This past weekend, we lost one of America’s most iconoclastic character actors, Harry Dean Stanton. With nearly 200 films and television projects on his resume, it’s almost easier to list the films he wasn’t in than the ones he made special just by showing up. He was the working actor’s working actor, most recently appearing in this year’s Twin Peaks: The Return and only his second lead role in Lucky. He’s even got a film festival dedicated to him. Stanton always brought his A-Game and was a philosopher poet who suffered no bullshit. He could be a pain in the ass and always wanted to do things his own way, but his way was usually the best way. His acting style was no style. He was nothing in the most Buddhist sense of the phrase. He strove to make his performances as real as those in documentaries. He didn’t act, he simply was the part. Here are the Psycho Drive-In All-Stars with some of their favorite film memories of the late, great Harry Dean Stanton. I had been looking for an excuse to write about HBO’s fascinating and provocative Big Love ever since it ended in 2011. I only wish it were for some other reason than the death of Harry Dean Stanton that I do it now. Big Love (2006-2011) is a rich text. Focused on the lives of a polygamist family living a very modern life in an everyday Utah suburb, the series tackles a great deal. The trials and tribulations of Bill Henrickson (Bill Paxton), and his wives Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn), Nicki (Chloë Sevigny) and Margie (Ginnifer Goodwin) dive deep into the human heart and relationships of all kinds: while the discourse around polygamy in the series mirrors that around same-sex marriage (circa 2006), many of the issues that the family and individual members of the Henrickson face are central to all relationships. Jealousy, the limits of intimacy, household economics, gender equality, sacrifice vs. individual needs, societal pressures, communication, and a hundred other things that we all struggle with in our relationships are worked through in the complicated matrix of a polygamous family. If viewers tuned in for the kind of sensationalism that usually surrounds accounts of modern-day polygamy, creators Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer intentionally disappointed them. Paxton’s Henrickson is no Warren Jeffs (leader of the infamous Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the apostate Mormon denomination that openly practices polygamy in defiance of the LDS’s 1890 Manifesto against such marriages). His father-in-law, Roman Grant, however, played with somnolent malevolence by Stanton is—almost, anyway. Olsen and Scheffer created the character based on Rulon Jeffs, Warren’s father and predecessor as the leader and prophet of the FLDS. Roman acts as the foil to Bill. Where Bill had cast off a great deal of the misogynist beliefs and welfare-defrauding ways of the FLDS community that his father led (until Roman, it is clearly implied, murdered him and exiled 14-year old Bill—as many young men are exiled from such communities), Roman rules not only his family of 14 wives and 185 offspring and his church members as a despot, stealing land and women from any who oppose him. Where Bill struggles to find a balance between his beliefs, the needs of his family, and the modern world, Roman ignores and/or manipulates his supposed faith, his family, and his flock in order to preserve his power and wealth. But the casting of Stanton in the role saves this juxtaposition from being a black-and-white portrayal of the “sides” of polygamy and keeps the audience guessing. Roman does not appear to be a monster, and probably is not–so long as he is not crossed and sees no advantage. Stanton handles the otherwise disturbing relationship between 80 year-old Roman and his soon-to-be 15 year-old wife Rhonda Volmer (Daveigh Chase) without lechery, while still making it clear that her nightingale-like voice might not be so attractive to him were it not for her attendant youth and beauty; we are reminded of the reality of such marriages, but not sickened to the point of looking away. And this whisper of humanity then ensures we are caught off-guard when Roman, who appears, like a snake, to move slowly and with little purpose, lashes out–often with a fatal strike. Throughout Big Love, Paxton (who we also, sadly, lost this year) and Stanton play carefully off each other, not to depict two distinct kinds of polygamy, but to emphasize that the danger is not in the institution itself. Together, they drive home the message that no type of marriage is inherently better or healthier than any other because all such relationships are unique to the people in it. Roman believes his family serves him. Bill serves his family. And though they meet the same fate, it is clear which one of them will eventually be embraced by the Heavenly Father of which both speak. — Laura Akers Wild at Heart struck a profound chord with me upon my first viewing. As a young burgeoning fan of David Lynch and arthouse film in general, it was just accessible enough to act as a gateway drug for more abstract cinema, and it remains a fond memory of my early dalliances with the sort of film I’ve come to love dearly. Harry Dean Stanton was a comfortable and familiar presence here (the guy from Alien! and Christine! and Twister!) among Lynch’s impossible fever dream of fucking, fighting, and falling in love. I didn’t quite get the overarching theme of The Wizard of Oz the first watch through. Sure, I picked up on the overt mentions, but looking back on it later I was particularly amused at Stanton’s role. If Diane Ladd’s Marietta Fortune represented the Wicked Witch of the West, that left Stanton’s Johnny Farragut as a flying monkey. I can almost hear Lynch breaking the news to him, and Stanton not particularly giving a shit. The role works because of who Stanton is. Farragut’s loyalty to and love of Marietta is the only thing overcoming his reluctance, and his morose sad sack approach to his job as a private investigator is a note-perfect addition to the absurd proceedings. He’s a low-life in a cheap suit and Stanton brings a lifetime of cigarette smoke, weathered looks, and unfocused gaze to the character. Farragut is also a bit of an unrecognized hero. He cautions Marietta at every turn that she is making the wrong move. He even speaks up for Sailor, and tells Marietta straight that the man her daughter has fallen in love with is a decent human being. But he does her bidding regardless, reluctantly, with multiple caveats, because he loves her. And that sets Farragut down a path that ultimately leads to his undoing. Had this been any other actor in the role, I might not have mourned the loss of Farragut as anything other than collateral damage to the larger plot, but Stanton’s inhabiting of the character made it a real gut punch. With him dies the hope of anybody talking sense into Marietta, and any chance of her redemption and reconciliation with her daughter Lula. He’s the last good thing on that side of the playing field and beyond him lays only darkness. I’m left with memories of Farragut yipping and barking along with the jackals tearing apart an antelope on the nature documentary he’s watching in his cheap hotel room. Or driving down the road on his way to New Orleans as Them’s cover of “Baby Please Don’t Go” blares, Farragut happily and absentmindedly mumbling and gesticulating along. The song’s chorus an unheeded warning: “Baby, please don’t go Baby, please don’t go Baby, please don’t go Down to New Orleans You know I love you so Baby, please don’t go” — Adam Barraclough Harry Dean Stanton was a treasure find for David Lynch when he chose him for Fire Walk with Me twenty-five years ago, and he’d become something even more integral to the auteur’s changing vision in this summer’s surprise third season of Twin Peaks. His character Carl Rodd was a conduit of information for Agents Chet Desmond (Chris Isaak) and Sam Stanley (a ridiculously young Keifer Sutherland) as they investigated Teresa Banks’ gruesome death in Dear Meadow, Washington. Lynch doubled down on the unsavory archetypes he found for that film in the series revival, freed more than ever from the beautifying constraints of network TV (the most he could do on ABC back in the day was cast some older actors for character parts and put David Duchovny in a dress), and Stanton had a face that looked weathered when he was young. Carl (unlike the corrupt Sheriff’s Office in Dear Meadow) did nothing to impede the fruitless investigation (which resulted in Chet’s disappearance as well), but his role as put-upon manager of Fat Trout trailer park was clear. In the first eerie moment involving Carl, his face goes blank (after grousing about being awoken early and before offering the agents some heart-jolting “Good Morning America!” coffee) when a suffering woman wanders into the abandoned trailer. Lynch cuts to power lines, a numbered telephone pole, the buzzing blue and then black TV screen that signifies the mixed signals of FWWM, and then back to Carl, who explains. “You see, I’ve already BEEN places. I just want to stay here!” Alas, Carl has charges he must protect, whether it’s getting their hot water working or paying their food bills when he finds them in a bind. By the time of Twin Peaks: the Return, he’s mellowed into a sort of trailer park saint. He knows who’s well and who’s sick, and has a stoic calm that hints of so many crises unseen. He seems to accept his own frailty with calm grace. Thus he senses when the tangle of electric wires over the sister park he now manages in Twin Peaks sends out a warning hum, and witnesses a child murdered by a hit-and-run monster. He’s there to comfort the bereft mother, and he’s the only one to see the boy’s spirit ascend, a golden glow, heavenward. As he (and Yaphet Kotto) did for Alien in 1979, Stanton’s very presence and delivery hints at a world beyond the script. For Ridley Scott the two greats channeled class struggle, sexism, and social rebellion into their heated scenes with Sigourney Weaver, and poignancy into Brett’s sad demise while looking for her cat. For Lynch, Stanton evokes a world of class defeatism, poverty, and drug-addicted madness, and he does it with little more than his undeniably wizened charisma. — Shawn Hill Harry Dean Stanton always made me feel at home when I saw him on the screen. A southern man with music in his heart and this weathered, well-worn face that even in his most dire roles still carried a sort of kindness; I always smiled when he showed up on the screen. While he played a part in nearly 200 different films and television shows in a career spanning more than 60 years that included iconic titles like Alien, Red Dawn, and Repo Man, it’s the bit part of Howard in the 1996 comedy Down Periscope that I’ll always think of him in. Stanton, a World War Two veteran who served aboard a Navy LST in the Pacific theater was at home aboard the ancient submarine Stingray as Howard, the ship’s engineer in Down Periscope. Howard was a fixture of the Stingray, something so war-weathered and battered that he fit perfectly with the museum piece that was the diesel sub. Looking at the character you can almost smell that cheap cologne that fails to mask the scent of booze and cigarette smoke exuded from his pores. Howard spends most of his screen time cracking wise and laughing about the angry ineptitude of a young engineer, Stepanak. You could see the ease in which Stanton moved across the set, how he reacted inside the confines of the submarine and the sort of giddy glee on his face at times being aboard the vessel. There were no doubt grizzled old sailors remembered by the actor that helped him create the remarkable, though ancillary character. Harry Dean Stanton had the sort of grounded, down to earth image that allowed him to slip into so many wonderful, colorful characters the way you or I slip into a jacket when it’s cold. There was never a character who felt less than genuine, who didn’t exude this raw humanity and reality when he portrayed them on the screen. In 1999’s The Green Mile, he became another wonderful, though very minor character. As Toot-Toot, the jail trustee in the Stephen King adaptation, he was an old convict who spent his time mopping floors and helping the guards prepare for the execution of the murderers housed in their block. A serious, straightforward drama, Toot was a momentary, dark sort of smile as he stood in for the condemned during the practice runs. A perfect measure of relief from the pathos and reality of the Great Depression Era drama set inside a dismal prison. Stanton, a child of the Depression, seemed natural, at home in the period piece as he shuffled along with the guards almost laughingly saying “Walkin’ the Mile. Walkin’ the Mile.” That was the thing I loved about Harry Dean Stanton on screen, though. No matter the role, big or small, he brought life to it and made it his own. — Dan Lee Harry Dean Stanton had well over one hundred film and TV credits by the time 1984 rolled around, making a name for himself as a respected supporting character actor in genre classics like Cool Hand Luke (1967), Kelly’s Heroes (1970), Alien (1979), Escape from New York (1981), and Christine (1983). But 1984 was the year that he made two of his most impressive and iconic films, two films that not only showed his range as an actor but also captured the spirit of the man himself: Repo Man and Paris, Texas. On the surface, these films couldn’t be more different, one a punk screed against the Reagan 80s and the other a quiet road film set in the heart of Texas. One blasted Iggy Pop and The Circle Jerks, the other embraced Ry Cooder’s slide guitar. Repo Man’s iconic Bud was an arrogant mess, snorting coke, raging against normal people, and pontificating non-stop about the Code of the Repo Man, while Paris, Texas’ Travis was silent and broken, disheveled, lost and struggling, albeit passively at first, to find his way back to civilization and his family. But Stanton is known for never taking a role that didn’t speak to where he was as a person at that time. His approach to acting was to not act, but to be himself in the filmic situation. So how can we reconcile these two characters, both filmed at practically the same time (Repo Man was filmed a little earlier and released on March 2, 1984, with Paris, Texas hitting cinemas on November 1). Bud and Travis are essentially flipsides of the same person; a fragile combination of rage and obsession, innocence and experience. Bud is the father figure that no one needs. He’s hyper-opinionated, an all-around pain in the ass, and quick to anger. At the same time, though, he’s there when Otto needs something to grasp onto as his life quickly turns to crap overnight. He has a twisted sense of honor and refuses to take any shit from anyone, anytime, anywhere. Plus he has nearly all the best lines: “Look at those assholes. Ordinary fucking people. I hate ‘em.” “I don’t want no commies in my car… No Christians either!” “An ordinary person spends his life avoiding tense situations. A repo man spends his life getting into tense situations.” Ultimately, Bud fails to live up to his own expectations, but that’s Stanton for you. He plays the character as damaged from the get-go because everybody is always-already damaged. For all his talk of having a Code, he’s just as flawed and human as the rest of the characters, whether he’s screaming in a fit of road rage or shot and lying on the concrete smoking a cigarette. By all accounts he was a terror on the set, initially refusing to learn his lines, obstinately arguing with Cox at the drop of a hat, and even demanding to use a real baseball bat during one scene and nearly braining another actor before a plastic bat was swapped out. But that’s who he was. He wanted everything to be as real as possible. Travis, on the other hand, spends the first chunk of Paris, Texas silent and traumatized. He’s been missing for four years when he stumbles out of the desert and collapses in a seedy bar. If Bud was all fire and fury building to an explosive fall, Travis is calm and quiet, building to a painful realization of just who he really is behind that hangdog face and frightened eyes. With his memory gone, it takes his brother’s patience to begin to bring him back to the world. In that first act, he’s a blank slate, without language, without connection. All he is is manifest in his desire to keep walking into an empty horizon. All we know about him, we know through his brother, that he’s been gone for four years, his wife is also missing, and his young son, Hunter, is now turning eight and living with Travis’ brother and his wife. His return to language and memory is gradual and endearing. He’s like a child relearning how to interact with people, with the world. The script was written by Stanton’s friend, playwright Sam Shepard (who we also lost back in July of this year) and is perhaps the purest representation of Stanton’s talent that we’ve ever gotten on film. Ultimately, Travis’ journey is about how memory creates identity. Without knowing where he came from or how he got there, Stanton is able to build the character up layer by layer, and by the time he finally reconnects with his estranged wife he is revealed to have had monstrous depths that once again force him away from everyone he loves. It’s a heartbreaking finale and Stanton’s most impressive and honest performance in a career built entirely out of impressive and honest performances. There was literally nobody else like him. He will be greatly missed. — Paul Brian McCoy John Huston’s macabrely comic, utterly perfect, adaptation of Flannery O’Connor’s unfilmable novel Wise Blood lurches and tumbles across the screen. Harry Dean Stanton’s “blind” “preacher” taunts Brad Dourif’s wild-eyed blasphemer, but he taunts me too. Some preacher’s put his mark on you. Did you foller me to take it off or to give you another one? What marks me that I am compelled to follow him? Do I hope the purity he projects will relieve me of a burden, absolve me of a sin? Or do I expect a gift, to learn the secret he always seems poised to divulge but never does? What do I think I’ll find as I pour, fascinated, over every pore of that face? That lugubrious face with the twinkling eyes. That brutal face that flickers with gentleness. That sensitive face that flashes with scorn. That Appalachian face that carries Kentucky with it into Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas and Jack Nicholson’s Beverly Hills. You ain’t come so far that you could keep from follerin’ me, though, have you? Several years ago, the New Yorker ran one of their ‘two guys sitting at a bar’ cartoons with a caption to the effect “I used to have the leading man part in my marriage. Now I have the Harry Dean Stanton part.” In the cartoon, the leading man was named. George Clooney. Tom Cruise. I don’t remember. Someone exceeding targets set by Generally Accepted Attractiveness Principals, making a fortune from being good at their job, and essentially replaceable. Years later I still catch my mind at odd moments toying with the possible ramifications of variations on this cartoon for guy at bar and his family. “I used to be leading man, but now I’m coke head repo man.” “I used to be leading man, but now I’m well-meaning but hapless, irresponsible father.” “I used to be leading man, but now Debbie Harry wrote a song about me.” Wha’d you foller me for? I can’t answer that. I only know I’d be a fool not to. — Marsha Nicholson Share this:TweetShare on TumblrLike this:Like Loading... Related Leave a Reply Cancel ReplyYou must be logged in to post a comment.