The 2003 reboot of Battlestar Galactica was full of surprising plot twists even from the beginning, but, for me, the most surprising moment was when Dean Stockwell showed up at the end of season 2. It’s a pretty dark series, but Stockwell was one of those actors who, whenever he appeared on screen, could change the atmosphere entirely. Would change the atmosphere entirely. He didn’t have to be serious to do it either. On Quantum Leap he was second banana to Scott Bakula but, with the exception of that show’s finale, the producers wisely made Stockwell the one who knew everything. He was there to be a father figure, or, really, more like a funny uncle, with his cigar in one hand and, well, an early smartphone in the other, and off-the-cuff references to his ex-wives.
I didn’t realize how long his career had been until I watched the 1947 film Gentleman’s Agreement a few years ago and saw Stockwell’s name in the credits. I kept looking for him, expecting him to, well, appear as a funny uncle probably, waving a cigar around, or maybe a dark, shady character. It didn’t occur to me until later that he would have been ten or eleven at the time of filming, and that he’d played Gregory Peck’s son who sits at the breakfast table quizzing his father about why anyone wouldn’t like Jews. Even as a child actor there was something compelling about him—not just the way he delivered his lines but the seriousness with which he carefully sliced a banana into his cereal and sprinkling it with sugar. His actions were natural yet deliberate.
His onscreen presence got me thinking about the craft of acting and something I’ve thought a lot about when watching really great actors at work. Is it something that can be learned or is it innate? Stockwell had plenty of time to learn—he was acting on stage before he was eight years old and worked pretty much non-stop until just a few years ago, but was he in high demand because he worked so hard or did he get so much work because he was such a talented actor? Maybe it’s a little bit of both. And no matter how effortless he seemed in his roles he worked very hard at the craft of acting, giving special attention to detail. He has a hilarious story about the inspiration for his character Ben from Blue Velvet:
You know that thing that I do with my eyes? Carol Burnett had a character of this super snooty woman and she was always like this. I stole it and I told her one time and she laughed her head off when I told her.
Maybe great acting is a little of both: it begins with natural talent but that talent has to be honed and crafted until it just seems effortless, and that’s what he did.
And, on an unrelated note, when I heard he died I texted a friend and said, “Sorry to hear it. I know you’re a fan.”
He texted back, “Yeah.” Then a few minutes later he added, “But isn’t everybody?”
Hail and farewell Dean Stockwell.