Celebrating Dean Stockwell
A Last Link Between Two Golden Ages
Last week, Hollywood lost another of its greatest icons, though I’m not sure those who remember him for his greatest roles knew how great. Dean Stockwell passed away at age 85.
Considering that his most indelible roles on the cultural landscape occurred when he was in his fifties, it’s astounding when you consider that Stockwell’s career stretches all the way back to the Golden Age of Hollywood. Indeed, he began his career as a legendary child actor, making his debut among Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly in one of the great MGM musicals Anchors Aweigh playing the child of Kathryn Grayson. At age eleven he earned a special Golden Globe for his role in Gentleman’s Agreement and was the lead in one of the more beloved pictures The Boy with Green Hair. Nor, unlike so many child actors, did his career flag when he got older. He started in Best Picture nominee Sons of Lovers and in the 1962 adaptation of Long Day’s Journey Into Night. His peak moment on film came may have been for his role as the don in Married to the Mob, the comedy that earned him another Golden Globes and his only Oscar nomination.
His television career was nearly as lustrous, going as far back as the Rod Serling version of The Twilight Zone. But two different generations of sci-fi fans remember for two very different roles in iconic series — one as a hologram with humanity, the other as one of the most cynical robots you could imagine.
No one who saw Quantum Leap will ever forget it — no matter how dissatisfied the final episode left it. Stockwell’s role was Ensign Al Calavicci, the holograph guide to Scott Bakula as leapt from life to life. There primarily for moral support, it would have been easy for the writers just to use him as comic relief — Al was forever making goo-goo eyes at all of the women Sam was around. But Donald Bellisario and his writers were smarter than that and as the series progressed went to greater lengths to give this character that was known for walking through people remarkable depths.
The biggest came in the Season 2 finale when we learned that Al was a Vietnam POW and had never got over the loss of his first wife. She had assumed he was dead and remarried by the time he came back. One of the most painful images in the entire series is seeing Al watch as he says goodbye to the young wife who doesn’t even know he’s in the same room. We would follow this arc for awhile — during Season 3 we learned Al was this close to being revealed as alive by a photographer in Vietnam and the last image we have of the show was Sam revealing to Al’s wife that he was still alive.
There were some fairly strong moments for Stockwell besides this, though. Throughout the series, it became clear that people whose mentality wasn’t quite as developed as normal — be it the elderly, the mentally ill or the very young — could actually see Al. This was lead to Al having some interesting storylines within the leaps — in one show; he would play the ‘Ghost of Christmas Future’ to an aging millionaire, in another he would save a group of black children from dying in a church fire. One of my favorite episodes of the series actually played off everything we learned of Al — Sam leaps into a 50s New England horror writer and finds himself trying to stop a series of murders that Al insists are being guided by the woman in the story. It is only at the end of the episode that we learn who the true murderer is — Al. Or to be precise, the devil himself posing as Al and who is furious at Sam for ‘putting right what went wrong’. The fact that, of course, this image is eventually revealed to be a hallucination does very little to diminish the power of Stockwell’s performance — its small wonder that he won both an Emmy and a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor during the series run.
After Quantum Leap ended Stockwell went back to various guest roles throughout television and movies before he landed in a recurring role in the revival of Battlestar Galactica. The role he played starting at the end of Season 2 and continuing until the end of the series was one of the most bizarre — and wondrous — of the entire cast.
The first time we meet Brother Cavil, he is a priest who is to offer spiritual guidance to Chief Tyrol, the ship’s engineer who is reeling over the revelation that his lover Sharon Valeri/Boomer was a Cylon. Tyrol has just attempted an assault on a colleague and asks for a priest rather than a lawyer. Half the episode is a discussion between Cavil and Tyrol where Cavil’s acts more like a psychiatrist than a priest. In a brilliant line when Tyrol asks him flat out: “How do you know I’m not a Cylon?” Cavil answers: “Because I’m also a Cylon and I haven’t seen you at any of the meetings.” This is one of the most ironic lines in the entire series because as we find out in the next episode, Cavil is being entirely truthful about the first part of the statement — he is a Cylon and we find his duplicate in the middle of an invasion force that’s going on simultaneously.
Cavil is the last of the seven Cylons we meet and by far the strangest. All of the other Cylons believe in God; Cavil doesn’t at all, which considering he uses the moniker of a holy man is beyond ironic. Throughout Season 3 and the more time we spend with the Cylons, it is through Cavil we learn that so many of the presumptions we’ve made to this point are incorrect. The assumption has been that they are all equal, but we see more and more Cavil is weighting all decision so they go in his favor. When one of the Cylon finally sees the ‘Final Five’ — Cavil tells her “We’ve decided to box (decommission) her” — a decision that he made unilaterally. In the final season, a civil war erupts among the Cylons and Cavil himself becomes essentially the de facto voice of the Cylons — and in the final episodes we ‘seem’ to learn that almost all of the actions that have taken place since the Cylons were created were his responsibility. He hates being put in a humanoid form, yet ironically is holding on to the most base of human emotions, pettiness and revenge.
There were many problems with Battlestar Galactica – it is actually my intention to detail them in a later article — but none of them were the fault of Stockwell. Indeed, his ultra cynical humor at essentially every aspect of the Cylon and human experience were in my opinion one of the high points of the entire series. I may not have believed every thing I saw in the final season, but the bravado work of Stockwell almost made it work.
Stockwell had many great roles throughout his career and he always had a level of humanity in every role he played, even, if in the roles I listed here, he was far from the typical human. Hollywood has lost one of the great child actors — and character actors — it has ever known. He linked the Golden Age of Hollywood to the Golden Age of Television and was on almost every else in between. He will be missed.