The cult indie favourite had a long and versatile career in Hollywood spanning decades
Stockwell had worked in Hollywood since childhood, making a name for himself while he was still in high school in the anti-racism parable The Boy With Green Hair (1948) and in an adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s Kim in 1950. After dropping out of the University of California, Berkeley due to the fact that he was “unhappy and could not get along with people,” he reignited his acting career with a lead role in crime drama Compulsion for which he shared the 1959 best actor award at Cannes with co-stars Orson Welles and Bradford Dillman.
Stockwell became disillusioned with the film industry in the early 60s and became active in Hollywood’s Topanga Canyon hippie subculture, hanging out with the likes of Allen Ginsberg, Jack Nicholson, and Dennis Hopper. “I did some drugs and went to some love-ins,” Stockwell later told Vogue. “The experience of those days provided me with a huge, panoramic view of my existence that I didn’t have before. I have no regrets.”
He reemerged in 1971 for Dennis Hopper’s epic The Last Movie, about a stuntman who quits the movie business to become a horse wrangler after one of his colleagues is killed on set in Peru. He struggled for work during the 70s and early 80s, but while filming the “awful” To Kill A Stranger in Mexico, Stockwell asked the director to introduce him to David Lynch because he heard he was in the country and working on an adaptation of Dune.
After meeting at a cafe, Lynch told Stockwell that he’d already cast for the film and the pair went their separate ways. However, Stockwell later received a call from the director after another actor dropped out of the project. Lynch said: “Listen, I want to apologise if I acted strangely when I saw you in Mexico but I thought that you were dead,” and then offered him a small part.
A larger role in Paris, Texas followed in 1984: “I thought that was going to be a disaster,” Stockwell later said, “but it came out great!”
Two years later he landed a part in Lynch’s Blue Velvet in which he “created a new high water mark for alien humor” according to The Rolling Stone.
Over the next two decades Stockwell worked various TV roles including in popular sci-fi shows Quantum Leap, Star Trek Enterprise, and Battlestar Galactica. He is survived by his wife, Joy Stockwell and their two children, Austin and Sophie.