Harry Dean Stanton was an example of an overnight success which had taken decades to achieve and his lived in face reflected the years he had been around before finally getting his break in the award winning film, ‘Paris, Texas’ in 1984 at the age of 58.
Born in 1926 in Kentucky his father was a tobacco farmer and having left school he joined the navy as a cook during the second world war where he saw action in the Pacific. With the war over he went to college to study journalism where he had been interested in being a writer bit also wanted to be a musician but getting bored he dropped out and studied acting at a Pasadena theatre. From 1954 for the next twenty years he struggled and survived on bit parts in TV shows and low budget films although he stared drawing attention in 1967’s ‘Cool Hand Luke’ with Paul Newman but continued working on TV shows afterwards but getting more significant roles in films ‘Kelly’s Heroes’,’ Dillinger’, ‘Farewell my Lovely’ remake and appeared with Brando and Nicholson in ‘The Missouri Breaks’ and had another small role in ‘The Godfather Part2’. He was a good friend of Nicholson’s acting as his beest man in 1962 but after Nicholson’s inevitable divorce they shared a home for two years.
Commercial success finally came his way when he appeared in Ridley Scott’s seminal 1979 horror film ‘Alien’ a role he was initially reluctant to take as it was a ‘monster movie’ but its enormous success bought him to the world’s attention and he went on to appear in ‘Escape from New York’ for John Carpenter and had a lead role in the cult film ‘Repo Man’ yet equally appeared in the teen hit ‘Pretty in Pink’. He also led his own band, first known as Harry Dean Stanton and the Repo Men and later simply as the Harry Dean Stanton Band, playing gigs in L.A. area clubs. Bob Dylan, with whom he worked on Sam Peckinpah’s 1973 film “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid,” was a friend. Another friend was Hunter S. Thompson, and Stanton sang at his funeral.
But it was 1984 where he established himself appearing as the almost wordless man in Wim Wenders Palme D’or winning ‘Paris, Texas’. The writer was Sam Shepherd who he enjoyed getting drunk with one night and complaining about the dearth of sensitive roles he was being offered not knowing that Shepherd was writing the film for him.
It was essentially an art house film but was hugely regarded and he went on to work with directors such as Martin Scorsese (The Last Temptation of Christ) & many of David Lynch’s films including ‘Wild at Heart’,’ Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me’, ‘The Straight Story’ and ‘Inland Empire’.
He never really stopped working for the last 30 years of his life with an eclectic string of films that included blockbusters (Twister, The Avengers), comedies (Anger Management, Down Periscope) to heavy weight dramas ( The Pledge, Midnight Blue) as well as TV series Twin Peaks.
He was ambivalent about everything that life threw at him and though he had a well publicised relationship with Rebecca DeMornay he never married or had any children.
As the late film Roger Ebert once said, ‘No movie featuring either Harry Dean Stanton or M. Emmet Walsh in a supporting role can be altogether bad’ .
Stanton was 91 when he died.