He walked out of the desert, so old but still young, lost but with purpose. He drove through the great Los Angeles nowhere, a man with a code, dying on his feet so he wouldn’t have to live on his knees. And that was just Harry Dean Stanton in 1984, in the dreamy-glorious Paris, Texas and the punk-trippy Repo Man. He was mournful Travis in the former, chatty Bud in the latter, two showcase parts for an actor already in his late 50s. If that was the last year he ever worked, Stanton would still be a film icon. Instead, he worked longer than most people live. He died of natural causes on Friday, Sept. 15, at Cedars-Sinai hospital, at the age of 91. He was just on a TV show, reprising his role as trailer park guardian Carl Rodd in Twin Peaks: The Return. He’s the title character in a new film, Lucky, which will be released in two weeks. He’s gone, but he’s staying.
Stanton was born in Irvine, Kentucky, and served in the Navy during World War II. He had a face for the background, suggested the tough reality just on the edge of the Hollywood lights. He had a career in television, in westerns and crime. He was uncredited for work in a Hitchcock movie, The Wrong Man, and was for some time officially credited as “Dean Stanton.” Tough-guy directors like Sam Peckinpah and John Milius liked him, for there was something so rugged in his features. But he had a good rhythm for comedy, could make his dialogue sound almost improvised. In Cisco Pike, he’s a proudly dissolving musician, grinning towards oblivion. In Straight Time, he’s driven to bank robbery out of suburban boredom. He was the kind of person who gets called a “character actor,” a phrase both dismissive and praiseful, a way of saying “he’s not a star” but also an admission that so few stars can play real characters. He could make everyone else onscreen seem a bit phony, the old-fashioned actors with their perfect diction, the younger performers and their method-y affectations. But he made everyone offscreen seem phony, too, your friends, yourself.
Middle age brought glossier work, and trying to corral his whole legacy from here would be impossible. He was the first person killed by the fully-grown Alien, he was Molly Ringwald’s/your dad in Pretty in Pink, was a compellingly cruel Paul in The Last Temptation of Christ, was Brave Heart Lion in The Care Bears Movie. (He tragically couldn’t Escape From New York.) His brilliant work in Paris, Texas and Repo Man proved he could do anything, make anything look original. He could be wry or unbearably sad, a figure of great fun or some kind of symbol for America.
Frequent collaborator David Lynch often cast him as “all of the above.” In Wild at Heart, Stanton’s Johnnie Farragut has the easy charm of a Humphrey Bogart and the noble-sap vulnerability of Elisha Cook, Jr, except funnier, except sadder. In The Straight Story, he’s an old man at the end of a long journey, saying so much without saying much of anything. In Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, Stanton’s oddly formal, casual, relaxed, manic. He runs a trailer park where a dead woman lived, and death seems to linger all about him. He genially offers coffee, “A Cup of Good Morning America!” and seems unwilling or unable to say some dark secret of the universe. “See, I’ve already gone places,” Carl says, dragging on a circuit, staring blankly toward infinity. “I just want to stay where I am.”
Stanton remained onscreen and would pop up for movie-stealing cameos. He talked to the Hulk for a minute in The Avengers and suggested phantasmagorical horror in a few seconds of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (“DOUBLE CASTRATION!”) and Seven Psychopaths. Alongside fellow character actor M. Emmet Walsh, he inspired film critic Roger Ebert’s famous Stanton-Walsh Rule, which states that “No movie featuring either Harry Dean Stanton or M. Emmet Walsh in a supporting role can be altogether bad.” (Ebert allowed that Walsh had violated the rule with Chattahoochee.) He inspired his own film festival, Kentucky’s Harry Dean Stanton Fest. From 2006-2010, he was the irascible Roman Grant, the leader of a Mormon commune with at least 13 wives, on HBO’s Big Love. Last year, the Vidiots Foundation celebrated him with its inaugural Harry Dean Stanton award, intended to recognize a member of the film community whose body of work has helped define American cinema. A singer and a musician among his many other talents, Stanton performed onstage, accompanied by Kris Kristofferson and Johnny Depp.
Stanton never married and said that he had “one, maybe two” sons when EW’s Karen Valby profiled him in 2006. In an official statement, he was said to be “survived by family and friends who loved him.” He often seemed nonchalant about his own accomplishments. During a memorable guest appearance on Doug Benson’s podcast Doug Loves Movies, he was asked if he thought Ringwald’s character made the wrong romantic decision at the end of Pretty in Pink. His immortal response: “I don’t give a f—.”
It was this no-bull attitude that made Stanton beloved among film fans and filmmakers, but it was his brilliant work onscreen that made him a legend. This summer, Lynch brought him back again as Carl, seemingly as old as anyone has ever been, bearing witness to life’s cruelty but suggesting the alternative. There’s a moment in The Return when he sits on a park bench, sipping coffee, looking at the wind move through the trees. Someday we’ll all be gone, of course, but some things will survive. The wind, the trees, the face of Harry Dean Stanton, bringing us out of the desert again.