Harry Dean Stanton 1926 – 2017
A tribute here to Harry Dean Stanton, legendary American cult character actor and unique screen aura who passed away last Friday (Sept 15th, 2017) aged 91.
Born in rural Kentucky 1926, to his father Sheridan Harry Stanton (a tobacco farmer and barber) and mother Ersel (a cook) both of whom had a musical background. Stanton studied at Lafayette High School in Lexington. Following graduation, a stint in WW2 was to follow, where he served onboard a landing ship as a cook during the 1945 Battle of Okinawa.
After the war, Stanton returned to education studying journalism and radio at the University of Kentucky. It was here his first serious furore into acting occurred whilst playing Alfred Doolittle in a college production of Pygmalion. With the acting bug in swing, Stanton decided to abandon his journalism aspirations, dropping out out university and heading to the well-regarded Pasadena Playhouse in California where he acted alongside both Gene Hackman and Robert Duvall.
An excellent singer and musician (harmonica, bass and guitar) Stanton also toured the country with The American Male Chorus before returning to California to hunt for work in TV and film. And so began an unmatchable career dating back 7 decades.
The 60’s would see Stanton emerge as a mainstay in TV in Film westerns all be it often in minor roles. A noticeable exception is the low-budget Jack Nicholson vehicle ‘Ride the Whirlwind’ where Stanton plays the eye-patched antagonist (interestingly Stanton was actually the best man for Jack Nicholson’s marriage in 1962 and the pair lived together for a while following Nicholson’s subsequent divorce in 1968). Another important role of note during the 60’s was Stanton’s performance as a singing convict alongside Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke.
Telly Savalas and Harry Dean Stanton in Kelly’s Heroes 1970 (right)
The 70s would see Stanton’s film career begin to blossom with roles in cult films such as Kelly’s Heroes (Above, 1970), Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), Dillinger (1973), and Cockfighter (1975). A small role as an FBI Agent in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part II would mark the high water mark for Stanton’s mainstream career, that of course, was until Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979).
Alien is of course never bettered science fiction purity and Stanton’s performance as Yaphet Kotto’s laconic blue-collar sidekick ‘Brett’ is perfection crystallised. Let’s be honest with a cigarette end practically affixed to his lower lips, simple-minded sense of humour, and lived-in-looks it’s impossible to visualise anyone else but Stanton playing the role.
Case in point – Brett on cryogenics:
The 1980s would find Stanton in more cult roles working with a new wave of Directorial talents such as John Carpenter (Escape from New York 1981), Alex Cox (Repo Man 1984) and John Hughes (Pretty in Pink 1986).
1984 would find Stanton in his first major leading role as the drifter Travis Henderson in Wim Wenders ‘Paris, Texas’. It’s haunting and hallucinatory film, that ironically Stanton only found himself cast in after a heavy drinking session with the film’s writer Sam Shepard (sadly, also recently deceased).
Extremely well regarded by critics with a score of 8.1 on IMDB ‘Paris, Texas’ is probably Stanton’s most defining role. Talking to the Los Angeles Times Stanton commented he was “finally playing the part I wanted to play. If I never did another film after this, I’d be happy”.
Though not a huge commercial success (it’s an art house flick) Wenders film would bring Stanton many plaudits and further increase his stock later teaming him with Hollywood A-listers such Martin Scorsese (The Last Temptation of Christ 1988), Frank Darabont (The Green Mile 1999) and most notably David Lynch.
Stanton would forge a tight bond with Lynch collaborating multiple times including Wild at Heart (1990), Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992) The Straight Story (1999) and Inland Empire (2006). Indeed Stanton’s final work this year includes reprising his role as trailer park owner Carl Rodd in the latest Twin Peaks series.
Upon Stanton’s passing Lynch commented:
““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 would continue to act through the 21st century and though his output would slow somewhat and find him occasionally cast in films of variable quality. Though even in lesser ventures his effortless screen presence and understated charm command attention.
On his approach to acting Stanton said this:
“Usually, I just play myself. 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.”
Stanton’s final film ‘Lucky’ (directed John Carroll Lynch) follows the spiritual journey of a ninety-year-old atheist, it’s due for release at the end of September, see the trailer below.
Harry Dean Stanton, actor; born 14 July 1926; died 15 September 2017