Harry Dean Stanton (1926-2017)
He didn’t have a major role in a film until he was nearly 50-years old, but the late great film critic Roger Ebert claimed:
“No movie featuring either Harry Dean Stanton or M. Emmet Walsh in a supporting role can be altogether bad.”
Stanton, was a great character actor who was the often the best thing in nearly 100 films in a career that lasted six decades. His brusque personality, craggy looks and unique laconic delivery made him a favorite with audiences, and filmmakers. He was a favorite of Wim Wenders, David Lynch and Sam Peckinpah.
He was a working actor, the kind that gets notices but never wins major awards. Stanton was never nominated for an Academy Award or any other acting awards, but he worked in projects that were.
Stanton was born in rural Kentucky in 1926. He served in the U.S. Navy during WW II, mostly in the mess hall. With money from the G.I. Bill, he studied at the famed Pasadena Playhouse after the war.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Stanton worked steadily doing tiny roles in B-movies and television series, mostly Westerns. The first time I made note of Stanton was in director Stuart Rosenberg’s Cool Hand Luke (1967) with Paul Newman as a prisoner who sings the gospel tune Just A Closer Walk With Thee.
Stanton’s hangdog look and long hair made him perfect for the great films of 1970s cinema and the size of his roles increased each year. He played soldiers, farmers and outlaws in Comedies and Dramas, and Noir. He played a gay hitchhiker in Two Lane Blacktop (1971), gangster Homer Van Meter in director John Milius’ Dillinger (1973), a detective in the unnecessary 1975 remake of Farewell My Lovely , an FBI agent in The Godfather: Part II (1974) and opposite Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson in The Missouri Breaks (1976).
He was an excellent singer, and he played a Country Western star who humiliated Bette Midler in The Rose (1979), and a Jazz musician on Francis Ford Coppola’s One From The Heart (1982).
He finally became a star of sorts with two cult films from 1984, as a speed-sniffing car repossessor in Repo Man, a science fiction comedy directed by Alex Cox, and oddly, as Molly Ringwald’s hopeless dad in John Hughes’ Pretty In Pink (1986).
Stanton’s most iconic role was as a mute in Wenders’ Paris, Texas (1984) After getting drunk with writer Sam Shepard, Stanton was offered a lead in a film at 58-years-old. He said in an interview:
“I am finally playing the part I wanted to play. If I never did another film after this, I’d be happy.”
Better roles followed. He played St. Paul in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation Of Christ (1988), and a series of tasty projects for Lynch: Wild At Heart (1990), Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992), The Straight Story (1999), and the best film of the aughts, Inland Empire (2006)
Stanton continued to work steadily through the 1990s and 2000s, averaging three films each year. He repeated his role as a trailer park owner in the 2017 reboot of Twin Peaks. He was a self-proclaimed Prophet in three seasons of HBO’s polygamy comedy Big Love (2006-2011) with the late Bill Paxton, and a demented role in HBO’s dark comedy Getting On.
His final role was a starring one, as a 90-year-old atheist on spiritual journey in Lucky, to be released next week.
Stanton was in a band, The Harry Dean Stanton Band, playing gigs in L.A. clubs.
He is the subject of two documentary films: Harry Dean Stanton: Crossing Mulholland (2011) and Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction (2013).
Stanton never married though he claimed that he might have a few children.