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THE PRO: A Conversation With Dean Stockwell

(From The Complete Quantum Leap: The Official Publication of the Show, copyright 1993 & 1995 by MCA Publishing Rights; reprinted with permission)

If Scott Bakula is Quantum Leap's high-energy sparkplug, then Dean Stockwell is the calm center of the production storm. After all, this big-screen veteran has been on stage since the age of six, so it's small wonder that the show's co-executive producer calls him a "young old pro."

"If you want to get on Dean's good side," a crew-member confides, "ask him about golf. He's a golf maniac." That's true enough, the visitor learns, sitting with the actor in his Pace Arrow motor home parked near the set. But he's also a serious art collector (although the crowded motor home is mostly decorated with drawings by his children), as well as a perceptive student of the business.

He's wearing his Observer costume from his last scene — a green and blue suede jacket, a green silk shirt and a green-and-pink striped tie. The pin on his jacket, a small metal shark wearing pink-stone sunglasses, he picked out himself. Stockwell puffs Observer-like on a big Chavelo cigar ("It's a prop, actually," he says dryly), pausing thoughtfully before answering questions.




How'd you get the part on Quantum Leap?

Welllll, I had asked my agent and the people who were representing me at that time to look for a series, and I was looking at several things. This came about right at that time, and Don Bellisario thought of me. I read it, I loved it, I went in and met with him and I got the very real impression that he thought that I was the guy to do the role.

Why did you want to do a series? As I remember it, you were flying high in movies, coming off Blue Velvet and all that. A lot of people in the business were surprised that an actor of your stature would take any part in series television.

I wasn't flying that high. I was on an ascendant, there's no question, but I had spent virtually countless years of anxiety wondering whether I was going to get another job all the time, so I wanted a long run at something. I never thought there was anything wrong with doing a television series. I thought it was a wonderful thing to do, especially since this particular one had what I felt was so much to offer in the way of quality, uniqueness and a wonderful part.

What did you bring to the part?

Well, I brought my talent, whatever that is. I'm not going to describe that. That's what I brought to it.

What about insights into the character: Is the character as originally written who you're playing now, or did you bring in little bits of business, little insights of your own?

Both. It's a combination of both. There was a very interesting character to start with. He was, um, very colorful, and he was, um — how shall I put it? — if anything he had an expanded appreciation of the opposite gender. And there was humor in it. I have expanded the humor and expanded the appreciation of the feminine gender, and the writing has gone along with me. I've added a lot of little things and schticks, mostly on the comedic side, the light side.

The shows that have dealt with more emotional things, I feel fortunate that they've been few and far between, because I prefer doing the comedy. But those more serious shows have been good ones and well-written, so I have been able to achieve a balance in the performances.

Al seems to me to be a man who's had a real hard life that's tempered him. Is that part of what you brought to the character?

Oh, I wouldn't say that. I don't know that my life has been as hard as his, or maybe it's been more hard. I don't know. When the situation calls for serious drama ... I draw all these things from my imagination; I never research, I never search my soul for experiences that I've had that fit the thing that I'm going to act out. I don't work that way. I work mostly with my mind, and then I'm able to tap into emotions when I actually do it.

Do you have a favorite episode?

I don't. I truly don't. There will always be a place in my heart for the pilot, because it was the initial experience, and it was a good one — the first time working with Scott, the first time doing the character. I don't think that was our best episode for sure. It's not. I mean, we were fleshing things out, trying to figure out what it was ourselves a little bit. Apart from that, I would say that all the episodes that have been light — and there have been a lot of them — and funny I have liked the best. Things like the Christmas episode.

Do you have a favorite moment?

My favorite moment usually is the last funny moment that I've found. I get a lot of satisfaction and enjoyment from finding something odd and funny to do. An example here, today, since we're shooting an episode right at the moment: We have this scene in a little cafe in the fifties, in New Mexico it's supposed to be — a very well-designed set by the way — and Sam is playing a stand-up comic and Bob Saget is his partner ... And they kind of get carried away doing a little bit, and the waitress who greeted them as they came in says they're being too crazy and kicks them out. They go out and I'm supposed to pop out.

Well, while they're doing the bit, Sam grabs this red plastic ketchup dispenser, and he uses it like a microphone. And the waitress says to him, "If you're going to be acting crazy and weird like this, you better give me my ketchup and do it someplace else." So he hands her the ketchup and they go out. I wanted to do a line there, and I thought of going up to her and saying, "Hold the ketchup between your knees" — to do a little homage to Jack [a reference to Jack Nicholson's famous line in Five Easy Pieces].

Then, when we actually shot it, I rethought it, 'cause the girl has flaming red hair. So I came up to her and said, "Do you use that stuff on your hair?"

I liked that, I enjoyed doing it and I just did it five minutes ago. And that's my favorite moment until the next one.

That's a good attitude, given the pace and the amount of work you do.

It's a true attitude, it's an organic attitude.

How do you deal with the pace? You seem pretty mellow, in fact people on the set seem pretty mellow, given this brutal pace.

We know it's hard work, and we know everyone works really hard, but — and this is something that was never discussed, never discussed between us — Scott and I, organically, from the beginning, knew the value of creating a certain kind of atmosphere on the set. An atmosphere that starts with the principal people will permeate the set. If you're all serious and you're all rigid, everything will become that way and you'll have an uptight set. We both, organically, knew how to keep it loose, and it starts with the banter between Scott and me. He has that naturally, I have it naturally, and we're both damn lucky that we do, because it just works out wonderfully. And the whole set is constantly loose, but we get the work done and the work is good and on time.

You know, you've got a lot of loyal fans, and it's been my sense that the fans "get" the show, but the business has never really gotten it.

The business didn't "get" Star Trek either. The business didn't get it, until the fans just kept after it. That could very well happen with Quantum Leap.

I personally feel that Quantum Leap will go on and we'll have a fabulous exposure in syndication and that there will be a movie. That's my hunch.

Really? Is it in the works?

I know it's been discussed.

You were in the business since you were a kid. You were in one of my favorite movies.

Really? Which one is that?

The Boy With Green Hair. Tell me, how has the business changed since then?

It's truly the same business. It's the business of entertainment; and hopefully at its best, a provocative and stimulating business, above and beyond the basic entertainment value. I think entertainment is essential to the human condition, so it is an important endeavor. The studio system that existed when I was a child fell apart; it doesn't exist anymore. That was a growth in the business.

I think independent filmmakers brought a great deal to the art form and were freed of the fetters of studio control. More stimulating ideas were brought to the screen. Fewer B-movies as a staple of the studios [were made]. And [there was] just as high a quality of stars. So you can't say that the studio system fostered all these stars, and everything was better because of that. It just simply isn't true.

Television came into the picture. HA! That's funny! I like that. Get it? Television came into the picture! That's become its own growth industry; a wonderful thing for actors. Unfortunately, the quality across the board isn't consistently very high; it's very commercial.

How did you got into the business? When did you start acting?

I was six, and both my father and mother had been in show business. My father was in musical comedy and we were living in New York. It was about the time that he and my mother were separating, and he'd heard of a play that was casting a bunch of kids in it, so my mother brought my brother and me down to this audition.

She didn't really have a particular reason; she really didn't want us to work. The theater had been her life. She knew it, and it just happened. So my brother and I got in this play, and then I was seen in it by this talent scout. I did a screen test and was seen in that by MGM and they signed me to a contract. My first picture was Anchors Aweigh.

The Boy With Green Hair was a few years later; I was about 10.

Do you have a favorite movie from your career?

Yeah, I have several. Green Hair is one of them; it still holds up as a very unique little classic. It says something very important; it's an antiwar film. There was a picture called Down to the Sea in Ships that I did with Richard Widmark and Lionel Barrymore that, for performance, I felt very good about. A couple of comedies that I did as a kid. Then, later on, Long Day's Journey Into Night, with Katharine Hepburn, Ralph Richardson and Jason Robards. And the film of Compulsion. Then, later on, I would say Married to the Mob. I'd put that up as the favorite part I've ever had.

You seem to like word play. Do you write?

No.

Direct?

No. Well, I have. I directed some little theater stuff.

No ambitions in those directions?

Uh-uh.

If you had your choice, is there a Quantum you'd like to do that you haven't done?

I've been attempting, over the three-and-a-half years we've been doing this show, to get the production office to do an environmental show. It hasn't happened. It seems a natural, but ... it's a very difficult show to write scripts for .... It's tough to do. No one yet has been able to come up with an environmental script that works. I feel there is a definite perspective advantage that we have — because we deal with times in the past — to show the origins of the environmental mistakes that have been made, and now to see the consequences.

Is there anything that you know about your character that the audience doesn't know?

No. There are things that come up out of the writers' minds and out of Don's imagination that are unexpected by me and that I adapt to. A case in point would be [the episode] where the government funding for Project Quantum Leap was going to dry up, and [Sam] changed history with this girl who turned out to be ... the senator that's reviewing the project and approves the funding at the last minute. Al was in some scenes in the present tense at this Senate hearing and, for the first time, out of Don's mind, I was a full admiral. Nobody knew anything about this prior to that episode. All of a sudden, I had to incorporate that into my thinking.

You're a married man with kids. Is this kind of work pace brutal on a family life?

It's a little tough, it's a little tough. I see them mostly on the weekends, because they're not near and it's a long working day — minimum 12-hour days — but when I'm there it's high-quality time. They come and visit the set from time to time. It's as good a situation as you could have, given what I'm doing, and I'm doing what I'm doing to provide for their future.

Do your children [aged six and eight] watch the show?

They don't watch it live; it's too late [at night]. There are some episodes that I'd rather they don't see, so we pick and choose the episodes.

What's it like for a six-year-old to see Daddy on screen?

They seem to accept it very readily. They see films from when I was a kid, too. They get right into the stories .... That's the way pure minds work. They both adore Scott, both personally and on the show.

What do you do between calls on the set?

Quite frequently I have mundane matters to handle here, in this dressing room, my motor home here. Paperwork and stuff. I enjoy reading. I have a television [with a VCR] here; I watch dailies — dailies, of course, are the rushes [film "rushed" through developing] that were shot the day before. I have some weights. Something that I enjoy greatly is a chess computer. I play chess against it. I like that a lot.

Someone said to me I shouldn't leave without asking you about golf.

What about it?

Personally, I don't know anything about it.

Well, I am a golfer. I'm addicted to golf. I think it's the most difficult sport I've ever tried to do. It's the hardest to do, but it's also the most addictive. It's incredibly enjoyable and incredibly frustrating.

I do want to say something [on another topic].

Sure. What's that?

I do want to say that I want to do at least another season on the show, because — and I'm being very honest here — I've been very deeply affected by what I've felt coming back to me from the fans of this show. I've been very deeply affected by their demeanor, their sincerity, the warmth and affection that they show to the show and to Scott and me. It's real and I think it's very unique, and I've never experienced that before in my life. I want them to have 22 or 44 more episodes.

BIOGRAPHY