Saturday 16 September 2017
Harry Dean Stanton, who has died aged 91, was a vintage performer, only reaching his full potential in his late 50s.
Billed as Dean Stanton throughout the 1950s and 60s, the narrow-faced, weather-beaten actor with the hangdog expression was probably the busiest actor of his generation. His distinctive features and style proved a godsend for casting directors in search of conmen, misfits, sleazeballs, losers and eccentrics.
In the first half of his career, Stanton made scores of television appearances, mainly westerns, and dozens of films, mostly in brief roles. His face but not his name gained recognition.
That is until he came into more focus in Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) as a downtrodden engineer on the doomed spaceship. Then, in 1984, greatness was thrust upon him when he was given two of his rare leading roles, in Alex Cox’s Repo Man and Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas, which were, understandably, his own favourites. A few years later, he was celebrated by Debbie Harry in the 1989 Blondie hit I Want That Man.
Stanton was born in a small town in Kentucky, where his father, Sheridan Harry Stanton, was a tobacco farmer and barber, and his mother, Ersel, a hairdresser and cook. After leaving high school in 1944, he served in the US navy in the second world war, during which he saw action in Okinawa. He then returned to study journalism and radio at the University of Kentucky, where he became seriously interested in acting after playing Alfred Doolittle in a college production of Pygmalion.
He dropped out of university and headed for California and the prestigious Pasadena Playhouse, where he acted alongside Gene Hackman and Robert Duvall. Four years later, Stanton, who was also an excellent singer, and played the harmonica, bass and guitar, toured the country with The American Male Chorus. In Cool Hand Luke (1967), Stanton got to sing Just a Closer Walk With Me, accompanying himself on the guitar. He also taught Paul Newman the song he sings, I Don’t Care if it Rains or Freezes, Long as I Got My Plastic Jesus.
After touring with the chorus and working in children’s theatre, Stanton headed back to California where he began to get work in films and TV. One of his earliest features was the western The Proud Rebel (1958), in which he played the first of many villains, in this instance, framing Alan Ladd for starting a brawl.
For most of the 60s, Stanton was a regular in TV horse operas like Laramie, Have Gun, Will Travel, Bonanza and Rawhide. In the cinema, he was noticed as an evil outlaw with an eyepatch in Monte Hellman’s cultish low-budget western Ride in the Whirlwind (1965), written and starring Jack Nicholson. (Stanton was best man at Nicholson’s marriage in 1962, and the pair lived together in Laurel Canyon after Nicholson’s divorce in 1968.)
Stanton’s film career really took off in the 70s, with two more roles for 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).
He played an FBI man in The Godfather II (1974), supported Marlon Brando and Nicholson in The Missouri Breaks (1976), and was convincing in Straight Time (1978) as an ex-con, bored with his middle-class existence, who, while lying beside his pool, asks Dustin Hoffman, planning a heist, to “Get me out of here!”.
In 1979 came Alien and John Huston’s Wise Blood, with Stanton excellent as a fraudulent blind preacher in the latter. Stanton then proved his versatility in three comedies: as the smooth-talking recruiting sergeant in Private Benjamin (1980), who gets Goldie Hawn to sign up to the “new” army; as the pathetic chain-smoking dognapping vet in The Black Marble (1980), and announcing that “there are over 100 bodily fluids and I have tasted each and every one of them”, as a medic in Young Doctors in Love (1982).
Stanton’s off-kilter performance in Repo Man, passing on his philosophy of life to his protégé (Emilio Estevez), perfectly gelled with the sensibilities of the tale involving punk-rockers and creatures from another planet. In Paris, Texas, in a role written for him by Sam Shepard, he is first seen walking alone in the Texan desert and does not speak for the opening 20 minutes. Stanton’s attraction to eastern philosophy and spirituality may have helped his still, eloquent performance, brilliantly evoking an outsider, a voyeur of life. “I can’t relate to the Judaic-Christian concept at all,” he once claimed. “It’s a fascistic concept. All fear-based. All about there being a boss. Someone in charge. A creator.”
Stanton continued to reveal his more tender side with several gentle performances such as the guardian angel in One Magic Christmas (1985), as Molly Ringwald’s burnt-out father in Pretty in Pink (1986), and as a sweet-natured, but ill-fated, private investigator – “so clever he could find an honest man in Washington” – in David Lynch’s Wild at Heart (1990). Also for Lynch, he made a touching cameo appearance in A Straight Story (1999) and in the cryptic Inland Empire (2006), he makes the most of his short role as Jeremy Irons’s debauched and broke assistant.
Television offered him the chance to return to his villainous ways as a satanic church leader of a polygamous group in 39 episodes of Big Love (2006-2010). On the whole, the quality of his films declined, but Stanton could always be relied upon to hold audience’s attention, paradoxically, with his understated portrayals. “Usually, I just play myself,” Stanton explained. “Whatever psychological traumas or conflicts I’m going through at the time I try to put into the role. Sometimes it’s quite a feat to pull off, but sometimes it works.” His final film, Lucky, directed by John Carroll Lynch, is due for release at the end of September.
Apart from his busy film schedule, Stanton had a parallel career as a musician, on guitar and singing in The Harry Dean Stanton Band, which played their own mixture of mariachi and jazz. He lived alone in a house on LA’s Mulholland Drive, where his doormat read, “Welcome UFOs”. In 1996, he happened to be home when burglars struck, tied him up and pistol-whipped him before stealing some expensive electronics and taking off in his car. But they were soon apprehended after the car was traced by a tracking device. Stanton suffered only minor injuries. He rarely talked publicly about his private life but, though he never married, he once said he had “one or two children”.
Harry Dean Stanton, actor; born 14 July 1926; died 15 September 2017