‘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

The Observer - - NEWS | WORLD -

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’

Main pho­to­graph by Steve Pyke for the Ob­server

‘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).

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