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Dean Stockwell, the legendary character actor who began his career as a boy in the Golden Age of Hollywood and eventually played an astonishing 200 roles across seven decades of work in film and television, died Sunday at the age of 85. A Los Angeles native, Stockwell made his Broadway debut in 1943, and by 1945 he was under contract at MGM, working in films alongside the likes of Gregory Peck and Frank Sinatra when he was just nine years old. He would continue to appear in films and eventually on television for the next 70 years until his retirement in 2015, weathering the rough transition from child star to adult actor and the various evolutions of Hollywood along the way.
Though he's perhaps best known today for his work as Admiral Al Calavicci on the sci-fi TV series Quantum Leap, Stockwell's extraordinary career includes countless subgenres and roles, from early classics like Gentleman's Agreement and Anchors Aweigh to adventure pictures like Kim and comedies like Married to the Mob to roles on The Twilight Zone and Stargate SG-1 and even voice acting work in projects like Batman Beyond: The Return of the Joker. Here at SYFY WIRE, of course, we will remember him best for his work in genre films and TV series.
In tribute to Stockwell's incredible career, here are some of our favorites, in chronological order.
Wilbur Whateley - The Dunwich Horror
Stockwell's acting career fell off a bit in the mid-1960s as he explored other aspects of his life, but by the 1970s he was working again, piecing together a new career as a mature adult actor. The Dunwich Horror, a very loose adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft's story, was among the first major roles he landed amid that comeback, and while the film itself is not necessarily among the best horror films of the period, Stockwell is absolutely magnetic as a warped man pursuing knowledge of and access to Lovecraft's Old Ones. In the years since its release, The Dunwich Horror has achieved cult status in no small part thanks to Stockwell's performance, and it's easy to see why.
Dr. Wellington Yueh - Dune
In his first of two collaborations with director David Lynch, Stockwell brought his talents to bear on one of Dune's most pivotal roles. As Dr. Wellington Yueh, Stockwell had to marshal a sense of tragic downfall as the Atreides family physician who also eventually betrayed them to the treacherous Harkonnens, and in a film in which everyone is doing A Lot, he still manages to stand out. Plus, he managed to impress Lynch enough that he joined the director's next film, and in the process became one of the single most memorable things in the entire David Lynch canon, which is saying something.
Ben - Blue Velvet
Stockwell rejoined Lynch for his nightmarish noir film Blue Velvet in 1986, and while his role was once again relatively small compared to stars like Kyle MacLachlan and Dennis Hopper, he absolutely steals the movie in one of the most memorable scenes not just in Blue Velvet, but in all of Lynch's work. After Hopper's demented Frank Booth abducts MacLachlan's Jeffrey and brings him deep into the criminal underworld lurking beneath his small town, Stockwell appears as Ben, Frank's eccentric associate, who holds a lamp up to his face like a microphone and begins a now-iconic lip synch performance of Roy Orbison's "In Dreams." It's creepy, it's compelling, and even endearing, and it's all proof of Stockwell's gift for transformation as an actor.
Admiral Al Calavicci - Quantum Leap
Quantum Leap might have still worked if it had simply been Sam Beckett's story, if we'd just followed one man's journey through the lives and misfortunes of various people throughout time, but one of the reasons the series still stands as a sci-fi classic today is the decision to make it a two-hander through the use of Stockwell as Al Calavicci. As Sam's best friend, traveling companion via hologram, historical advisor and occasional Greek chorus, Stockwell embodied the series' tragicomic instincts through a character who was often as funny as he was subtly heartbreaking. We could sense the inner life of Al in even his most surface-level moments, and it's that kind of work that earned Stockwell four Emmy nominations and a Golden Globe win for his portrayal of the character.
John Cavil/Number One - Battlestar Galactica
One of the storytelling masterstrokes of Ronald D. Moore's Battlestar Galactica re-imagining was the decision to make the first humanoid Cylon we met someone as striking and visually unforgettable as Tricia Helfer's Number Six. It conditioned us to expect these striking figures, only to then undercut that notion with the idea that the remaining Cylons could be anyone. With that in place, introducing an actor like Stockwell as the fable Cylon Number One was another master stroke. He's instantly memorable even before you understand the depths of his personality, and though he appears in a relatively small number of episodes, he's perfectly suited to the show's philosophical atmosphere.