Stanton could lift the most ordinary script
LOS ANGELES — Harry Dean Stanton, the shambling, craggy-faced character actor with the deadpan voice, became a cult favourite through his memorable turns in Paris, Texas, Repo Man and many other films and TV shows.
Never mistaken for a leading man, Stanton, who died Friday at age 91, was an unforgettable presence to moviegoers, fellow actors and directors, who recognized that his quirky characterizations could lift even the most ordinary script. Roger Ebert once observed that no movie with Stanton in a supporting role “can be altogether bad.”
He was widely loved around Hollywood, a drinker and smoker and straight talker with a million stories who palled around with Jack Nicholson and Kris Kristofferson among others and was a hero to such younger stars and brothersin-partying as Rob Lowe and Emilio Estevez. “I don’t act like their father, I act like their friend,” he once told New York magazine.
Nicholson so liked Stanton’s name that he would find a way to work his initials, HDS, into a camera shot.
Almost always cast as a crook, a codger, an eccentric or a loser, Stanton appeared in more than 200 movies and TV shows in a career dating to the mid-1950s. A cultfavourite since the 1970s with roles in Cockfighter, Two-Lane Blacktop and Cisco Pike, his more famous credits ranged from the Oscar-winning epic The Godfather Part II to the sci-fi classic Alien to the teen flick Pretty in Pink, in which he played Molly Ringwald’s father. He also guest starred on such TV shows as Laverne & Shirley, Adam-12 and Gunsmoke. He had a cameo on Two and a Half Men, which featured Pretty in Pink star Jon Cryer, and appeared in such movies as The Avengers and The Last Stand.
While fringe roles and films were a specialty, he also ended up in the work of many of the 20th century’s master auteurs, even Alfred Hitchcock in the director’s serial TV show.
“I worked with the best directors,” Stanton told the Associated Press in a 2013 interview, given while chain-smoking in pyjamas and a robe. “Martin Scorsese, John Huston, David Lynch, Alfred Hitchcock. Alfred Hitchcock was great.”
He said he could have been a director himself, but “it was too much work.”
Fitting for a character actor, he only became famous in late middle age. In Wim Wenders’ 1984 rural drama Paris, Texas, Stanton earned acclaim for his subtle and affecting portrayal of a man so deeply haunted by something in his past that he abandons his young son and society to wander silently in the desert.
Wiry and sad, Stanton’s near-wordless performance is laced with moments of humour and poignancy. His heartbreakingly stoic delivery of a monologue of repentance to his wife, played by Nastassja Kinski, through a one-way mirror has become the defining moment in his career, in a role he said was his favourite.
“Paris, Texas gave me a chance to play compassion,” Stanton told an interviewer, “and I’m spelling that with a capital C.”
The film won the grand prize at the Cannes Film Festival and provided the actor with his first star billing, at age 58.
Repo Man, released the same year, became another signature film — Stanton starred as the world-weary boss of an auto repossession firm who instructs Estevez in the tricks of the hazardous trade.
His legend would only grow. By his mid-80s, the Lexington Film League in his native Kentucky had founded the Harry Dean Stanton Fest and filmmaker Sophie Huber had made the documentary Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction, which included commentary from Wenders, Sam Shepard and Kristofferson.
More recently, he reunited with director David Lynch on Showtime’s Twin Peaks: The Return in which he reprised his role as the cranky trailer park owner Carl from Fire Walk With Me. He stars with Lynch in the upcoming film Lucky, the directorial debut of actor John Carroll Lynch, which has been described as a love letter to Stanton’s life and career.
Last year, Lynch presented Stanton with the Harry Dean Stanton Award — the inaugural award from the Los Angeles video store Vidiots presented first to its namesake.
“As a person, Harry Dean is just so beautiful. He’s got this easygoing nature. It’s so great just to sit beside Harry Dean and observe,” Lynch said.