‘His face was the story’: celebrated character actor Harry Dean Stanton dies aged 91
In the 1960s, Stanton was part of a clique of hard-living Hollywood rebels who also included Jack Nicholson, Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper and various rock stars
Harry Dean Stanton, whose scruffy looks and offbeat demeanour made him a favourite of directors seeking a character actor to add eccentricity or melancholy to the screen, died on Friday from natural causes, his agent said. He was 91.
Stanton, who appeared in some 70 movies and many television shows including Repo Man, Paris, Texas and most recently David Lynch’s reboot of television’s Twin Peaks, died peacefully at Cedars Sinai hospital in Los Angeles, his agent John Kelly said in a statement.
Stanton’s final on-screen role can be seen in the upcoming film Lucky.
In a career spanning 60 years, Stanton’s roles were not always big but were meaningful and could add a special quirk or flavour to a film. Sometimes he said very little in his roles, but with a long, craggy face highlighted by unkempt hair and sad, droopy eyes, Stanton had a strong physical presence and made a point of not over-acting.
“He’s one of those actors who knows that his face is the story,” his friend Sam Shepard, the playwright and actor, said in the 2012 documentary Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction. Shepard himself passed away in July this year at the age of 73.
Stanton credited Jack Nicholson with giving him vital professional advice. Nicholson had written a part for Stanton in the Western Ride the Whirlwind and told him: “Let the wardrobe do the acting and just play yourself.”
“After Jack said that, my whole approach to acting opened up,” Stanton told Entertainment Weekly.
Stanton worked with many of Hollywood’s most notable directors, including Frances Ford Coppola (The Godfather Part Two and One From the Heart), Sam Peckinpah (Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid), Martin Scorsese (The Last Temptation of Christ), Ridley Scott (Alien), and Lynch (Wild at Heart, The Straight Story and Inland Empire).
Stanton could be taciturn to the point of mystery. In Partly Fiction, when Lynch asked him how he would like to be remembered, Stanton replied: “It doesn’t matter.”
Two 1984 films cemented his reputation in Hollywood: Repo Man and Paris, Texas.
Repo Man became an independent cult film favourite with Stanton as a comically grizzled and paranoid car repossession expert trying to pass on his dubious code of ethics to his apprentice.
In Paris, Texas, written by Shepard and directed by Wim Wenders, he played an emotionally broken, nearly silent man trying to put his life and family back together – a portrayal that many in Hollywood thought should have at least earned Stanton an Oscar nomination.
Other notable Stanton movies were Pretty in Pink, The Missouri Breaks, Red Dawn, Escape From New York, The Green Mile and Cool Hand Luke.
In the 1960s, Stanton was frequently seen on US television in classic cowboy shows such as Gunsmoke, Rawhide, Bonanza and Have Gun, Will Travel. In 2008-09 he played a manipulative polygamist on the HBO series Big Love.
Stanton was born July 14, 1926, in West Irvine, Kentucky, to a tobacco farmer father and hairdresser mother who divorced when he was a teenager.
Stanton, who was a cook at the battle of Okinawa during his US Navy service in the second world war, became interested in acting while attending the University of Kentucky and pursued acting at the prestigious Pasadena Playhouse in California.
In the 1960s, Stanton and Nicholson were part of a clique of hard-living Hollywood rebels who also included Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper and various rock stars. Stanton told an interviewer that he and Hopper had a running joke that some of Hopper’s best work – in Blue Velvet and an Oscar-nominated part in Hoosiers – came in roles that Stanton had turned down.
Stanton made a second career of music, playing regularly in Los Angeles and sometimes touring with the Harry Dean Stanton Band, in which he sang and played guitar and harmonica.
Stanton never married but once told an interviewer he had “one, maybe two” sons.