Errol Flynn, who was a real fun guy, once bet crew members $500 that Dean Stockwell would balk at chowing down a bowl of fresh camel excrement. Stockwell, then 13, was playing the title role in the 1950 movie version of Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, and the scene called for him to taste-test a holy man’s food. With the cameras rolling, Flynn handed Stockwell a bowlful of camel leavings. “I was later told my eyes widened to the size of cue balls, but I played the scene,” recalls Stockwell. “When it was finished everyone applauded, and Flynn lost the bet.”
Stockwell has always been adept at defying expectations—and never more than now. At 51, he’s pulling off a Hollywood impossibility, not just making a comeback, but a second comeback. His career, which began in 1945, can be divided into three metamorphic stages: the child actor whose best film was probably 1948’s The Boy with Green Hair; the leading man who starred in 1959’s Compulsion and 1962’s Long Day’s Journey into Night; and now the veteran character actor who specializes in edgy, offbeat portrayals. Chief among the most recent was his role in last fall’s Blue Velvet. He played Ben, the pansexual drug dealer who gestured with his cigarette holder like Bette Davis on crack. “To me it was the high point of the film,” says Stock-well’s co-star and longtime friend Dennis Hopper. “The white makeup, the batting eyelashes—Dean has ways no other actor can touch.”
Stockwell’s quirky talents are currently on double display. He’s a gruff Army captain in Francis Coppola’s Gardens of Stone and a self-described “B-movie type hood” in Eddie Murphy’s Beverly Hills Cop II. The Murphy movie, he concedes, is a departure from his recent love-’em-or-hate-’em films. “It’s really quite good for what it is—a proven commodity,” says Stock-well, who’s as intense and hungry-sounding today as he was in his hipster youth. “Sure, it’s commercial for me, considering what I’ve done lately. But why can’t I do that? I just don’t want to do stupid things. There’s no reason I can’t be in big commercial movies. I’m not just starting out.”
Born in Hollywood to an acting couple, Harry and Betty Veronica Stockwell, Dean was 7 in 1944 when Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer signed him after a Broadway role in The Innocent Voyage. (Another cast member who went on to leading-man status was his brother Guy, 53, the former Beau Geste star who now sells insurance in L.A.) After nine years at MGM and over 20 movies, Dean quit acting. “For an adult, it’s high-pressure work,” he says, “but it can be even worse for children because they aren’t allowed to be children. Fortunately I had a sensitive and loving mother. If it wasn’t for her, I probably wouldn’t be here.”
Stockwell spent his late teens traveling cross-country, picking up jobs ranging from hammering railroad spikes to inspecting prunes. “It got more and more mundane, and I wasn’t going anywhere,” he says. “I had no other crafts or education, so I went back into show business.” The second phase lasted from 1957 to 1962 and included five films and one marriage. Wed to actress Millie Perkins in 1960, Stockwell was divorced two years later on grounds of mental cruelty.
When the ’60s started swinging he did too, hanging out in Topanga Canyon with Hopper, Jack Nicholson, Neil Young and Eric Clapton. “I dropped out and stopped calling my agent,” Stockwell says, “but then I found it difficult to drop back in.” He worked sporadically during the ’70s, making such movies as The Dunwich Horror and The Werewolf of Washington. During this down period he met Joy Marchenko, a textiles expert who worked in Morocco. They kept in touch by letter and telephone for five years until she visited L.A. in 1981—at which point, says Joy, 37, “He just wouldn’t let me leave.” Married a year later and now living outside of Santa Barbara, the couple has two children, Austin, 3, and Sophia, 1. “Two babies are a full-time job,” says Stockwell, who shares in the dishwashing and diapering.
The beginning of Dean’s marriage also marked the start of his career resurgence. Small parts in Dune and Paris, Texas led to his attention-getting role in Blue Velvet. Between now and August he’s scheduled to make four films—proof of being in demand. “I have no idea why it happened,” says Stockwell of his revival. “I think I needed to mature some, especially in physical appearance.” But Hopper attributes his friend’s third act to a growth of personality. “I think all of us—me, Jack Nicholson and Dean—are in an area where we’ve gotten over our vanity. Now we don’t worry about how we’re going to look. We just go after the character and let it all hang out.”