Credit Universal Pictures, via Photofest
Harry Dean Stanton, the gaunt, hollow-eyed, scene-stealing character actor who broke out of obscurity in his late 50s in two starring movie roles and capped his career with an acclaimed characterization as a corrupt polygamist on the HBO series “Big Love,” died on Friday in Los Angeles. He was 91.
His death, at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, was confirmed by his agent, John S. Kelly.
Mr. Stanton 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).
In those roles — as a former criminal bored in the law-abiding world, a 22nd-century space traveler, 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 Mr. Stanton’s “mysterious gift” was “to be able to make everything he does seem immediately authentic.” The critic Roger Ebert once wrote that Mr. 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: Mr. Stanton, the quintessential supporting player, became a leading man.
That year he starred as a wandering amnesiac reunited with his family in Wim Wenders’s “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.”
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.”
Mr. 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 Mr. 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).
Mr. 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 Season 3 finale in 2009, he joked that the show had generated more response than anything else he had done, “except for a couple hundred other movies.”
Mr. 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 “Just 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.
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.
Harry Dean Stanton, A Supporting Actor Who Became A Star, Dies At 91 … NPR
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Actor Harry Dean Stanton was cast in supporting roles for decades, and his weather-beaten face became a fixture on-screen for more than a half-century. With leading roles in the 1980s films Repo Man and Paris, Texas, he became something of a star and a cult favorite. His agent says Stanton died Friday of natural causes in Los Angeles. He was 91.
The 1984 film Paris, Texas opens on a thin, weathered man wearing an old suit and a red baseball cap, wandering the desert with an empty water jug. That’s Stanton, in his first lead role — at age 58. He’s Travis Henderson, a beat-down guy who left his wife years ago, taking their son with him.
He comes back and finds her in a Houston peep show, where he delivers a 10-minute monologue through a one-way mirror. She can’t see him, but gradually, she realizes it’s her husband, telling her the story of his life. The family reunites, and Stanton’s performance as a lead actor — after decades as a character actor — made him a star.
Stanton was born in Kentucky to a tobacco farmer father and a hairdresser mother. He studied theater at the University of Kentucky, served in the Navy in World War II, and then went to Hollywood. With his deep-set eyes and hawk nose he was cast over and over as an outlaw or an oddball.
He appeared in more than 100 TV and film roles, from Cool Hand Luke to The Godfather Part II to the first Alien in 1979. Of course (spoiler alert) Stanton gets eaten by the Alien monster, and that’s the way it was until 1984, when he starred in Paris, Texas and the cult classic Repo Man. Stanton was the Repo Man, Bud, schooling young Emilio Estevez’s character, Otto.
Every once in a while he was cast as a normal guy — he played Molly Ringwald’s father in Pretty in Pink — but that was about it. Stanton was in six David Lynch movies and played the polygamist cult leader Roman Grant on HBO’s Big Love. Occasionally you would hear Stanton sing; music was his other love — he sang and played harmonica onstage and off.
In the 2012 documentary Partly Fiction, Stanton answered some deep questions from his friend and colleague, director David Lynch. His answers were sort of Buddhist and very Harry Dean Stanton. Asked to describe himself, he responded, “Nothing. There is no self.” Asked how he wanted to be remembered, his answer was, “Doesn’t matter.”
It may not have mattered to him, but the rest of us will remember Harry Dean Stanton as a singular presence on-screen.