Harry Dean Stanton's Friends Gather at His Favorite Hollywood Bar for One Last Toast
"The day he died, Harry Dean Stanton was trending on Twitter — though Harry wouldn't have given two shits about that," says John Carroll Lynch of the actor, who died Sept. 15 in L.A.
Actor Harry Dean Stanton died Sept. 15 at the age of 91. His longtime friend, actor Dabney Coleman, remembers how Stanton commanded the respect of his fellow actors.
Harry Dean changed the dynamics of any room I ever saw him in. He came on at the end of the second season of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, as I did, and created quite a stir. I first saw him rehearsing on the far side of the room, and everyone just kind of stopped and started looking in his direction. It's like when Ted Williams used to take batting practice at spring training, 10 years after he retired. He was an old man of 50 or 60, and every player would put down their bats and balls and watch him take batting practice. There was something of that with Harry Dean, especially in his later years.
Everybody, for some reason, wanted Harry Dean's approval — whether it was professional or just social, whether you were shooting the shit or trying to solve a scene and make it work. And that's just a fact. That was part of his magic, his mystique. If you want to break it down, they respected his acting, the way he approached things, his patience, his wisdom.
Onscreen, he wasn’t acting. It was real behavior. It was the quintessential Stanislavski method technique, which I think all good actors aspire to whether they know it or not. He was a behavior expert and a reality expert. It took one’s breath away. He was well-equipped to do it with the best of them. Some of them had the chance to do it with bigger and better parts, but he was as good as anybody in terms of his behavior and his honesty on the screen.
We saw each other often at Dan Tana's. They had a little spontaneous get-together the night he passed, and it was nothing more than a few of his friends got the idea that everybody would meet for a so-long drink, and it was packed with all of his close friends. No one who was close to him was not there.
John Carroll Lynch — who directed the new film Lucky, opening Sept. 29, in which Stanton has the starring role as a man confronting his own mortality — recalls how Stanton committed to the revealing role.
I met Harry Dean through Dabney Coleman. My friend Drago Sumonja directed a beautiful documentary called Char·ac·ter, in which Dabney Coleman interviewed his friends like Harry about acting. Drago introduced me to Dabney, and if you met Dabney, eventually you were going to meet Harry because they were close friends. And so I met Harry at Dan Tana’s — he was hysterically funny in a way where you never knew if he was messing with you or not.
Drago wrote Lucky with Logan Sparks, who had worked with Harry on and off as his assistant; Lucky was written with only Harry in mind. It was inspired by his life and who he was as a person. And it had to be done in short order. Harry was vital enough to play it, agile enough, smart enough, but you never know when that window was going to close. And that’s kind of what the movie is about.
Harry plays a character called Lucky who’s lived in this small desert town in Arizona for an untold number of years. He sees himself as the de facto sheriff — he walks the streets for exercise, but also because he has a beat, places he likes to go. It’s a strong routine that’s interrupted when he falls down in his kitchen. And while there’s nothing wrong with him, it sets up a period where he thinks about his mortality, perhaps for the last time. It really creates psychic havoc. The havoc isn’t settled by bucket-list moments, but rather by really going inward and finding some kind of meaning.
As we were readying the project and going through the script with Harry, there came a moment where he really dug in and it became real for him. He was investing like an actor does. As the shoot went on, because the material was so intimate to him, there were many times, because he is such an intuitive actor — he wants to work at a level where he’s not acting at all — when he became nervous about how material from his own life was going to be reflected in the film. But for any actor, when there are moments when you are really revealing yourself, those are the hard times. And there was a lot of him revealed in this shoot — not just his worldview, not just stories from his life, but also his physical body. And it creates a circumstance where you see this incredibly vital person also in an incredibly fragile time. It created a relationship that is very beautiful.
Harry saw pieces of the film, but he didn’t see the whole movie. He wanted to wait until he could see it on the big screen. He wasn’t going to travel to SXSW, where the movie premiered, or the Locarno Festival in Switzerland. The Locarno people really wanted him to come and were even going to talk to Swiss Air if it would be possible for him to smoke in first class. But he did see the trailer and knew he was being feted.
The day he died, Harry Dean Stanton was trending on Twitter — Harry wouldn’t have given two shits about that. But as I look back at his work in the film and at his work over the years, he was just so willing to be present in front of the camera. It’s not like he doesn’t do anything. He does a lot. But what he does seems to be entirely interior, and the camera reflected that.
A version of this story first appeared in the Sept. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.