Harry Dean Stanton, 1926–2017

“Harry Dean Stanton, the character actor with the world-weary face who carved out an exceptional career playing grizzled loners and colorful, offbeat characters in such films as Paris, Texas and Repo Man, has died.” The Hollywood Reporter’s Mike Barnes and Duane Byrge: “Stanton, who also was memorable in Cool Hand Luke (1967), Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), John Carpenter’s Escape From New York (1981) and John Hughes’s Pretty in Pink (1986)—in fact, what wasn’t he memorable in?—died Friday afternoon of natural causes at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.”

Carmel Dagan for Variety:Paris, Texas, penned by Sam Shepard, was the darling of the Cannes Film Festival, capturing not only the Palme d’Or but other juried awards as well. Stanton played Travis, who reconnects, after a fashion, with his brother, played by Dean Stockwell, after being lost for four years. Stanton’s performance in the film was not so much powerful as it was intriguingly, sometimes hauntingly, absent. Roger Ebert said, ‘Stanton has long inhabited the darker corners of American noir, with his lean face and hungry eyes, and here he creates a sad poetry.’”

“Best known as a character actor, Stanton had his share of leading roles as well,” writes Michael Nordine for IndieWire. “None was more moving than Wim Wenders’s Paris, Texas, in which he plays a grief-stricken drifter who attempts to reconnect with his former life. Stanton frequently collaborated with David Lynch, appearing in Wild at Heart,Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me,The Straight Story,Inland Empire, and the just-concluded Twin Peaks revival.”

That collaboration has been close to the heart of two films premiering in recent editions of the SXSW Film Festival. “Four years ago,” I wrote this March, “when Sophie Huber's lovely portrait Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction screened at SXSW, I took it as a fitting farewell from one of cinema's great character actors whose career by that point had spanned nearly sixty years. But of course, Stanton is nowhere near ready to hang his hat . . . On the invitation of writers Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja, another outstanding character actor, John Carroll Lynch, has made his directorial debut with Lucky, a sweet and unabashedly conventional sketch of a 90-year-old loner just now daring to gaze into the great void that awaits us all. . . . As in Partly Fiction, [David] Lynch delivers more than his mere presence in support of an old friend. His Howard is so distraught over the escape of his pet tortoise, ‘President Roosevelt,’ that at one point he even breaks down in tears. Overall, Lucky is a modest contribution to the grand tradition of cinematic ruminations on the inevitable, but that said, I will admit that the moment in which Stanton spontaneously breaks into song at a fiesta had me welling up.”

Variety’s posted a statement from David Lynch: “There went a great one. There’s nobody like Harry Dean. Everyone loved him. And with good reason. He was a great actor (actually beyond great)—and a great human being—so great to be around him!!! You are really going to be missed Harry Dean!!! Loads of love to you wherever you are now!!!” And Variety’s Erin Nyren is collecting tributes from more directors and actors who have worked with Stanton.

“There is indeed a peculiar kind of sadness about Harry Dean Stanton, a mix of vulnerability, honesty and seeming guilelessness that has lit up the screen in his greatest performances,” wrote Sean O’Hagan for the Guardian in 2013. “It’s there in his singing cameo in 1967’s prison movie Cool Hand Luke, in his leading role in Alex Cox’s underrated cult classic Repo Man in 1984 and, most unforgettably, in his almost silent portrayal of Travis, a man broken by unrequited love in Wim Wenders’s classic, Paris, Texas. ‘After all these years, I finally got the part I wanted to play,’ Stanton once said of that late breakthrough role. ‘If I never did another film after Paris, Texas I’d be happy.’”

Last year, Graham Fuller introduced Ingrid Sischy’s conversation with Stanton for Interview: “Born to an itinerant Southern Baptist family in West Irvine, Kentucky, in 1926, Stanton nurtured his gift for singing during a hard Depression childhood. After naval service in the Pacific in World War II, he majored in drama at the University of Kentucky, acted at the Pasadena Playhouse, and toured with the American Male Chorus; music still plays a major role in his life. He began his Hollywood career in Westerns—Tomahawk Trail [1957], The Proud Rebel [1958]—and spent much of the 60s and 70s frustrated by the roles he got. No matter that Hollywood was slow to discover the gentleness in Harry Dean’s persona or that the parts themselves were often small, he shaded each picture he was in. His choices were generally excellent, and it seems unlikely that any other modern American actor has made so many hip movies.”

Screen’s Jeremy Kay notes that Stanton’s final project will be Frank & Ava, “which is in post and chronicles the tempestuous relationship between Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner.”

Updates, 9/16: “Over the phone from his Los Angeles office, David Lynch tells me, ‘It was all Harry Dean. I’d do anything for Harry Dean.’” For the Village Voice,April Wolfe had conducted a series of interviews ahead of the release of Lucky on September 29. Now her piece is a remembrance. “‘It’s the story of Harry Dean,’ David Lynch stated plainly. ‘But it’s called Lucky.’”

“He had a face like a medieval wood cut—angular, cheeks caved in, a twisted thin-lipped mouth and deep-set huge eyes.” Sheila O’Malley for RogerEbert.com: “There was a blankness at the heart of many of his best roles, an almost emptied-out space filled with echoes, reflections, and stillness, making him the perfect projector screen for audience dreams and associations. What was happening behind those eyes? Grief? Endurance? Philosophy? It could be all simultaneously. He made sense staggering through the desert; he made sense on the back of a horse; he made sense in a prison yard; he made sense cruising the nighttime streets in a beat-up gas guzzler. He could be a cowboy, a conman, or a lost romantic soul. No wonder his career lasted over sixty years with no interruption. His friend and colleague Sam Shepard said of him, ‘He’s one of those actors who knows that his face is the story.’”

“It was the slowest overnight success story imaginable,” writes the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw, noting that it was Shepard who “got Stanton the part of his lifetime” in Paris, Texas, even “before the movie was conceived when the dramatist and screenwriter—whose own acting persona was perhaps not so far from Stanton’s—saw in him and that magnificent face a gentleness, sensitivity, gallantry and painful masculinity which expressed his own poetic voice.”

“It’s the movie that imprinted Stanton’s face and presence into my mind, a movie that defined his career as a movie star as much as it did my career as a lover of movies,” writes K. Austin Collins at the Ringer. “Stanton’s face was a place. It instantly called to mind everything he was and everywhere he’d been.”

Last August, Stuart Klawans wrote about John Huston’s 1979 adaptation of Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood for the Library of America: “As for the ‘evil-seeming’ Asa Hawks and the unctuously ‘winning’ street-corner preacher Onnie Jay Holy, what more could Huston want than Harry Dean Stanton and Ned Beatty? The two men might as well not be actors at all, but found objects collaged into the frame.”

“Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel once famously ruled that no movie featuring Harry Dean Stanton could be entirely bad,” wrote Bilge Ebiri, introducing an interview with Stanton for Vulture in 2013. “That spoke to both the veteran actor’s indelible, laconic presence as well as the kinds of offbeat movies that would even bother to cast him in the first place.” Ebiri asked him whether he got a lot of offers after the acclaim for his performance in Paris, Texas. “Yeah, I was offered a series by John Carpenter after I did the movie Christine, and I would’ve been a leading man after that. I would have played a private investigator. And I was offered a great deal—I would be involved in the direction, casting, everything, and whatever. It was whatever an actor wants, and I didn’t take it.” Ebiri: “Why didn’t you take it?” Stanton: “I don’t know, I just . . . I like to do nothing.”

“For most of the 60s, Stanton was a regular in TV horse operas like Laramie,Have Gun, Will Travel,Bonanza, and Rawhide,” writes Ronald Bergan in the Guardian. “Stanton’s film career really took off in the 70s, with two more roles for [Monte] Hellman—Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) and The Cockfighter (1974)—and Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973). Stanton recalled that during the latter, he became friends with Bob Dylan. ‘We hung out quite a bit during the shoot,’ he said. ‘Drove together all the way from Guadalajara, Mexico, to Kansas City together. We jammed together quite a bit.’ Stanton sang with Dylan and Joan Baez in the sprawling film Dylan directed, Renaldo and Clara (1978).”

“Mr. Stanton had an impressive singing voice and toured with a male chorus early in his career,” writes Anita Gates in the New York Times. “He first sang on screen in Cool Hand Luke (1967), doing three numbers, including the hymn ‘Just a Closer Walk With Thee.’ He later formed the Harry Dean Stanton Band, which played rock, blues, jazz and Tex-Mex numbers in Los Angeles nightclubs and on tour.”

IndieWire contributors are revisiting some of their favorite Stanton performances: Michael Nordine on Alien, Kate Erbland on Pretty in Pink, Anne Thompson on Paris, Texas, William Earl on Twin Peaks: The Return, Jude Dry on The Green Mile, and Chris O'Falt on Big Love: “Stanton’s turn as a self-proclaimed Mormon prophet and leader of the Juniper Creek polygamous compound pulled from all corners of his onscreen power. . . . Roman Grant was one of the great villains to emerge from an HBO drama.”

“In the 2012 documentary Partly Fiction, Stanton answered some deep questions from his friend and colleague, director David Lynch,” notes NPR’s Ted Robbins. “His answers were sort of Buddhist and very Harry Dean Stanton. Asked to describe himself, he responded, ‘Nothing. There is no self.’ Asked how he wanted to be remembered, his answer was, ‘Doesn’t matter.’”

RogerEbert.com gathers tributes from its writers.

Updates, 9/17:Repo Man and Paris, Texas arrived in theaters within months of each other in 1984—the year Stanton turned 58—and can be viewed in retrospect as the launch of a remarkable two-year stretch during which Stanton revealed his protean range by portraying several strikingly diverse characters,” writes Joe Leydon in Variety. One of these is “an enigmatic and domineering wastrel who fathered, with two different women, the on-again, off-again lovers played by Sam Shepard and Kim Basinger in Robert Altman’s film of Shepard’s Fool for Love. I had my first and only opportunity to interview Stanton during a 1985 press gathering for Fool for Love, in a Manhattan hotel suite where I initially found him, I regret to say, in a mood alternating between exhaustion and anger.” Leydon describes how he brought Stanton around and got him talking. Leydon eventually moves on to Lucky: “In a way, the movie brings Stanton full circle, back to the desert from which he emerged in Paris, Texas. But this is a different story, and he’s playing a very different character. Indeed, it’s not an overstatement to say that what has turned out to be Stanton’s final starring performance is the performance of a lifetime.”

“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.” Sean O'Hagan for the Guardian: “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.”

Rolling Stone contributors Noel Murray, David Fear, Sean T. Collins, and Brian Tallerico write up a list of “10 Essential Movies.”

Marc Maron’s posted his 2014 conversation with Stanton, followed by his talk with Partly Fiction director Sophie Huber (62’07”).

Updates, 9/18: In the New York Times,Manohla Dargis looks back on Paris, Texas,Repo Man, Monte Hellman’s Ride in the Whirlwind (1966) and Two-Lane Blacktop before turning to Ulu Grosbard’s Straight Time (1978) with Dustin Hoffman, who’s “excellent, but you’re always aware that you’re watching an aesthetic creation built on technique . . . By contrast, Mr. Stanton appears to be playing himself or at least what we believe that self is. . . . Time and again, this sense of genuineness served as a kind of guarantee, proof that he was offering us what seemed like truth rather than something manufactured and plastic, something like Hollywood. Mr. Stanton studied acting, including with Martin Landau who had studied with Lee Strasberg and knew the strength of screen stealth. Mr. Landau once said that ‘how a character hides his feelings tells us who he is.’ Whether Mr. Stanton absorbed this observation into his methodology or just followed his own inclinations, he often did his finest work by tunneling into moments rather than inflating them.”

At Vulture, Charles Bramesco returns to Paris, Texas, wherein Stanton’s Travis Henderson has “finally tracked down his wayward ex-wife Jane to a small-town peep show, where she scrapes together grocery money from the goodwill of area perverts. With a one-way mirror concealing him from her and a landline as their only means of connection, Travis lays out their entire story over ten spellbinding minutes. Director Wim Wenders spends a goodly amount of the scene in close-up on Stanton’s scene partner Natassja Kinski, and you can hardly blame him. Hers is the changing, emotive face, and her realization that the stranger on the other end of the phone is her long-lost love gives the scene its highest peak of feeling. Stanton, however, is the one truly running the show.”

At the Talkhouse Film, Brian McGuire, who directed Stanton in three of his features, has stories to tell. “I got to talking with Harry about his conversations with Marlon Brando. They had talked almost every night for the last three years of Brando’s life, for hours at a time. When I asked Harry if he and Brando ever talked about James Dean, Harry searched his memory, ‘No, I can’t remember, but Marlon did teach me this Shakespearian monologue during one of our chats.’ Before I could respond, Harry launched into the monologue. Harry’s face was about two feet from mine, and he was delivering the most intense performance, nailing every word with truth and precision. This moment has become my absolutely most favorite Harry Dean performance I have ever seen and it will always stay fresh, burned into my mind.”

Update, 9/19: Not too far into his remembrance for Slant, Greg Cwik arrives at Ride in the Whirlwind, “written by and starring Jack Nicholson, for whom Stanton had been best man at his 1962 wedding. Nicholson explained to his friend, ‘I want you to just play yourself.’ Nicholson, three years from his breakout role in Dennis Hopper's Easy Rider, saw in the insouciance and composure of Stanton's acting style something that others had overlooked, and rather than cast him against type, he cast the role of the murderous gang leader, the kind of role that would normally have gone to someone intimidating and a little unhinged, a Lee Marvin or Jack Palance, against actor type. Eventually, Stanton decided to hang his guns up: ‘I wanted to play lovers,’ he said. Though he didn't often, if ever, play romantic roles, he found in his collaborations with David Lynch a painful romanticism, a sense that life, however cruel, would, eventually, offer solace, something in the way of love.”

Updates, 9/21: “For two nights in August,” writes Drew Fortune for Vanity Fair, “Stanton’s closest friends—including Sumonja; Sparks; Rebecca De Mornay; Ed Begley Jr.; John Carroll Lynch; a retired L.A.P.D. cop; and a barfly who goes by Mouse—gathered in Los Angeles to celebrate Harry with two late dinners, long conversation, and a heroic number of after-hours drinks at his favorite watering hole and restaurant, Dan Tana’s. I traveled from South Carolina—and brought along Bret Easton Ellis—to join in the reverie as the crew closed down Dan Tana’s both nights. It was the least we could do.” And Fortune passes along stories and tributes from the celebrants.

“Stanton could be devastating in one-scene roles,” writes Michael Sragow for Film Comment. “In The Rose, as an old-fashioned country star in a crowded trailer, his antennae quiver as he picks up on Bette Midler’s rock diva flirting with his teenage son and casually using curse words like ‘bat shit.’ He bans her from recording any of his songs—a leveling psychological and artistic punishment.” Lucky “pays tribute to Stanton’s ability to convey a rich, funky lyricism via the micro-feelings tugging at the gaunt features of his face, the economic movements of his bantamweight body, and the tangy, sardonic vibrations of his reedy voice. As an actor and a singer, Stanton shares Willie Nelson’s aura of filtering immense emotion through a spindly instrument, and he does it with a lithe bluntness all his own.”

Update, 9/24: “Harry Dean Stanton generally gave the impression he’d rather be someplace else, alone,” writes Tom Charity for Sight & Sound. “He was pissed off with the world, unimpressed with himself, and he didn’t care to hide it. It amused him, rather. Disillusionment carries with it at least the ashes of enchantment, and no matter how tough his bark, or how tightly his thin lips sneered around another smoke, Harry Dean could never entirely extinguish a forlorn smile, the promise of romance buried behind his eyes. He’d give you that blank, flat look, but then he’d pick up a guitar and show you his heart, still breaking.”

Updates, 9/25:Chuck Bowen for Slant on Lucky: “An extraordinary character actor in his own right, director John Carroll Lynch understands that he's in a tricky spot with this pairing of project and actor, recognizing that one of Stanton's great accomplishments is his refusal to indulge the sort of sentimental codger-ism that often grips actors late in their careers. But Lynch also wants to present his star with the figurative gold watch, and so the result is an impeccably acted yet sentimental film that's bashful about said sentimentality—a dynamic that informs Lucky with an unresolvedly sweet-and-sour tonality.”

And Peter Sobczynski interviews John Carroll Lynch for RogerEbert.com.

The seventh annual Harry Dean Stanton Fest takes place in Lexington, Kentucky from September 28 through 30.

Updates, 9/27: Writing for Interview,Sean Penn looks back to a night in 1984: “I remember his first words to me as if he'd spoken them this afternoon. ‘And you are?’ That was the beginning of a friendship that lasted upwards of thirty years.” And “yes, he was an actor's actor. He was even a man's man. But mostly what Harry Dean Stanton was, was the gentlest, kindest, most ornery and philosophical, old bastard any of us ever knew. There was something perfect about Harry Dean.”

Lucky serves as a first-rate showcase for its star as well as an ideal swan song,” writes Mike D’Angelo at the A.V. Club. “The man couldn’t have gone out any better.”

Updates, 9/30:Paris, Texas “is an exemplary artifact of the Reagan years,” argues the New Yorker’s Richard Brody, “an attempt to revive what the critic Greil Marcus later called the ‘old, weird America,’ a heartland apart from the nostalgic mythology that Reagan embodied, peddled, and perpetuated, and to reclaim the country in the name of the romantic but long-suffering eccentricity that Wim Wenders, the director, found in Stanton. The film is motivated by an idea, but Wenders laminates his idea onto his characters and settings, and freezes his actors, especially Stanton, in his narrow—and virtuous—design.”

“That 1984 film, by Wim Wenders from Sam Shepard’s magnificent screenplay, is Stanton’s signal performance, the moonshot in a career spanning more than 200 films, his face etched across the history of postwar American cinema,” counters Christian Lorentzen in the New Republic.

“Stanton always had something of the self-sustaining wanderer about him—the just-passing-through stranger who you get to know and like for a little while but who then disappears, never to resurface again,” writes Danny King in the Village Voice. “The Quad’s thorough current retrospective, Also Starring Harry Dean Stanton—which continues through October 5—embraces the journeyman in all his nomadic glory, checking off the rare commercial hits in which he played small roles (like Ridley Scott’s Alien, from 1979, screening September 30), but more importantly presenting a wealth of the fringe oddities that make up the Stanton canon. The series was in the works well before the performer’s passing but has since been expanded—to the great benefit of mourners and moviegoers.”

RogerEbert.com editor Matt Zoller Seitz has “seen a lot of movies that try to be Lucky—movies about eccentric people in a small town or neighborhood who hang out in bars and coffee shops and have conversations—but very few that have this film’s elegant shape, its sense of when to hang back and listen and when to let the camera tell the story, and when to end a thought and move on to the next one. It’s the humblest deep movie of recent years, a work in the same vein as American marginalia like Stranger Than Paradise and Trees Lounge, but with its own rhythm and color, its own emotional temperature, its own reasons for revealing and concealing things. . . . It's one of the most powerful things I’ve ever seen. I felt that way before Stanton left us. I feel it even more keenly now.”

More on Lucky from Jeannette Catsoulis (NYT), David Ehrlich (IndieWire), Keith Phipps (Uproxx), and Alan Scherstuhl (Village Voice).

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