you are.”

“No,” Dean said. “No. I’m going to shake it all right. Maybe — this just isn’t the place.”

At the end of his freshman year, he quit.

Sons and Lovers movie (1960)

Always a stranger

“What will you do now?” his mother wrote, every word a little stab of worry and love. “You are only trained to act — and you won’t do that. Without a college degree — what will you do?”

“I don’t know,” Dean wrote back. “I have to look — for a while. Don’t send me any money, Mom. I’ll get along.”

He mailed the letter and watched it drop into the box. Then he walked to the railroad station. When the night was dark, he climbed into a boxcar and stretched out on the straw and waited. Hours later, the train pulled out. Dean didn’t know where it was going. He didn’t care.

ALSO SEE: 40+ adorable celebrity baby pictures from before these stars were famous

For three years, Dean roamed the country. And at the end of three years, one night Dean Stockwell woke up in a cheap hotel room, and found himself crying again. He had proved nothing.

Oh, he had proved he could live on his own, take care of himself. Only he’d never doubted that. But his search had been for love, a search almost to find himself — and there he had failed.

For who could love a boy who wandered into town and did a day’s work and wandered out again? Who could get to know him, to like him for himself — or for any other reason? Was this the self he had been looking for, this wanderer who was always a stranger — everywhere?

With a scratchy hotel pen, he wrote a letter. “Dear Mom — I’m coming home…”

Young actor Dean Stockwell on roller skates (1949) at ClickAmericana com
Young actor Dean Stockwell on roller skates (1949)
Only she can end his search

Dean Stockwell’s back in Hollywood now, making movies. But he never reads the reviews, the reviews that say how good he is. And as soon as he leaves the lot for the day, he forgets the world of picture-making. But even that doesn’t help him.

So he lives alone, in his house near Griffith Park–the loneliest section of Hollywood.

In his own room, he studies music and tries to write it. Not many people know that… as if he has a fear of sharing anything he really loves — because then it might vanish. At night he roams through the park, a silent, thin figure — looking for something he cannot find.

Dean Stockwell (with beer) on a long day (1963) at ClickAmericana com
Dean Stockwell (with beer) on a long day (1963)

He dates once in a long while — never an actress, no matter how his studio pleads with him. But sometimes when the hunger for company is too great to stand, he will call a friend or a girl.

He is marked with a loneliness, a longing for love, that sends him restlessly on in his never-ending search…

Among the movies Dean Stockwell made as a boy and has forgotten, was ‘The Boy With The Green Hair’. There was a song in that movie. It was called ‘Nature Boy’. And it described a very strange, enchanted boy, who wandered very far… searching for truth.

At the end of the song, this strange boy tells what he has learned in all his wanderings and sufferings. It is this: The greatest thing you’ll ever learn, is just to love — and be loved in return.

Somewhere there is a girl who will love Dean Stockwell, as he wants to be loved. Sometimes they will meet because work and friends and wanderings cannot find for him what he needs. Only she can do that. Only she can end his search…

Dean as Wellington Yueh in Dune (1984)
Patrick Stewart and Dean Stockwell in Dune
Patrick Stewart and Dean Stockwell in Dune

Dean Stockwell with Scott Bakula in Quantum Leap
Dean with Scott Bakula in Quantum Leap (Photo by Universal)
Dean with Scott Bakula in Quantum Leap (Photo by Universal)
Quantum Leap, Season 5
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Dean Stockwell: Actor rebel without cause (1960)

Armand Archerd, Wilmington News Journal (Ohio) October 12, 1960

A movie veteran persists in being “an angry young man” despite the fact he’s a success in films and has been a star since his tens.

Dean Stockwell just doesn’t seem able to relax and enjoy this success. At 23, Stockwell, who had starred in 22 films by his 15th birthday, is one of the brightest prospects for an adult star, yet he remains suspicious and often rebellious.

He hates comparison, physically or temperamentally, to the late James Dean, but Stockwell maintains his attitude of “a rebel without a cause” to such an extent that we cannot help but recall a similar attitude in Dean.

Dean Stockwell - James Dean curse (Photoplay 1958)

Stockwell starred in the film version of D. H. Lawrence’s autobiographical novel, “Sons and Lovers.” On the personal side, he married lovely Millie Perkins, the star of “The Diary of Anne Frank.”

Recalling his youth, Stockwell is convinced that people hated him as a child actor, although those who recall working with him = say he was the least obnoxious of kid actors. One thing he positively recalls with hate is the way he was exploited.

Dean agrees that his current outlook is certainly affected by that career as a kid star. However, his early experiences also must have certainly helped prepare him for his present status in the film community. P.S. — He admits to being in showbiz 18 years.

“The child actor,” he said, “must exist in a sort of limbo between childhood and maturity. He belongs to neither but must be a part of both and thus he misses the essential experience in learning to get along with other people.”

Stockwell’s attitude toward his career in television is also negative. Although he’s done several major television shows, he says he hasn’t really liked any of them. Perhaps it’s also part of his emotional pattern that leads him to distrust his own successes.

James Dean was killed in a car crash in 1955 - here's how his fame kept growing

Dean’s major film as an adult was ”Compulsion,” which was listed among the 20 top films of last year and for which he and co-stars Orson Welles and Brad Dilman won an unprecedented joint award as best actors at the Cannes festival in 1959. Stockwell’s comment: “I hated it — it should have been much better.”

Stockwell continues to keep a weather eye out for signs that he is now being “exploited.” This, in spite of the fact that stars like himself are enjoying a monopoly on good roles and thus financial independence and prosperity.

While filming ”Compulsion” the studio offered him a multiple-film contract, but he turned it down saying he didn’t want to be forced into doing anything which wasn’t of his own decision.

Dean also turned down a repeat offer when he was filming ‘Sons and Lovers’ — same reason, only more vehement. And yet, the studio had offered him the kind of roles for which he, like most actors, would have given the proverbial eye teeth.

You may think he’s a “method” actor — but he isn’t. He scorns their ”method” and walked out of the Actors Studio after a one-day visit. Yet, he acts like a ”method” actor, takes on whatever role he’s playing as a full-time job, never straying from the character during the run of the film. 

Dean Stockwell with wife Millie Perkins at ClickAmericana com
Dean Stockwell with wife Millie Perkins

During ”Sons and Lovers”, he acquired a British accent, then the bowler and umbrella. The remainder of the cast was all-British and his Yankee character was never detectable to any of them.

On his personal side, Stockwell acted unlike any ”Hollywood movie star”, not only refusing to have his romance with Millie Perkins publicized, but avoided all publicity following the marriage.

The studio’s publicity department didn’t know about the wedding until notified by the newspapers. He reluctantly allowed photographs to be taken following the wedding, kept changing plane plans to thwart reporters’ plans to interview him. He says he won’t allow his wife, his life, or his career to be publicized just because he happens to be an actor.

ALSO SEE: Frank Sinatra captivated the world through music, movies & sheer magnetism

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