This remarkable performer has had three distinct careers. He first appeared in films as a child actor, reestablished himself in his 20s, and, after experiencing some personal problems, bounced back as a middle-aged character player, which has brought him his greatest success and popularity. The son of Broadway performers (his father Harry sang the voice of the Prince in Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs the earnest, bright-eyed Stockwell appeared in such films as Anchors Aweigh (1945), Gentleman's Agreement (1947), The Boy With Green Hair (1948, a memorable starring role in this fable about social outcasts), Down to the Sea in Ships, The Secret Garden (both 1949), The Happy Years and Kim (both 1950), proving to be a skilled and appealing performer.
Stockwell left Hollywood when he was about 16 and traveled across the country, working at odd jobs. He returned to acting when he hit New York, eliciting raves as one of the college-boy killers in the Broadway production of "Compulsion," a role he repeated in the 1959 film (which won him and his costars an award at the Cannes Film Festival). He solidified his reputation with a mature, sensitive performance as a troubled youth in Sons and Lovers (1960), and received a second Cannes ensemble award for his role as Eugene O'Neill's alter ego in Long Day's Journey Into Night (1962). But then, Stockwell dropped out of acting again.
Later, he took occasional parts in the likes of The Last Movie (1971), and Tracks (1976), both with his friend Dennis Hopper. In the 1980s he made a spectacular comeback with sizable supporting roles in Dune, Paris, Texas (both 1984), Blue Velvet (1986, a flamboyant and memorable performance), Gardens of Stone (1987), and a stunning cameo as Howard Hughes in Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988). This culminated in an Oscar nomination for his droll comic turn as a mob boss in Married to the Mob (1988), and led to his being cast as the holographic observer Al on the TV series "Quantum Leap" (1989-93). He also appeared in Limit Up (1989) and in an amusing role as a desperate screenwriter's agent in Robert Altman's The Player (1992). His brother Guy was also an actor, whose limited achievements included starring in a 1966 remake of Beau Geste