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Harry Dean Stanton: actor who found cult stardom late in life

He made his breakthrough in ‘Paris, Texas’ and thereafter was a strong presence in many films

Anita Gates
Tuesday 19 September 2017 15:13 BST
Stanton in 1970. He was able to make everything he did on screen ‘seem immediately authentic’, according to one critic
Stanton in 1970. He was able to make everything he did on screen ‘seem immediately authentic’, according to one critic (Getty)

Harry Dean Stanton, the gaunt, hollow-eyed, scene-stealing character actor, broke out of obscurity in his late fifties in two starring movie roles and capped his career with an acclaimed characterisation as a corrupt polygamist on the HBO series Big Love.

Stanton, who has died aged 91, spent two decades typecast in Hollywood as cowboys and villains before his unusual talents began to attract notice on the strength of his performances in the movies Straight Time (1978), Alien, Wise Blood and The Rose (all 1979); and Escape From New York (1981).

Stanton (centre) with Tom Skerritt and Veronica Cartwright in 'Alien' (1979) (Getty) (Getty Images)

In those roles – as a former criminal bored in the law-abiding world, a 22nd-century space traveller, 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.

Vincent Canby wrote in The New York Times in 1978 that Stanton’s “mysterious gift” was “to be able to make everything he does seem immediately authentic”. The critic Roger Ebert once wrote that Stanton was one of two character actors (the other was M Emmet Walsh) whose presence in a movie guaranteed that it could not be “altogether bad”.

But he remained largely unknown to the general public until 1984, when the seemingly impossible, or at least the unexpected, happened: Stanton, the quintessential supporting player, became a leading man.

That year he starred as a wandering amnesiac reunited with his family in Paris, Texas, which won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, and as a fast-talking automobile thief training Emilio Estevez in the ways of his world in Alex Cox’s cult comedy Repo Man.

Stanton with Isaac Hayes and Adrienne Barbeau in John Carpenter's 1981 sci-fi classic ‘Escape from New York’ (Corbis/Getty)

If there was any remaining doubt about his newly attained star status, it was eliminated in 1986 when he was invited to host Saturday Night Live. Stanton was never anonymous again, although he continued to make his contributions almost entirely in supporting roles. He played Molly Ringwald’s underemployed father in the teenage romance Pretty in Pink (1986), the apostle Paul in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), a private eye in David Lynch’s Wild at Heart (1990), a judge in Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), the hero’s ailing brother in Lynch’s The Straight Story (1999), a veteran inmate cheerfully testing the electrocution equipment in The Green Mile (1999) and Charlie Sheen’s father in The Big Bounce (2004).

Stanton was cast in one of his best-known roles when he was almost 80: that of Roman Grant, a self-proclaimed prophet with 14 wives, on Big Love, HBO’s acclaimed series about the everyday lives of polygamists. After his character was killed in the third season’s finale in 2009, he joked that the show had generated more response than anything else he had done, “except for a couple of hundred other movies”.

Stanton had an impressive singing voice and toured with a male chorus early in his career. He first sang on screen in Cool Hand Luke (1967), doing three numbers, including the hymn “Juts a Closer Walk With Thee”. He later formed the Harry Dean Stanton Band, which played rock, blues, jazz and Tex-Mex numbers in Los Angeles nightclubs and on tour.

Stanton with Daniel Day-Lewis in ‘Stars And Bars’ (1988) (Rex)

In 2014 he released an album, Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction, consisting of songs he sang on the soundtrack of a documentary about him by the same name.

Stanton was born in West Irvine, Kentucky, a small town southeast of Lexington, in 1926, the son of a tobacco farmer who also worked as a barber, and a cook. After serving in the Navy in the Pacific during the Second World War, he attended the University of Kentucky, where he became interested in drama. Dropping out of college after three years, he moved to Los Angeles and studied acting at the Pasadena Playhouse.

Stanton – who was often billed as Dean Stanton early in his career to avoid confusion with another character actor, Harry Stanton – made his first television appearance in 1954 in an episode of Inner Sanctum, a syndicated mystery and suspense anthology series. His film debut was in Tomahawk Trail, a 1957 western starring Chuck Connors, and for the first two decades of his career westerns were his specialty.

Stanton with Jack Nicholson, his one-time roommate, in 1997 (Rex)

Among the numerous TV westerns on which he was seen were Rawhide, Bonanza and The Big Valley. He was also on eight episodes of Gunsmoke, playing a different character in each. His last western film was Arthur Penn’s unorthodox The Missouri Breaks (1976), starring Marlon Brando and Stanton’s onetime roommate Jack Nicholson.

He remained busy to the end. He had small roles in the 2012 movies The Avengers and Seven Psychopaths, and was in episodes of the HBO series Getting On in 2013 and 2014. This year, he appeared in a few episodes of Twin Peaks: The Return and starred in the feature film Lucky, scheduled for US release this month. He plays a hard-bitten 90-year-old atheist in the movie, which also stars Lynch.

Stanton in 1997. As well as an actor, he was also a singer and guitarist (Getty)

Stanton drew unwanted headlines in 1996 after gunmen broke into his Hollywood home on Mulholland Drive, struck him and tied him up before ransacking the house, stealing cash and electronics and escaping in his Lexus. Two men were captured in a police chase and sentenced to prison.

Even as his profile rose, Stanton expressed some disappointment in his career. “It’s just so frustrating when you’re in a supporting role because you only get to express a part of yourself,” he said in a 1986 interview with the Los Angeles Times. But he was matter-of-fact about his gift. That same year he told The New York Times Magazine: “I know I’ve got the ability to bring a sense of menace to the screen. I have that specific competence, and it’s generally kept me working.”

He then summed up his adult life. “To put it mildly,” he said, “I was just a very late bloomer.”

Harry Dean Stanton, actor, born 14 July 1926, died 15 September 2017

© New York Times; additional reporting by Matt Stevens

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