'Blue Velvet' and 'Quantum Leap' actor Dean Stockwell has died at age 85

Nov 9, 2021
Originally published on November 10, 2021 8:10 am

Actor Dean Stockwell, known for his roles in Quantum Leap and Blue Velvet, has died. He was 85 years old. According to family spokesman Jay D. Schwartz, he died of natural causes at his home in Hollywood, Calif., on Sunday morning.

Born Robert Dean Stockwell, the Academy Award nominee had multiple careers in acting. He started as a child actor. At age 7, he was working alongside Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly in Anchors Away. By the time he was 11, he had a star-making role in the 1948 antiwar film The Boy With Green Hair. The movie turned Stockwell into something of a star, and he felt ostracized.

"Wherever I went, I was treated as something different," Stockwell told WHYY's Fresh Air in 1988. "I didn't feel marked for something special. I felt I was being treated as something special then, and I didn't like it and I wanted to get out of it."


After he graduated high school at age 16, Stockwell changed his name and left Hollywood. He eventually found his way back to acting, notably in Sidney Lumet's Long Day's Journey Into Night from 1962, but spent the majority of this stretch of his career in television. By the late '60s, he once again dropped out of acting for a few years. When he returned, he found work hard to get.

Stockwell nearly changed careers altogether in the '80s. He got his real estate license in New Mexico, and ran an ad for himself in Variety. Instead, that led to a string of memorable movie roles in Wim Wenders' Paris, Texas, David Lynch's Dune and Blue Velvet, Robert Altman's The Player and Jonathan Demme's Married to the Mob—the last netting him an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

Stockwell was perhaps best known for his role as Admiral Al Calavicci on the sci-fi television series Quantum Leap, which ran for five seasons. He'd go on to roles in such shows as The Tony Danza Show, JAG, and the acclaimed 2000s run of Battlestar Galactica. After that he slowed down on acting yet again—this time to focus on his career in visual arts, working mainly with paper collage.

He is survived by his wife, Joy Stockwell, and their two children, Austin Stockwell and Sophie Stockwell.

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The longtime actor Dean Stockwell has died. He was notably a costar on the hit sci-fi TV show "Quantum Leap," but he also had memorable supporting roles in movies such as "Blue Velvet" and "Married To The Mob." He died Sunday at 85 years old after performing for seven decades.

NPR's Andrew Limbong has this appreciation.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: Robert Dean Stockwell started young. By the time he was 7 years old, he was acting next to Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly in "Anchors Aweigh."


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) All set?

DEAN STOCKWELL: (As Donald Martin) No, I always get sung to sleep.

LIMBONG: But his big role as a kid was in 1948's "The Boy With Green Hair."


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) What have you done to your hair, lad?

STOCKWELL: (As Peter Fry) It turned green.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) All by itself?

STOCKWELL: (As Peter Fry) All by itself.

LIMBONG: In it, Stockwell plays the titular boy whose parents die in a war. It's a movie about pacifism and ostracism. And it categorized Stockwell as a serious actor - something special.


STOCKWELL: Wherever I went, I was treated as something different.

LIMBONG: That's Stockwell talking to WHYY's "Fresh Air" in 1988. He said kids didn't like him because he was different. That just left the adults he worked with.


STOCKWELL: Who, at one moment, would treat me as a child and insist that I remember that I was a child and, at the next minute, would expect an adult-level performance and type of work. So it was almost deranging.

LIMBONG: He left Hollywood after graduating high school but came back in his early 20s. Notably, he was in Sidney Lumet's 1962 "Long Day's Journey Into Night" where he plays the young Edmund, who is kind of naive about his mother's addiction.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) ...Stick around?

STOCKWELL: (As Edmund Tyrone) Because she accused me and you and papa of spying on her all the time and not trusting her. She made me feel ashamed. I know how rotten it must be for her.

LIMBONG: The role got him recognition and an award from the Cannes Film Festival. But Stockwell would long have trouble appreciating his own work from this stretch of time. There's an interview he did with Turner Classic Movies where the interviewer asks...


UNIDENTIFIED INTERVIEWER: Were you proud of those performances?

LIMBONG: And he pauses for a good five seconds.


STOCKWELL: I don't think they were bad. I don't - I'm not real proud of them, no. At the time, you couldn't have offered me a compliment. I would have refused it. I was...

LIMBONG: Stockwell didn't love acting, but acting was all he knew. He tried to get out again and got a license to sell real estate. But before he left, he got a call from actor Harry Dean Stanton, who convinced Stockwell to do a movie with him - Wim Wenders' "Paris, Texas."


STOCKWELL: (As Walt Henderson) Can you tell me the exact location of your hospital down there? Where the hell is that?

STOCKWELL: This begins a stretch of his career where he plays these scene-stealing roles in movies like "Blue Velvet" and "Married To The Mob," where he plays the skeevy Tony "The Tiger" Russo.


STOCKWELL: (As Tony Russo) I want to reassure you, Angela, you're not going to be alone. I'm going to take care of you.

LIMBONG: That role earned him a best supporting actor Academy Award nomination. By this point in his career, he had processed his life's work. Here he is again on "Fresh Air."


STOCKWELL: It wasn't until my late 30s and 40s that I began to really come to terms with that I was an actor, that it was not a useless or bad thing to be, and there was some value in it and that I could appreciate it for myself

LIMBONG: Just in time, too, because by 1989, he'd enter a career-defining role on the long-running TV show "Quantum Leap" as Al - the only somewhat helpful holographic sidekick.


STOCKWELL: (As Al Calavicci) If we knew the unknown, the unknown wouldn't be unknown.

LIMBONG: Even after the show ended, Stockwell kept working until 2015, which makes 70 years in acting. In that "Fresh Air" interview, he said he probably wouldn't have been very good at selling real estate.

Andrew Limbong, NPR News.

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