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Quantum Leap | My Guardian Angel: Remembering Dean Stockwell

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The Companion was saddened to learn of the death of the veteran actor, Dean Stockwell who, it is reported, passed away at his home in New Mexico of natural causes at the age of 85. Stockwell had a long career some of it within the science fiction genre, much of it outside. But it was undoubtedly a sci-fi role that he will probably always be remembered for: that of Al Calavicci, the holographic companion to Dr. Sam Beckett (Scott Bakula), the luckless scientist whose botched never-ending time travel adventures provided the focal point for the fondly remembered TV series, Quantum Leap between 1989 and 1993.

Al’s appearances in the show quickly proved essential for both Sam and for the viewer. For Sam, Al quickly proved a lifeline or as Sam himself sometimes put it “my guardian angel.” As the series opened, Sam was literally all over the place, seemingly randomly “leaping” from one host body to another, usually in the USA and usually at some point in the post-war era. Unable to recognize his own reflection in the mirror or remember that it was he who started the experiment in the first place thanks to his “Swiss cheese” memory, it was left to Al, his always nattily dressed colleague appearing in the form of a “neurological hologram,” an image only Sam could see and hear to fill him in.

“I can’t tell you because it’s restricted,” Al admits in the pilot episode. “Most of what you’re gonna want to know is restricted.” But soon Al proves himself a regular and vital source of information, reeling off statistical data on Sam’s likely weekly missions spewed out from the unseen Ziggy, the project’s temperamental hybrid computer.

But Al’s presence also proves essential to the viewer too: he injects an essential shot of humor into a series that would otherwise have quickly become overearnest. Here Stockwell’s charm proved essential somehow making a character who would seem unbearably sleazy were he to actually exist in real life somehow, seem very likable. Al, we soon learned, was a compulsive womanizer with a roving eye and five marriages behind him. In ‘What Price Gloria?’ (S2, Ep4) in which Sam finds himself in the body of a blonde bombshell secretary, Sam himself finds himself falling victim to Al’s lust (or at least to his voyeurism) even though, we, the audience largely only see the actor Scott Bakula in drag. 

Flying High

The full extent of Al’s eventful back story soon became something of a running joke as more and more of it was gradually revealed to justify his usefulness in certain episode storylines. In addition to being an Admiral, an ex-astronaut, and a former Vietnam prisoner-of-war, Al was gradually revealed to be a reformed alcoholic with some personal experience of boxing and acting in small-scale theater productions.

By the time, Quantum Leap came to an end, we had learned a lot about Al. Some episodes (including the very last one) had seen Sam attempting “to put right what once went wrong” in Al’s own life, notably an attempt to fix his very first marriage which had gone awry when he had been presumed dead during a long period missing in action during his period of service in the Vietnam War. Had the series continued, one possibility which had been suggested was that Al himself embark on a series of leaps to rescue Sam. Other episodes which departed from the usual premise included 1990’s Halloween episode ‘The Boogieman’ (S3, Ep5) in which it was revealed that the Devil himself had briefly adopted Al’s form in order to deliberately mislead Sam with false advice. This episode foreshadowed later developments in the series including the controversial Evil Leaper storyline.

Sam leaps into the body of a 1960s horror novelist in ‘The Boogieman’ – S3, Ep5. | NBCUniversal, 1990.

Dean Stockwell had been over 50 when he took on what turned out to be his most memorable role. Many were surprised when he did. After years of underperforming, Stockwell’s movie career finally seemed to be taking off. 

“Dean Stockwell had just done Blue Velvet and Married to The Mob,” Quantum Leap’s writer, producer, and uncredited showrunner Deborah Pratt remembered. “Everyone thought he was going to take a big leap back into film but he read the script and loved it. And when Dean and Scott got into the room together, there was this chemistry. Everyone fell in love with them.”

Why was he risking it all for what was then seen as the potential graveyard of TV? Stockwell saw it differently:

“I wasn’t flying that high. I was on an ascendant, there’s no question, but I had spent 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.”

Dean Stockwell, The Complete Quantum Leap Book (1993) by Louis Chunovic

It was undoubtedly a wise decision. Dean Stockwell’s performance as Al won him three Emmy awards and a Golden Globe. He received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on February 29th, 1992.

Dean Genie

Robert Dean Stockwell had been born in Los Angeles in March 1936. He had been literally born in Hollywood. His father, a musical comedy performer had provided the voice of Prince Charming in Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937). When he was six, his father took him off to a New York audition and before Dean really knew what was happening, he was cast as the lead in a stage production, Innocent Voyage. Before long, a talent scout had whisked him away to Hollywood. With cherubic features, Stockwell became a popular child star appearing in Anchors Away (1945) – the one in which Gene Kelly dances with Jerry the mouse – and The Boy With the Green Hair (1948) as well as a version of Kim (1950) featuring Errol Flynn.

An early triumph for Dean Stockwell as a child actor. | R.K.O. Radio Pictures Ltd, 1948.

Stockwell would later be very proud to have been in The Boy With the Green Hair which is often seen as a powerful anti-racist parable. He also says his time spent with Flynn (who was by then in a state of decline) had a big impact on him. “There were uglies and there were beauties,” he said in 1984, by which time his status as a survivor of Hollywood’s Golden Age was making him something of a novelty. “For me, Errol Flynn was the best. I didn’t know anything about sex or what manhood was – and he opened that door for me.”

But ultimately he had never asked to be a child star and became a rebel with a cause. “I cut my hair off, changed my name, and disappeared into the countryside,” he recalled. “I did odd jobs and then, when I ran out of things to do, I went back into the business to try again.”

For a while he was very successful, winning a Best Actor award at Cannes for his portrayal as one of the young murderers in the film, Compulsion (1959) and did the same again for his role in The Long Day’s Journey into the Night (1962) alongside Katharine Hepburn. He soon got caught up in the 1960s counter-culture, however, and his career went off the rails. “I dropped out of my career and went with all that,” he said later. “I found that very fulfilling because I didn’t have much of a childhood the first time around.”

It wasn’t until the 1980s that his film career took off again with roles in Paris, Texas (1984), To Live and Die in LA (1985), Beverly Hills Cop II (1987), and a memorably chilling turn lip-synching to Roy Orbison in David Lynch’s classic, Blue Velvet (1986). He also achieved an Oscar nomination for his role in the Michelle Pfeiffer comedy, Married to the Mob (1988).

An unforgettable turn as Ben in David Lynch thriller Blue Velvet. | De Laurentiis Entertainment Group, 1986.

Comeback Kid

It would be an exaggeration to say his career had owed very much to science fiction up until this point. However, it would be fair to say, Stockwell’s 1980s comeback did owe a fair bit to his part as Doctor Washington Yueh in David Lynch’s 1984 version of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi epic, Dune. The role was played by Chang Chen in the 2021 Denis Villeneuve film.  “After Paris, Texas, and Dune I think I’ve got a pretty good start on what amounts to a third career,” Stockwell later remarked.

Science fiction would play a major role in the final, post-Quantum Leap phase of the life and career of Dean Stockwell. In 2002, he reunited with his Quantum Leap co-star, Scott Bakula as he took on the role of Colonel Grat in one episode of Star Trek: Enterprise (‘Detained’ – S1, Ep20). “I’m sorry we couldn’t have met under better circumstances,” he greeted Bakula, who was now playing Captain Jonathan Archer in the franchise prequel. In the same year, he played Doctor Kieran in the Stargate SG-1 episode, ‘Shadow Play’ (S6, Ep7).

But an even better role (or roles) was yet to come as Stockwell, now entering his seventies took on the role of Brother John Cavil in the revived 21st century version of TV’s Battlestar Galactica. During the course of 16 episodes between 2006 and 2009, Stockwell’s portrayal of the malevolent Cylon might well represent the evilest character, Dean Stockwell ever played during his seventy-year career on stage and screen.

It is a testament to the enduring power of Quantum Leap that even today, 30 years on from the series’ heyday, talk of a possible Quantum Leap revival has never quite gone away. Indeed, even now one would be foolish to entirely dismiss such a notion out of hand. But one thing’s for sure: it would never be the same without Dean Stockwell’s Rear Admiral Albert ‘Al’ Calavicci.

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Chris Hallam is a published author and freelance writer based in Exeter. In the past, he has written for magazines such as DVD Monthly and Geeky Monkey. He provided all the written content for the Star Wars Clone Wars and Smurfs annuals for 2014, and the Transformers annual 2015. He continues to write for Yours Retro, Best of British and The History of Comics, 1930-2030.

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