‘Harry had a well of melancholy. He played drifters and loners – but was far from that’
Following the death of Harry Dean Stanton at the age of 91, Sean O’Hagan recalls meeting an instinctive character actor who seemed to belong to another time
In November 2013, I met Harry Dean Stanton in his room in a hipster hotel on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, the kind of place where kids sat hunched over their laptops in the lobby, sipping flat whites. Upstairs, Stanton had the air-con on full blast in his room and a rolled-up towel laid along the bottom of the door, neither of which stopped the smell of his cigarette smoke seeping out into the corridor. Stick-thin and racked with a nicotine cough, he looked like a guy who, as he put it more than once, “didn’t give a damn”.
Even though I had spent only a few hours in his company, Stanton’s death on Friday affected me in a way that I had not expected, and that deep fondness felt for him by so many strangers was echoed across social media. He belonged, it seemed, to another time, when character actors were also characters: individuals who had lived a bit before they appeared on screen, who had graduated from the school of hard living amid tough times.
“I was in world war two at the battle of Okinawa,” he said. “People who are actors now don’t have that kind of life experience; I saw action on a ship. I was damn lucky I didn’t get blown up or killed. I came back and I went to college. It took a while to fit back in.” But fit in he somehow did, an outsider by instinct and temperament who nevertheless made it as an actor in Hollywood, albeit without ever breaking into the mainstream.
Stanton’s upbringing in rural Kentucky was strict and unhappy, his Baptist father and his mother, a hairdresser, never quite overcoming their differences and the young Harry caught in the crossfire, absorbing their mutual unhappiness.
“My father and mother were not that compatible,” he said, quietly. “I don’t think they had a good wedding night and I was the product of that. We weren’t close.”
He went on to describe how his mother had often frightened him with a black sock as he lay in the cradle. He recounted this, in that soft southern voice of his, as if it were par for the course, part of what he called “life’s great phantasmagoria”.
That sense of stoicism and latent sadness marked all his best performances. You can glimpse it early on in his career as he sings the Christian hymn Just A Closer Walk With Thee in the great prison movie Cool Hand Luke, his young face the image of quiet endurance. It’s there in the several cult classics he appeared in, including Monte Hellman’s existential road movie Two-Lane Backtop, John Huston’s slice of southern Gothic Wise Blood and Alex Cox’s Repo Man .
It’s there in spades in Wim Wenders’s Paris, Texas, the film that propelled him into a brief moment of crossover fame as the terminally broken-hearted Travis mysteriously wandering though the desert in search of his lost love, Jane (Nastassja Kinski). Stanton was an unlikely choice for the role, especially when pitched against the elementally beautiful Kinski, but Wenders must have sensed the well of melancholy he carried and his ability to be, as another maverick director, David Lynch, put it, “always there – whatever ‘there’ needs to be”. For his part, Stanton said: “If I never did another film after Paris, Texas, I’d be happy.”
In person, Stanton was one of those rare individuals who was exactly as you imagine him to be: humble, wise, funny, utterly unconcerned with fame and unburdened by regrets. He lived, he said, by Buddhist principles, which, for him, turned out to be another variation on not giving a damn.
Before acting, he had answered a “singers wanted” ad in his local paper and toured the country with a choral group, singing “on the street, in department stores and town halls”.
The urge to sing had never left him. In the late 1960s, he shared a house in Hollywood with Jack Nicholson, and hung out with rock stars like David Crosby and Mama Cass Elliot in Laurel Canyon. He was close friends with the country singer Kris Kristofferson and told me that he had recorded a Mexican song with Bob Dylan that has never seen the light of day. “He offered me a copy of the tape and I said no. Shot myself in the foot.”
For a time in the early 1990s, Stanton appeared onstage on Monday nights at a club in Los Angeles, singing Irish and country songs with a Mexicali twist. The night I caught him, he sang Danny Boy with tears streaming down his face and it did not look like method acting.
At the bar later, he was besieged by beautiful girls who looked like models and actresses, and a row of drinks grew bigger on the counter behind him as he patiently answered their questions. He smiled wistfully as I recalled that night.
I had gone to see him at the Mint with my friend Seamus McGarvey, now an acclaimed cinematographer, who, as it turned out, worked with the director Sophie Huber on her 2012 documentary about Stanton, Partly Fiction . “His face is like a roadmap of Kentucky,” says McGarvey, “and though he tended to play drifters and loners, he was far from that. There was a depth to him and an openness that is rare in actors. He brought himself into every part he played and often said that anyone could be an actor if they could just be true to themselves.”
Seamus got to visit Stanton in hospital a few weeks ago. “He had suffered a stroke and had just come out of a coma. He was conscious and able to grasp my hand but not speak. It was sad, but this was a man who was fully aware that he had lived life to the full and that, ultimately, it was nothing. That was how he looked at life. I remember when I asked him to sign the poster for Partly Fiction, he wrote, ‘Seamus, you are nothing.’ That was his mischievous humour, but also his philosophy.”
In Partly Fiction, you can catch a glimpse of Harry Dean Stanton’s everyday life as it was played out over the last decade or so. When not working, he spent every night in Dan Tana’s bar in West Hollywood, surrounded by his drinking buddies, fending off curious strangers by telling them he was an exastronaut. “He’s an outsider, but he has lots of good friends,” Huber told me at the time. “He’s happy compared to most 87-year-olds. He says he doesn’t care about dying but some days, I suspect, he thinks about it a lot. You never really know what’s going on in his head.”
There were many times, during our conversation, that this did seem to be the case. He was there, but somehow not there, engaged one moment and adrift in his own thoughts the next. As with his acting, it was hard to pin down what it was about him, apart from that extraordinarily sad face, that was so compelling and yet so elusive.
The last thing he said echoed in my head for days afterwards and echoes even louder in the immediate wake of his death. “You get older. In the end, you end up accepting everything in your life – suffering, horror, love, loss, hate – all of it. It’s all a movie, anyway. [Closing his eyes] ‘A tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing.’ Great line, eh? That’s life, right there.”
‘You get older. In the end you accept everything in your life – suffering, horror, love, loss, hate. It’s all a movie, anyway’
‘His face is like a roadmap of Kentucky’: Harry Dean Stanton in 2013, above; as broken-hearted Travis in Wim Wenders’s Paris, Texas (1984), far left; as crooked repo man Bud in Alex Cox’s 1984 film; with Kurt Russell in John Carpenter’s Escape from New York (1981).