Harry Dean Stanton, Consummate Character Actor, Dies at 91

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Harry Dean Stanton was the king of the character actors. You may not have known his name, but you knew his hangdog face, with its deep-set eyes. For six decades, he was a stalwart of TV and films, racking up about 200 credits and bringing his ornery authenticity to landmark projects from Cool Hand Luke to The Godfather Part II to Alien to The Last Temptation of Christ to The Avengers. He remained a vigorous presence on screen until his death of natural causes on September 15 in Los Angeles at age 91.

Stanton was born on July 14, 1926, in West Irvine, Kentucky. After serving in the Navy during World War II and earning a commendation for coolness under fire, Stanton took to the performing arts at the University of Kentucky at Lexington. Drifting among music, journalism, radio and the stage, he decided to become an actor because, “I thought, if I’m an actor, I can do all of it.”

And indeed he did. He studied at the Pasadena Playhouse in the late 1940s and tried to break into Hollywood. After a decade of playing mostly thugs and desperadoes in movies and TV (starting with an uncredited role as a prison employee in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man in 1955), he started to become a face to watch for. He was the guitar-wielding convict who sings “The Midnight Special” in Cool Hand Luke, a hitchhiker in Monte Hellman’s cult classic Two-Lane Blacktop, an FBI agent in Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather II, the leader of a gang of horse rustlers in Arthur Penn’s The Missouri Breaks, the ill-fated mechanic Brett in Ridley Scott’s Alien, mountebank preacher Asa Hawks in John Huston’s Wise Blood, the Army recruiter who paints an overly rosy picture of military life for Goldie Hawn in Private Benjamin, the informant nicknamed “Brain” in John Carpenter’s Escape From New York, the harmonica-playing patriarch in Robert Altman’s Fool for Love, Molly Ringwald’s self-pitying dad in Pretty in Pink, Paul in Martin Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ, the death-row prison trusty in The Green Mile, and a security guard in The Avengers.

Besides Hitchcock, Huston, Coppola, Penn, Altman, and Scorsese, he worked with such directing titans as Terrence Malick (playing the lead in Malick’s student film Lanton Mills), Sam Peckinpah (who threw a knife at Stanton when the actor ruined a costly shot by jogging past the camera on the set of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid), and Terry Gilliam (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas). He was a favorite of David Lynch, who cast him in Wild at Heart, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, The Straight Story, Inland Empire, and, most recently, his Twin Peaks revival on Showtime.

Stanton’s crowning moment came with his lead role in Wim Wenders’ 1984 drama Paris, Texas, playing an archetypal American loner named Travis, a part for which he was handpicked by screenwriter Sam Shepard. The movie opens with Stanton walking out of the desert, silent for 20 minutes, as if the elements had sandblasted his soul clean. The drama is all in his haunted eyes and ragged face. Travis spends the rest of the film trying to reconnect with his estranged family, but he’s practically an alien visitor from another time, another world. The film won the Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and revitalized Stanton’s career.

In fact, 1984 was a banner year for Stanton. He appeared alongside Charlie Sheen and Patrick Swayze in Red Dawn, playing their martyred father in the Communist-invasion thriller. And he had a lead role opposite Sheen’s brother, Emilio Estevez, in Alex Cox’s cult classic Repo Man, playing Bud, the thrill-seeking car repossessor who teaches Estevez’s Otto the discipline of the Repo Code.

Stanton served as a guru or comrade to countless self-styled rebels and outlaws in show business. In the 1960s, he was part of a group of struggling actor pals who helped each other get guest parts in TV Westerns, an ad hoc job-referral network that included future screen antiheroes Bruce Dern, Warren Oates, and Stanton’s one-time roommate, Jack Nicholson. Years later, Stanton would live in a cabin on Los Angeles’ famed Mulholland Drive, where his neighbors and pals were Marlon Brando (who came over for late-night talks about Buddhism and Shakespeare) and Nicholson (who was so fond of Stanton’s name that he used to write “Harry Dean Stanton” or “H.D.S.” on a surface somewhere in every film). Stanton acted opposite both screen legends in the Western The Missouri Breaks. After Nicholson’s split with Anjelica Huston, Stanton remained friends with her and even attended her 1992 wedding to Robert Graham, where Huston recalled him belting out “Proud Mary” in a duet with Seal.

Sean Penn, as a rising star, admired Stanton so much that he tagged along with him to Cannes (the year Paris, Texas triumphed there) and crashed in Stanton’s hotel room for five days. Penn later paid him back by introducing him to such friends as writer Charles Bukowski and singer/drummer Levon Helm of The Band. (Besides Bukowski, Stanton’s hard-living writer pals included Jim Harrison and Hunter S. Thompson.) Stanton would collaborate with Penn as a co-star of the films She’s So Lovely and The Pledge, as well as an episode of Charlie Sheen’s Two and a Half Men, where Stanton, Penn, and Elvis Costello played world-weary, hard-drinking versions of themselves.

Stanton sometimes put his musical talents, evident in projects from Cool Hand Luke to Big Love, on display in club gigs. In the 60s, he’d accompany future Pat Garrett co-star Kris Kristofferson when the self-styled country outlaw was still a struggling singer breaking into the Los Angeles country-rock scene at the Troubadour. Stanton and Bob Dylan were so close that he used to accompany the Bard when he’d perform songs like “Hava Negilah” on Chabad telethons in the 1980s.

Even as a senior citizen, Stanton seemed to have the energy of someone a third his age. Chronicling Los Angeles nightlife in her book Saturday Night, Susan Orlean wrote that she spotted Stanton, then in his sixties, dancing at a Hollywood club with three Asian girls while talking on a cordless phone. Nicolas Cage, who acted with Stanton in Wild at Heart and directed him in Sonny, marveled at Stanton’s stamina in his seventies when the actor came over to Cage’s house, had some drinks, and straddled Cage’s motorcycle. In his early eighties, Stanton practically stole the HBO series Big Love with his chilling portrayal of creepy, virile, scheming guitar-strumming polygamist patriarch Roman Grant. Stanton never married, though he did have a long-term relationship with much younger actress Rebecca De Mornay in the early ‘80s. One of his final films, Lucky, is set to open September 29.

In 2011, an annual Harry Dean Stanton Film Festival launched in Lexington, where the actor had spent his high school and college years. He was the subject of two documentaries: the 2011 public television doc Harry Dean Stanton: Crossing Mulholland, and the 2012 feature Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction. (Its soundtrack, consisting of ballads recorded in Stanton’s living room, marked his recording debut as a musician.) In Partly Fiction, Shepard was among those who paid him homage, saying that Stanton didn’t really have to act in order to tell a story. Said Shepard, “His face is the story.”

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