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Film

Harry Dean Stanton: The life and times of a true American icon

The evolution of American actor and musician Harry Dean Stanton into a permanent cultural icon had been an inevitable one. Over the course of his extensive career that lasted for more than 60 years, Stanton has appeared in countless film and television productions of varying stature. Roger Ebert famously said that “no movie featuring either Harry Dean Stanton or M. Emmet Walsh in a supporting role can be altogether bad” and he was definitely right for the most part. On what would have been the actor’s birthday, we revisit Harry Dean Stanton’s life and work as a tribute to the immortal legend.

Born in West Irvine, Kentucky in 1926, Stanton grew up surrounded by music. After graduating from Lafayette High School, he studied journalism at the University of Kentucky where he was confused about choosing either writing, singing or acting as a profession. “Singing and acting are actually very similar things,” Stanton once claimed. “Anyone can sing and anyone can be a film actor. All you have to do is learn. I learned to sing when I was a child. I had a babysitter named Thelma. She was 18, I was six, and I was in love with her. I used to sing her an old Jimmie Rodgers song, T for Thelma…I was singing the blues when I was six. Kind of sad, eh?”

Stanton served in the U.S Navy during the Second World War as a cook before going to college, eventually training under Wallace Briggs who advised him to drop out and pursue an acting career. Stanton set out for the promised land of California, working on his skills at the famous Pasadena Playhouse alongside the likes of Dana Andrews. During this period in his life, Stanton toured across the country as a participant in a men’s choir and performed in theatrical productions meant for children. Ultimately, he entered the world of television in 1954 with an appearance on Inner Sanctum before making his film debut in the 1957 western Tomahawk Trail.

Although he had worked with the likes of Gregory Peck and John Ford in the first half of his career, Stanton started drawing attention later on for his characteristic acting style as observable in films like Cool Hand Luke and Dillinger. He also appeared in critically acclaimed masterpieces, including Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather: Part II and Ridley Scott’s Alien. “I’ve worked with some of the best of them,” Stanton reflected. “Not just directors like Sam Peckinpah and David Lynch, but writers like Sam Shepard and singers like Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson. I could have made it as a singer, but I went with acting, surrendered to it, in a way.”

The role that is considered to be Stanton’s breakthrough performance came in Wim Wenders’ celebrated 1984 road film Paris, Texas. In it, Stanton masterfully played the part of a man who embarks on a mythical quest to pick up the broken pieces of his family. It is definitely the performance of a lifetime featuring Stanton at his most vulnerable since screenwriter Sam Shepard intended the role to be demanding and “called for the actor to remain largely silent…as a lost, broken soul trying to put his life back together and reunite with his estranged family after having vanished years earlier.” It is interesting to note that Stanton managed to put up such a fantastic performance even though he experienced debilitating self-doubt, as confirmed by Wenders himself: “We had to hold his hands every evening.”

1984 was an important year in Stanton’s career because it marked a significant deviation from the trajectory that he was on. He also appeared in the cult-classic Repo Man which has now become one of his most admired film roles. Ranging from teen dramas like Pretty in Pink to psychological thrillers like Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths to a cameo in the wildly popular superhero film The Avengers, Stanton’s career has been a formidably versatile one. He has worked with surrealist auteurs like David Lynch as well as the masters of action films like Arnold Schwarzenegger but even in a life of dynamic change, Stanton maintained his own artistic identity.

At the age of 91, Harry Dean Stanton passed away but he left behind a rich and magical cinematic legacy for the rest of us. Even his last film, John Carroll Lynch’s 2017 drama Lucky, proves that he had what it takes to be an artist until the very end. “You get older,” Stanton meditated. “In the end, you end up accepting everything in your life – suffering, horror, love, loss, hate – all of it. It’s all a movie anyway.”

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