The iconic character actor will be sorely missed by fans and admirers.
It’s difficult to argue with the observation that anyone — repeat, anyone — who makes it to the age of 91 has lived a full life. But some lives are fuller than others, and some careers are nothing short of awe-inspiring. Harry Dean Stanton long ago achieved the status of movie icon, and could boast a résumé listing film and TV roles over a period of seven decades. Still, for those of us who are long-time fans and admirers, that wasn’t quite enough. When Stanton passed away Friday — yes, at age 91 — we could not help feeling devastated. Partly because we lost such an irreplaceable actor, and partly because — well, because now we won’t get any more Harry Dean Stanton movies.
Rolling Stone film critic Peter Travers wrote last weekend: “‘When I die,’ Harry Dean Stanton told me once, ‘people are going to say, “I thought he was dead already.”’ Typical Stanton — and atypically wrong. Though reports insist that the man actually has died… avid moviegoers know he’s always been around when we needed a Stanton fix at the movies. Hell, he made over 200 of them. His latest, ironically titled Lucky, with Stanton starring as an atheist on a spiritual journey, opens in two weeks.”
A native of West Irvine, Kentucky, Stanton was born July 14, 1926, and served with distinction in the U.S. Navy during World War II. (At one point, he was a cook aboard a tank-landing ship in the Battle of Okinawa.) During his childhood in Lexington, he said during a 1985 interview, “I sang barber shop harmony, and sort of got into performing. And it just came naturally. Then, when I was in college after the war, I did a play, Pygmalion, by George Bernard Shaw. And from then on, I knew that’s what I wanted to do.”
Stanton attended the University of Kentucky for three years — and often supported himself by picking cotton — before heading to California to study at the Pasadena Playhouse. He made his movie debut in Revolt at Fort Laramie (1956), leading to a decades-long career as a journeyman character actor in film and television.
Throughout the 1950s and ’60s, when he billed himself as Dean Stanton to avoid confusion with actor Harry Stanton, he appeared as a featured player in many TV westerns, including Bat Masterson, Johnny Ringo, The Big Valley, The Texan, The Rifleman, eight episodes of Gunsmoke, and four episodes each of Rawhide, Laramie, and Zane Grey Theater.
Stanton went on to make memorable impressions in movies as diverse as Cool Hand Luke, Ride in the Whirlwind, The Missouri Breaks, Dillinger, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Two-Lane Blacktop, Rancho Deluxe, 92 in the Shade, and Red Dawn. While praising Stanton’s range and skill in a New York Times obituary, writer Anita Gates noted “the strength of his performances” in the films Straight Time (1978); Alien, Wise Blood and The Rose (all 1979); and Escape From New York (1981): “In those roles — as a former criminal bored in the law-abiding world, a 22nd-century space traveler, a street preacher pretending to be blind, a devastatingly cruel country-music star and a crazed demolitions expert — his look and his down-home voice were the same, but his characters were distinct and memorable.”
But Stanton did not land his first starring role in a film until 1984, when German-born filmmaker Wim Wenders cast him in the critically acclaimed drama Paris, Texas as Travis Henderson, a man who wanders out of the Texas-Mexico desert after years of self-imposed exile and attempts to reunite with his estranged family. “When Mr. Stanton first appears in Paris, Texas,” film critic Manohla Dargis wrote this week in a tribute to the actor, “Travis looks as emptied out and stunned as you would expect of a man tramping in the desert with too little water. Gradually, though, as the story opens up, Mr. Stanton fills Travis with tremors of feeling and fugitive smiles. By the end, this shadow has become a man who is as substantial as the rocky land through which he once staggered and, much like Mr. Stanton himself, a kind of monument.”
But even after the back-to-back successes of Paris, Texas and Repo Man — the cult-fave 1984 comedy in which he played a prodigiously intense auto repossessor — Stanton gravitated back to supporting roles almost exclusively for the remainder of his career, playing everything from the kindly but forlorn father of Molly Ringwald in Pretty in Pink (1986) to a skeptical apostle in The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), a sad-eyed guardian angel in One Magic Christmas (1985) to a security guard startled by a fleeting encounter with the Incredible Hulk in The Avengers (2012). Off camera, he frequently gave concerts as a singer and musician with his own band, performing an eclectic mix of blues, rock, and Tex-Mex folk songs. And on television, he enjoyed a late-career renaissance on the cable drama series Big Love and, more recently, David Lynch’s bizarre Twin Peaks reboot.
Fittingly enough for his final major screen appearance, Stanton returned to the desert, and played not just the lead but the title character, in Lucky, director John Carroll Lynch’s amusing and affecting comedy-drama, which had its world premiere last spring at Austin’s SXSW film festival and will kick off its theatrical rollout September 29 in New York and Los Angeles before expanding nationwide.
Stanton gives what can only be described as the performance of a lifetime as Lucky, a doggedly self-sufficient eccentric in an off-the-grid desert town who, despite his proudly independent streak, appears to enjoy more often than not his interactions with neighbors and acquaintances. (Chief among the latter: David Lynch, stepping onto the other side of the cameras to play, wonderfully well, the anxious owner of a runaway pet tortoise.) Having outlived and out-smoked all of his contemporaries — Stanton was 89 during the 18 days of filming, and Lucky appears to be in the same ballpark — he finds himself at the precipice of life, thrust into a journey of self-exploration and heading, he hopes, toward achieving a goal that is too often unattainable: enlightenment.
Don’t misunderstand: This film was not designed to be Stanton’s swan song. But as I noted in my Variety review of the film: “Everything Harry Dean Stanton has done in his career, and his life, has brought him to his moment of triumph in Lucky.” Think of it as a graceful exit for a movie legend who, even at 91, has gone too soon.