From Child Star to Battlestar.
Despite attending many sci-fi/fantasy conventions over the years, I, sadly, never had the chance to meet the late Dean Stockwell, though I’ve been a fan of his work for decades. The former childhood star, who passed away on November 7th from natural causes, had a career dating back to when he was nine years old, with various credited and uncredited roles until his breakout performance in the technicolor war orphan fantasy “The Boy With the Green Hair” in 1948. This allegorical story of a young boy coping with differences (insert metaphors here) brought to the spotlight a sensitive young actor who could metamorphose into whatever persona a role demanded–from innocent child to skirt-chasing hologram to homicidal humanoid machine. Born in North Hollywood, the actor enjoyed many roles in mainstream films and TV shows, while his work also gravitated toward roles in science fiction and fantasy; a genre that afforded him some of his most memorable roles in a career spanning eight decades.
Note: Of those later mainstream film roles, Stockwell would be nominated for an Oscar for his work in “Married to the Mob” (1989).
I first came to know Stockwell’s roles in Rod Serling’s “The Twilight Zone” and “The Night Gallery”. In “The Twilight Zone,” he played a young army lieutenant in the final days of World War 2 who learns a humbling lesson about the nature of ‘the enemy’ in “A Quality of Mercy” (1961). Despite some objectionable Asian makeup, Stockwell (as he did in so many early appearances) turns in a sensitive performance that shines through the yellowface makeup. He would later appear in the 1980s revival of the series as a scientist who is captured and interrogated for his knowledge of a secret formula in the more sci-fi story, “Room 2426.” Stockwell’s role in 1973’s Night Gallery saw him working opposite (post-Gidget, future Oscar winning) Sally Field in “Whisper”; in that episode, he played the sensitive husband of a young ‘ghost whisperer’ who involuntarily channels spirits. In an interesting twist, Stockwell would break the fourth wall and speak directly to the audience as narrator of the story. I also remember his devilish role as “Wilbur” in 1970’s adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Dunwich Horror,” (opposite Sandra Dee).
After countless guest roles in popular TV shows throughout the 1970s, such as “Columbo,” “Streets of San Francisco” and many others, the 1980s would see a boost of Stockwell’s film roles, when director David Lynch cast him in his arguably misfired adaptation of “Dune” (1984). In “Dune” he played the ethically compromised House Atreides’ doctor “Wellington Yueh.” In a film crammed with many characters into a compressed running time, Stockwell did his best to make the role his own.
Note: I’ve not seen the longer cut of 1984’s “Dune,” but I can’t say I’ve been in a great hurry to do so, since director Lynch was so displeased with that cut of his film that he took an “Alan Smithee” (a cinematic nom de plume) directing credit for it.
Stockwell’s brief, yet kinky performance as the twisted “Ben” in Lynch’s later “Blue Velvet” (1986) reinforced the fearlessness with which Stockwell dove into his parts. Stockwell only appeared in one lengthy scene, but with his pale, garish makeup and wild abandon with which he threw himself into the role, he certainly made an impression. While I’m not the biggest fan of David Lynch’s work, I have seen Stockwell’s performance in the movie, and while some might argue the role does no services to the LGBTQ community, it remains a fearless performance nevertheless.
Perhaps the role for which Stockwell is best, and most fondly remembered came with his return to TV in his role as Admiral Albert “Al” Calavicci–the colorful, womanizing former astronaut and Vietnam war POW who advices time-traveling scientist/genius, Dr. Sam Beckett (Scott Bakula) in “Quantum Leap” (1989-1993). The series was a very loose, quasi-reimagining of producer Irwin Allen’s short-lived TV series, “The Time Tunnel” (1966-7), with Beckett involuntarily ‘leaping’ into other people’s lives, but only within the span of his own lifetime (thus keeping production safe from lavish period pieces set before 1953).
Al would appear as a holographic advisor to Sam, offering the idealistic scientist advice from the supercomputer “Ziggy” as well as Al’s own treasure trove of life experiences. Stockwell’s Al was a fan favorite, with his wildly tacky clothes and cigar-chomping expertise. What made Al so memorable was that, despite his seeming superficiality, there was an undercurrent of sensitivity and pain as well. We learn, over the course of the series, that Al’s wife Trudy left him after he was presumed dead in Vietnam, and that pain accounted for much of his current skirt-chasing flirtatiousness with women–he’s the victim of a Dear John letter. This part of Al’s biography gave viewers tremendous insight into the admiral–completely altering viewers’ perception of what could’ve been a one-note character.
Note: How ex-POW Al managed to be repatriated and participate in the space program within roughly the same period is a bit of a mystery. Most of the astronauts for the US space program were chosen well before the escalation of the Vietnam war, and none of them were longterm POWs. Perhaps it had something to do with Sam’s meddling with time…?
I freely admit to being a huge Quantum Leap fan (“Leapers” as we call ourselves). My best friend and I used to drop everything on “Quantum Leap” nights and gather around my 20″ Sony Trinitron to see just what shenanigans Sam leaped into that week, and to see how his friend Al would help him “leap out”–which happened once they figured out just why Sam leaped into a given time and place. Created by producer Don Bellisario (“Magnum P.I.” the original “Battlestar Galactica” ), the show’s anthology premise offered a wide range of stories, with Sam leaping into different genders, ethnicities, celebrities (he leapt into Elvis once) and even different species (a test chimpanzee for NASA). The lazier stories usually involved shallow romance novel cliches, but the more ambitious episodes had Sam rising up against grave injustices, or offering a new light on old mysteries. Sam once leapt into Lee Harvey Oswald, in an effective counterpoint to Oliver Stone’s conspiracy-laden “JFK” (1991); Al later solves the mystery of just why Sam leaped into Kennedy’s assassin–it’s an ending too good to spoil.
Occasionally, there were also some horror and supernatural stories as well, with Sam and Al solving mysteries of ghosts, vampires and even a mummy. One of my all-time favorite episodes was 1990’s “Boogieman,” which saw Sam leaping into a pulp horror novelist on Halloween night, 1964, where he is caught in a bafflingly unsolvable mystery involving no less than the Devil himself–who is also played very memorably by Stockwell in the final moments of the episode. This was also one of the episodes that more or less confirmed that a deity of some kind was definitely controlling Sam’s seemingly random leaps through time…
Note: To those worried about Al’s fate in “Quantum Leap”? There is a very happy ending to the admiral’s story at the end of the show (“Mirror Image, August 8th, 1953”). That final episode is a real tearjerker, too; keep the tissue handy. In 2002, costars Scott Bakula and Dean Stockwell would team up once again for an episode of Bakula’s new series, “Star Trek: Enterprise” (2001-2005), which saw Stockwell (ironically) playing the stern warden of a camp of alien prisoners of war in “Detained.”
After many more TV roles, including a recurring role as a Senator in Bellisario’s “JAG” (1995-2005), Stockwell would return to the sci-fi genre with a role in Ronald Moore’s smart reboot of “Battlestar Galactica” (2003-2009), where he was introduced late in the second season (“Lay Down Your Burdens,” Parts 1, 2) as cynical priest “Brother John Cavil”, who was soon revealed to be one of twelve humanoid model Cylons–a race of artificial beings who’ve since turned on their human creators/oppressors. Cavil was one of the Cylon models who was far less receptive to the notion of making peace with humankind. In fact, he resented the very fact that he was created in humanity’s image. In Season 4’s “Exit”, Cavil, as impeccably played by Stockwell, outlines his resentment of his human form in a memorable speech written by series’ creator/producer Ronald D. Moore:
“I saw a star explode and send out the building blocks of the universe. Other stars, other planets and eventually other life. A supernova! Creation itself! I was there. I wanted to see it and be part of the moment. And you know how I perceived one of the most glorious events in the universe? With these ridiculous gelatinous orbs in my skull! With eyes designed to perceive only a tiny fraction of the EM spectrum. With ears designed only to hear vibrations in the air. I don’t want to be human! I want to see gamma rays! I want to hear X-rays! And I want to – I want to smell dark matter! Do you see the absurdity of what I am? I can’t even express these things properly because I have to – I have to conceptualize complex ideas in this stupid limiting spoken language! But I know I want to reach out with something other than these prehensile paws! And feel the wind of a supernova flowing over me! I’m a machine! And I can know much more! I can experience so much more. But I’m trapped in this absurd body! And why? Because my five creators thought that God wanted it that way!”“Brother John Cavil” (Dean Stockwell),
words by Ronald D. Moore.
Whether playing a ‘good’ or ‘evil’ character, the late Dean Stockwell always seemed to find the right shadings and nuances to make his characters fully dimensional–even in non-human characters, like “Cylon” John Cavil. That was the gift he leaves behind.
With a career and body of work spanning 76 years, Dean Stockwell will be truly missed.
Where to Watch.
“Battlestar: Galactica” can currently be streamed on peacock.com, “The Twilight Zone” can be streamed on Paramount+/Hulu, and “Quantum Leap” can be streamed (with ads) on NBC.com. To my readers, I once again wish you and all of your loved ones good health and strength during the current COVID crisis. The current number of COVID-related deaths in the United States are now over 750,000 as of this writing (with over 5 million deaths worldwide), so please continue to wear masks in public, and get vaccinated as soon as possible to minimize risk of serious infection. Take care!