Dean Stockwell: Compulsion on Broadway

Found some cool images of the 1957/58 Broadway production of Compulsion.

Compulsion, the novel, was written by Meyer Levin and became a bestseller. It’s based on the Leopold and Loeb case, although he changed all the names – morphed a couple characters together – and was primarily interested in the psychology of that relationship. He goes into great detail – the king/slave sexual fantasies that Leopold and Loeb acted out and what they meant in terms of the power dynamic, what they signified – etc.

Photo of Leopold and Loeb going off to prison

Levin adapted his novel into a script, which then went into production for Broadway. It was a hot property, one of the bestsellers of the day. The script was very much true to the novel and did not shy away from some of the details that the eventual film would not be able to mention (the gay relationship, the S&M factor, etc.) However (and I said this before) – when you do see the film, the “gay” is being played so specifically – both actors are playing the subtext, playing what was cut out … It’s amazing how overt they actually are about it. Like when Loeb (Artie) cuts his hand in a rage after he hears about the glasses being found. Watch Stockwell’s hovering response to it, taking out his handkerchief, running to his side… We don’t even need language. They’re boyfriends. Plain and simple. But apparently it was much clearer in the Broadway script, much more overt (same thing happened with the film adaptation of Streetcar where Blanche’s husband betrayed her in a way left unsaid … where it’s quite clear in the play that she found him with another man).

Roddy McDowall played Artie Strauss (or “Loeb”) on Broadway – and Dean Stockwell played Judd Steiner (or “Leopold”) – the role he would eventually re-create in the film. Roddy McDowall did not do the film, which pissed Stockwell off. He loved working with McDowall and has been quite vocal about how brilliant he thought Roddy was in the part. The handsome Bradford Dillman played McDowall’s role in the film (and, oddly enough – Dillmann originated the role of Edmund in Long Day’s Journey Into Night on Broadway – it made him a star – and it was the same role that Stockwell eventually would do in the film version in 1962). Ah, the tangled webs. From what I can gather – Dean Stockwell, child star, graduated from high school, went to college for one year, dropped out, changed his name and then drifted about the country, doing odd jobs. Cherishing the anonymity. He had hated his years as a child star. He yearned for pimples and awkwardness and gangliness – because that would mean he wouldn’t have to be the cute little dude anymore. But regular life didn’t suit him either, regular jobs were not for him. At age 20, 21, he went back to work in Hollywood. Did a couple movies. Then a girl he was dating, an actress, gave him the book Compulsion and told him about the upcoming Broadway production. Stockwell had been looking for good roles, something he could really doCompulsion was a hot property, everybody wanted to be in it. Stockwell didn’t have to campaign for it, though – Alex Segal (director) called him up and asked him to read for it, saying that he had in mind the role of Judd for him. Stockwell was not a big reader – not that he didn’t like books, I just mean that he didn’t like to ‘read’ for parts, he doesn’t feel that he can really show up and do his thing when he’s reading – but Segal insisted, so Stockwell ‘read’ for the part. It went great, and Segal offered him the part.

Stockwell, a California-born-and-bred guy, a person raised on movie lots – moved to New York for the rehearsals. He suffered in the city like a caged bird. He suffered so badly that he came down with the Asian flu – part of a huge epidemic at the time where people were dropping like flies. The show had to open without him and his stand-in did the previews. Stockwell recovered – and did the run of the show, getting great reviews. Walter Kerr wrote: “There are scenes that catch hold in their first few moments and seem to explore every nuance of disturbed and disturbing minds. Dean Stockwell, for instance, draws his mouth taut, freezes his shoulders, and – in gasp after fearful gasp – wrings from himself the truth of his relationship to a ‘master’ he has chosen to serve. The grinding arrival at self-knowledge is chillingly drawn.” Frank Aston wrote of McDowall and Stockwell, “They’re magnificent, these lads.” Stockwell had a tough time during the run of the show, despite the accolades. He wasn’t used to having to REPEAT things night after night after night – at least not in the way you have to on stage. He was a movie actor primarily, although he had been on Broadway before as a little boy. The stress of putting himself through the play every night wore away at him. He hated the city. He had a tiny apartment, and he hated the lack of space, the dirty air, the garbage – He would rent a car on his days off and drive out into Pennsylvania or whatever. He hung out at jazz clubs all night. He sat in on one acting class at the Actors Studio and walked out in disgust halfway through the class. He dated people. Tried to preserve his energy for the show each night (the script was way too long – most of the criticisms had to do with the bloated script) – and tried not to let the city get him down too much.

I love the film (wrote about it here) – but, of course, i would have loved to see the live production.

Found some stills from the show below. I love the thought of these two former child actors, who grew up in the studio system, getting educated in the studio classroom, having no childhood, no freedom … on Broadway together, starring as Leopold and Loeb. Pretty neat.

Clippings below (some other recognizable names in the cast. Joan Croydon, for one. Barbara Loden, as well – an actress who would go on to marry Elia Kazan).

Oh, and I know how obsessive I am but when you look at the last picture below – obviously of the trial scene – find Dean Stockwell sitting in the back, beside McDowall. And notice the gesture. Ahhhh, continuity, humanity.

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11 Responses to Dean Stockwell: Compulsion on Broadway

  1. Brendan O'Malley says:

    Hey Sheil…

    Great shots. Boy, those Leopold/Loeb fellas have had their story told over and over and over…

    Have you ever seen “Swoon”? Great movie.

    And “Rope”? Wow.

    I played “Brandon” in Rope in high school and I remember the actor with me was really good, a kid named Tom Hull. We never talked about it at all but the relationship is ABSOLUTELY obvious.

    We did some heavy stuff at SK! The same year I did “Rope” we did “A Hatful of Rain”. I played a murderer and a morphine addict! Junior year!

  2. red says:

    Bren! I remember you in Rope – you were fantastic. Great production for high school!!

    Love Rope – and yes, I saw Swoon. There’s something about the relationship between those two murderers that endlessly fascinates.

  3. Erik says:

    Sheila, back when I used to act, I did this play called “Leopold and Loeb: A Goddamned Laff Riot,” that I wish you could have seen. There were two actors playing Leopold and two actors playing Loeb, and I played everyone else: Clarence Darrow, Robert Crowe, little Bobby Franks (the kid they killed), even Meyer Levin. L & L were such fascinating messed-up kids. Anyway, I’ve read the original Broadway script for Compulsion and it WAS way too long, and kind of a mess (like L&L), but I bet Stockwell was great in the production.

    I think Nathan Leopold loved Dicky Loeb, and that Loeb didn’t love him back–but he used that love to get what he wanted. I think Loeb was the sociopath, the one who was into the “thrill” of it all. And Leopold had problems of his own, but I think he felt justified in all of the things he did because it was for the guy he loved. It’s been so long since I had my head wrapped up in the whole case, but that’s my take on it now.

  4. red says:

    Erik – wow, that play sounds amazing!!

    yeah, I think even at the end of Leopold’s life he idolized loeb as the most amazing man he had ever met – kept a picture by his bed, etc.

    Loeb seemed to be the one who was into being a criminal mastermind – and Leopold had the whole Nietzsche thing and wanted to ‘serve’ a Superman. So Loeb became that for him.

    I’m fascinated by the psychology of it all – I really am. How 2 people can be rather harmless on their own – but together can become monstrous.

  5. red says:

    Oh, and it does sound (from what I’ve heard) that Leopold was the one who pushed their relationship sexually – Leopold would pay Loeb to have sex with him. Or bargain with him, like “3 times a month you will allow me to do THIS to you” – and Loeb was kind of passive about it. There was all that bit about how low Loeb’s sex drive was – he was impotent with most girls, was very underdeveloped (I was amazed to find out that he still had a bunch of baby teeth during the trial – and never shaved) – and Leopold had a high sex drive – so Loeb just gave in.

    Does that ring a bell?

    And I do wonder how Loeb really died. It’s unclear – I had always heard that he had made an advance and the dude slashed his throat – but I do wonder about what really happened.

  6. Erik says:

    What you said about Loeb being underdeveloped and still having his kid teeth–that’s such a great detail because I feel like they were “playing” at being criminal masterminds (like kids playing cops and robbers), only their game had real consequences.

    And you’re right–I don’t think they would have killed if they’d never met each other, their meeting was like the perfect storm of psychosis. Like they both spurred each other on. Leopold throwing all of his Neitzche Superman ideas into the mix, and his sexual bargaining tactics–and Loeb throwing in the kind of jazzy excitement of kidnap and murder.

  7. steve on the mountain says:

    Damn. Now I’m pissed in retrospect that Roddy wasn’t in the movie. I never knew about the Broadway play.

  8. red says:

    steve – I know! wouldn’t that have been something to see? Dillman did a fine job, I thought – but I would have loved to see McDowall.

  9. Nicole says:

    You may not know it, but Michael Constantine played the the “Clarence Darrow” role when Frank Conroy became ill. Constantine was the dad in My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Also, Dean was very sick when the show opened. There was a terrible and even deadly flu going around and he caught it. The show didn’t run very long and Meyer Levin was a little too involved in the production, though I don’t know many details about that.

    I agree that Roddy McDowell should have been in the film. The actor who took the role wasn’t very convincing as a teenager. Roddy, who was older, was still a better choice. Dean was the only one in the cast to make it to the film.

    Dean’s performance was exquisite especially when he was unable to commit to the assignment given by the Loeb character. He was to rape a girl that he liked and he couldn’t do it. In the play/movie, the character sees it as a failure and Dean portrays that with such intensity and confliction. It’s a remarkable scene. You can see him vascillate between knowing in his heart that the rape is wrong and thinking he failed his “Superman” philosophy of life. It’s quite a lovely thing to watch – well, not lovely in that it is very frightening.

    Anyhow, you keep writing about Dean! He’s a highly overlooked actor.

  10. red says:

    Nicole – I so agree with you about the attempted rape scene – the terror and tragedy of it – yes, it is lovely – but just in the fact that it is acted so well and so sensitively. Amazing.

    I did know that Conroy had had a heart attack and I did mention the Asian flu thing in the post – sounds like it was quite an arduous run. And then there were all of the legal brou-hahas – with Leopold suing Levin and all of that.

    Fascinating. Thanks for your well-informed comment – always nice to hear from a Stockwell fan!!

  11. The Books: “Are You Anybody?: An Actor’s Life” (Bradford Dillman)

    Next book on my “entertainment biography” shelf: Are You Anybody?: An Actor’s Life, by Bradford Dillman One of the side effects of being obsessed with Dean Stockwell, is that you suddenly find yourself needing (yes, needing) to buy the autobiography…

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