Harry Dean Stanton, Quintessential American Actor, Dies at 91
Rarely a leading man, the Kentucky native was memorable in 'Paris, Texas,' 'Repo Man,' 'Alien' and 'Big Love.'
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. He was 91.
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’ 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, his agent, John Kelly, told The Hollywood Reporter.
Stanton was eerily creepy as evil polygamist and self-proclaimed Mormon prophet Roman Grant on HBO’s Big Love, and he partnered regularly with David Lynch, appearing in the director’s Wild at Heart (1990), Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992) and the series' recent return, the 1993 miniseries Hotel Room, The Straight Story (1999) and Inland Empire (2006). (He said he turned down a meeting with Lynch about playing Dennis Hopper’s part as a serial killer in Blue Velvet.)
Stanton was great pals with actor Jack Nicholson, and they roomed together in a Laurel Canyon house on Skyline Drive in the early 1960s. (Nicholson moved in after sharing a place with screenwriter Robert Towne.) They first appeared together in Monte Hellman’s Ride in the Whirlwind (1966), which Nicholson also wrote, and Stanton always said he learned about “acting natural” from that experience.
“Harry, I’ve got this part for you. His name is Blind Dick Reilly, and he’s the head of the gang. He’s got a patch over one eye and a derby hat,” Stanton, in a 2008 interview with Esquire, recalled Nicholson pitching him. “Then he says, ‘But I don’t want you to do anything. Let the wardrobe play the character.’ Which meant, just play yourself. That became my whole approach."
He and Nicholson caroused and worked together in Arthur Penn’s The Missouri Breaks (1976), Man Trouble (1992), The Pledge (2001) and Anger Management (2003). Stanton also became friends with Marlon Brando, another actor from Missouri Breaks, and they engaged in long phone calls for years before Brando’s death in 2004.
Meanwhile, Stanton was an elegant musical performer with an angelic tenor voice. He sang and played rhythm guitar and harmonica in a Tex-Mex band that did weekly gigs at The Mint in Los Angeles. (He also was a regular in front of and behind the bar at Dan Tana's in West Hollywood.)
Stanton played a convict and sang in Cool Hand Luke, coaching Paul Newman’s character on the song “Plastic Jesus.” Years later, he portrayed an Ozark musician in Chrystal (2004).
So it’s no surprise that Stanton bonded with Kris Kristofferson and recommended that his friend work with him in the title role of a former 1960s rock star on the downside in 1972’s Cisco Pike. (It was the country singer’s first leading role.) A year later, he befriended Bob Dylan during the difficult shoot for Sam Peckinpah’s somber Western Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973).
With his hangdog, morose visage and faced etched with crevices, Stanton was known for playing characters of innate sadness or darkness. The omnipresent cigarette dangling from his lips helped with that.
"The great Harry Dean Stanton has left us," Lynch said in a statement. "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!!!"
Stanton had been working for decades as a character actor and was well into his 50s when he got his first lead role, playing Travis, a man and father broken by unrequited love, in Wim Wenders’ classic road movie Paris, Texas (1984).
“After all these years, I finally got the part I wanted to play,” Stanton once said. “If I never did another film after Paris, Texas, I’d be happy.”
Wrote Roger Ebert in a 2002 critique of the film: “Stanton has long inhabited the darker corners of American noir, with his lean face and hungry eyes, and here he creates a sad poetry.”
Stanton also sang on the film’s Ry Cooder soundtrack, performing a haunting Mexicali waltz, “Cancion Mixteca,” in Spanish.
In Alex Cox’s satirical cult sensation Repo Man (1984), Stanton recruits a young punk rocker (Emilio Estevez) to seize cars, just like him.
“Harry is a walking contradiction,” Sophie Huber, who directed the 2012 documentary Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction, said in a 2013 interview with The Guardian. “He has this pride in appearing to not have to work hard to be good. He definitely does not want to be seen to be trying.”
Harry Dean Stanton was born on July 14, 1926, in West Irvine, Ky., a small tobacco-growing community. His father was a farmer and a barber, his mother a hairdresser. Following high school, Stanton served in the Navy as a cook on an ammunitions ship in the Pacific during World War II — he was in the Battle of Okinawa — then enrolled at the University of Kentucky to study journalism and radio arts.
Since 2011, the Kentucky city of Lexington each year has hosted a Harry Dean Stanton Festival.
In 1949, Stanton hopped a Greyhound bus to California to enroll at the Pasadena Playhouse. He performed on L.A. stages and toured as a singer with a Baptist preacher and spent time in New York studying acting with Stella Adler.
Stanton was touring with a children’s play when he quit during a stop in California, deciding to try his hand in television and films. His first credit came in 1954 when he appeared on the series Inner Sanctum, and Alfred Hitchcock gave him a bit part as a Department of Corrections employee in The Wrong Man (1956).
Starting out, Stanton often played menacing black hats or crusty sidekicks on such TV shows as The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin, U.S. Marshal, Bat Masterson, The Rifleman, Johnny Ringo and The Untouchables.
He landed his first significant part as the son of an evil rancher in the Michael Curtiz Western The Proud Rebel (1958), also starring Alan Ladd and Olivia de Havilland.
In Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), Stanton has just a few minutes onscreen — playing a lonely, gay hitchhiker who puts a hand on Warren Oates’ knee — but he’s unforgettable.
The quintessentially American actor was hired by such famed directors as Francis Ford Coppola (1974’s The Godfather: Part II), John Huston (1979’s Wise Blood), Robert Altman (1985’s Fool for Love), Martin Scorsese (1988’s The Last Temptation of Christ), John Frankenheimer (1990’s The Fourth War) and Frank Darabont (1999’s The Green Mile).
His other notable film credits include Kelly’s Heroes (1970), Dillinger (1973), Farewell, My Lovely (1975), 92 in the Shade (1975), Straight Time (1978), Private Benjamin (1980), Red Dawn (1984), Stars and Bars (1988), Never Talk to Strangers (1995), She’s So Lovely (1997) and The Mighty (1998).
More recently, he appeared in The Avengers (2012), Seven Psychopaths (2012) and Lucky — in theaters Sept. 29 — and on the series Getting On at HBO.
He never wanted to be a leading man. “Too much work,” he said.
Except for a brief marriage, Stanton was a bachelor who in the Partly Fiction documentary spoke about the lost love of his life, actress Rebecca De Mornay. “She left me for Tom Cruise,” he says in the film. Deborah Harry, whom he also dated, recorded a 1989 song for him, “I Want That Man.”
His agent said that Stanton "is survived by family and friends who loved him."
Stanton said his religious philosophy was “closer to Taoism or Zen Buddism, because it’s the most practical.” Ruminating about death in a 2013 interview in The New Yorker, he said, “When you’re deep asleep and not dreaming, where the fuck are you? There’s total blackness, it’s nothing, right? So I’m hoping that’s what death is, that it’s all gonna go. I don’t want to deal with any consciousness afterward.”