Friday, 19 January 2007

Dean Stockwell

‘It's not the easiest life in the world, but then no life is easy’.

As Al in Quantum Leap, Dean Stockwell gave the show heart. He made it important. Sam Beckett could be sanctimonious, dull. We were always waiting for Al. If he hadn’t turned up, it wouldn’t have been a show anymore. But Al wasn’t just comic relief, he had his own story to tell, his own past, all somehow more real than Sam’s fantastic present. Al had been taken prisoner in Korea, MIA for over a decade. The episode when Al shared a last ghostly dance with the one true love he left behind still haunts me. Al’s desperate womanising took on a different dimension after this dance of death and the man with diamonds in his eyes became a hero of lost love. Through all his scrapes and adventures, Sam never leaped into Al, never saved him from the torments of his own history. The former child actor displays the kind of familiarity with screen space and visual expression that is usually associated with someone like Robert Mitchum. He has always floated through Hollywood in unreachable territory, like Frederick Forest, Stacey Keach or Griffin Dunne, happy to stand aside and let others soak themselves up, always seeming fresher that way. Stockwell’s other roles – too few and far between - confirm his ability to ease into the viewer’s consciousness, always making himself integral with his powerful economy: the sorrowful son in Long Day’s Journey into Night, the sensitive murderer in Compulsion, the sad eyed indulgent brother to Harry Dean Stanton’s lost dreamer in Paris, Texas; the dogged vice-president in Air Force One; the sympathetic and patient colonel in Gardens of Stone, and the romantic judge in Tucker: the Man and his Dream. He is a rare treat to watch, he operates comfortably, pure termite art, slipping smoothly through emotional gears. His significant dramatic departure as the suave, dispossessed Ben in Blue Velvet, calls on him to deliver the slowest and wickedest bolo punch imaginable. The blow is almost orgasmic in its deft violence. Ben’s inhuman reflexes and sexually aggrieved swagger only serve to illuminate, in negative, Stockwell’s own reliable centre. Put simply, when I watch Stockwell on screen, I feel safe in the hands of a professional man, playing a role I believe in, sharing a secret we both already know.