I’ve been traveling and haven’t had a chance until now to recognize the life and career of the actor Harry Dean Stanton, who died this month at the age of 91. Coincidentally, Harry Dean was on my mind because I had just watched his masterpiece Paris, Texas on the flight to my vacation destination, and I was preparing to watch the screener for his last film, Lucky, to be released in the Bay Area next weekend.
Once of the most noticeable of the prolific character actors, he improbably became a leading man at age 58 and, in his 80s, starred as the menacing leader of a polygamist cult in Big Love. I’ll be writing about Lucky tomorrow.
Harry Dean was a great favorite of mine – and of many other cinephiles. Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel once posited that a movie could not be entirely bad if Harry Dean Stanton were in it. Harry Dean often seemed like that uncle/neighbor/mentor who had Lived A Life but would let you inside and let you learn from his journey. He was ever accessible and always piqued the audience’s curiosity about his characters.
Harry Dean Stanton garnered 200 screen credits, including scores of 1960s TV shows. He appeared on seemingly every TV Western: Rawhide, Bonanza, The Big Valley, The High Chaparral, The Virginian, Laramie, The Rifleman, Bat Masterson and Stoney Burke. Think how many times we Baby Boomers must have seen him in The Fugitive, Adam 12, Mannix, Combat!, The Untouchables, and even The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin.
In the early 1970s, I first really noticed Harry Dean for his quirkiness, singularity and forlorn humor in his sidekick roles in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid and The Missouri Breaks. That’s when you had to sit through the end credits to find out who that actor was.
Along the way, he made three Monte Hellman cult films (Ride the Whirlwind, Cockfighter, Two-Lane Blacktop) and was friends with fellow Hollywood outlaws Warren Oates and Jack Nicholson. He shared a house with Nicholson for a while (can you imagine?).
Also a fine musician, Harry Dean left us with touching vocal renditions of Just a Closer Walk with Thee in Cool Hand Luke and Volver, Volver in Lucky.
In 1984, at the age of 58, Harry Dean Stanton broke through in two wonderful lead performances. He played the old school mentor of the punk Emilio Estevez in the cult film Repo Man. And he made his masterpiece, Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas.
In Paris Texas, Harry Dean plays Travis, a man so traumatized that he has disappeared and is found wandering across the desert and mistaken for a mute. As he is cared for by his brother (Dean Stockwell), he evolves from feral to erratic to troubled, but with a sense of tenderness and a determination to put things right. We see Travis as a madman who gains extraordinary lucidity about what wrong in his life and his own responsibility for it.
At the film’s climax, Travis speaks to Jane (Natassja Kinski) through a one-way mirror (she can’t see him). Spinning what at first seems like parable, Travis explains what happened to him – and to her – and why it happened. It’s a 20-minute monologue so captivating and touching that it rises to be recognized as one of the very greatest screen performances.
Kinski, Stockwell and the child actor Hunter Carlson are also exceptional. Paris, Texas is available on DVD from Netflix and streaming from Amazon, iTunes and FilmStruck.
We’ll miss you, Harry Dean.