by Jason F. Koenigsberg
Now this is sad news indeed. One of our most beloved character actors Mr. Harry Dean Stanton has passed away at age 91. Known for always having an old, weathered, working class look, with a sad resting face and big ears, Stanton worked as an actor for years mostly an unknown in obscure movies until he really hit his stride in the late 70’s and early 80’s with memorable roles in Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas (1984) and the John Hughes production Pretty in Pink (1986) where he really made an impression as Molly Ringwald’s heartwarming single father. From that role he gained a lot of attention from critics, audiences and most important for his wallet, casting directors. From that point on Stanton received a lot more lucrative and high profile jobs. Stanton remained busy acting right until his final days. His memorable appearance and restrained acting talent led to him appearing in over 150 film and television credits
His newest film Lucky is due to be released on September 28th has already garnered much praise from the festival circuit. It is the story about a man who is an atheist coming to terms with his own mortality. One of the rare times Harry Dean Stanton played the lead in a film and appropriately it is his swan song and possibly reflects his own experiences. Hopefully Lucky will be a fitting final chapter to one of cinemas most endearing faces for the past half century.
Born in 1926 in Kentucky, Harry Dean Stanton served as a cook in the US Navy and was on board a landing ship during the battle of Okinawa. His first acting credits did not come until 1957 and his first appearance in major hit movies with big stars came in Cool Hand Luke (1967), Kelly’s Heroes (1970) and The Godfather Part II (1974) where he shared a scene with Al Pacino during his Senate hearing. Go back and watch it and you cannot miss Harry Dean Stanton on the screen during Michael V. Gazzo’s pivotal questioning by the committee. After that he worked steadily and then in 1979 Stanton was cast as Brett in the sci-fi horror classic Alien where his character had the unfortunate fate of being the xenomorph’s first victim in cinema history, a big deal since the Alien franchise has become such a long lasting saga to this day. Other than John Hurt who also passed away this year meeting his demise from a facehugger and the alien popping out of his stomach, Harry Dean Stanton will always be the first actor to have a virulent encounter with the xenomorph. Dozens of other actors, big and small, have followed in his footsteps.
After the success of Alien the 1980’s saw a huge ascension in Harry Dean Stanton’s career. He got bigger, meatier supporting roles in Private Benjamin (1980), two John Carpenter movies, Escape from New York (1981) and Christine (1983), and John Milius cast him in the controversial cold war action film Red Dawn (1984). Bigger name directors started to take notice and give Stanton not just supporting but lead roles. In 1984 he was cast as the lead opposite Emilio Estevez in Alex Cox’s Repo Man, and Wim Wenders cast him as the lead opposite Nastassja Kinski in Paris, Texas. The latter would be considered his best lead performance of his career. In Paris, Texas Stanton plays a drifter who has been missing for four years and comes out of the desert and must try and reconnect with society, his family and most importantly himself.
His next big role was as a widower and single father to Molly Ringwald in the previously mentioned hit movie Pretty in Pink. From this point on in the mid-80’s Harry Dean Stanton sort of became a household name. Those that do not remember actors names, all certainly knew his familiar face and demeanor. He made such an impression in Pretty in Pink that years later in the spoof comedy Not Another Teen Movie (2001) they named the football field Harry Dean Stadium. That along with the cleverly named Anthony Michael Dining Hall were two of that films best jokes.
Then after his Pretty in Pink fame, with a brilliant bit of casting he wound up with the role of Saul/Paul in Martin Scorsese’s religious epic The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). It is hard to imagine another actor in this role and that is because all of the actors were cast more for their voice and accents as much as their appearance. Scorsese wanted the actors playing Jews to be tough and sound like they were from the street so he cast New Yorker’s Harvey Keitel as Judas and Victor Argo as Peter the Apostle. For the Roman’s he wanted them to sound more educated and eloquent as higher ranking members of society, so it was pertinent that David Bowie with his English accent played Pontius Pilate. Harry Dean Stanton as Saul, and later Paul, was from a different part of Canaan so Scorsese wanted an actor with either a Southern accent or Southern roots. The Last Temptation of Christ is one of the best films for everyone involved and remains one of the more underrated Scorsese pictures. Pick up the Criterion Bluray or DVD and see this film.
After working with Martin Scorsese, Harry Dean Stanton linked up with another one of the best directors at the time and scored a big role in David Lynch’s Palme d’Or winning dark comedy Wild at Heart (1990). Stanton would go on to become part of the David Lynch acting troupe and would collaborate with him several more times on Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992), The Straight Story (1999), Inland Empire (2006) and most recently was seen in Showtime’s Twin Peaks revival where David Lynch directed all 18 episodes. Lynch has gone on record stating that Harry Dean Stanton is one of the kindest and warmest people he knows. He loved working with him and considered Harry a dear friend.
In between all those times working with David Lynch Harry Dean Stanton remained busy as a character actor starring opposite some of the biggest names in show business, like Kelsey Grammer in the naval comedy Down Periscope (1996), Steven Seagal in Fire Down Below (1997), Tom Hanks in The Green Mile (1999), Johnny Depp in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) and John Travolta in A Civil Action (2001). He also shared scenes with Jack Nicholson in The Pledge (2001) and Anger Management (2003) with Adam Sandler. He and Nicholson were friends going back to 1966 when they met filming Ride the Whirlwind, and was Best Man at Nicholson’s wedding to Sandra Knight.
Stanton had a memorable part as Bruce Willis’s father and Emile Hirsch’s grandfather in the true crime drama Alpha Dog (2006). He even popped up in the mega blockbuster The Avengers (2012) as a security guard where he asks The Hulk if he is an alien, movie lovers rejoiced at that inside joke. Plus he had a scene in the Arnold Schwarzenegger comeback vehicle The Last Stand (2013) where he is on a tractor! That alone should sell you on that movie. Harry Dean Stanton with a shotgun on a tractor, what more can you ask for?
He also had successful roles on television as a vile cult leader on HBO’s Big Love from 2006 to 2011 and the aforementioned Twin Peaks return which had it’s final episode a few weeks ago. Film critic Roger Ebert admired Stanton so much that he created the “Stanton-Walsh Rule” that no film starring Harry Dean Stanton or M. Emmet Walsh could be “all that bad”. He later stated that Twister (1989) and Dream a Little Dream (1989) were clear violations of this rule. The first time he gave a movie featuring M. Emmet Walsh a negative review was not until Wild Wild West (1999). Harry Dean Stanton was everything you could ask for in a character actor, his familiar face was always heartwarming even when he was being devious. Stanton was always memorable and enhanced every film and television show he starred in. This man will be greatly missed.
Here is a touching tribute to the actor. This was made in July 2017 before he passed away.
Here is David Lynch explaining why he loves Harry Dean Stanton.
And here is the trailer for Lucky