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Harry Dean Stanton Was More Than a Great Character Actor

Remembering the star of ‘Paris, Texas’ and ‘Repo Man’

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“How would you like to be remembered?” asks the director David Lynch.

“Doesn’t matter,” replies his friend and repeat collaborator, Harry Dean Stanton.

This is one of the more haunting moments in Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction (2012), the impressionistic documentary portrait of an actor who, over the course of more than 200 screen roles, made a career out of seeming, at will, to disappear. His face—those gaunt cheeks and slightly sunken eyes atop that stringbean-skinny frame—are as burned into my memory as that of any Hollywood star. And yet for most of his career, Stanton wasn’t a star—at least not the star he was convinced he would become when he moved to Hollywood in the 1950s following a stint in the Navy during World War II, three years at the University of Kentucky, and time with the Pasadena Playhouse and the American Male Chorus. In the Navy, Stanton got a commendation for “coolness under fire.” It could describe many of the roles that defined his career.

But it didn’t always define his demeanor. His friend, the talent agent and producer Fred Roos, told The New York Times in 1986 that Stanton “always had so much anger and resentment” earlier in his career. “There was a long period when he thought he couldn't get anything but bit parts, and the frustration level was extremely high,” said Roos. “You read interviews with other character actors, and they’re proud of their work, proud of being able to bring a touch of authenticity to a small part. But not Stanton. He kept saying, ‘I have to get out of this.’”

Eventually he did, for a time. At the height of his popularity in the 1980s, Stanton was associated with likes of Sean Penn and the Brat Pack, a notably younger crowd. They were pop-punk; he was Beat era. The love affair didn’t last, at least not as fodder for the news. But it’s worth remembering that this Kentucky-raised, simmering soul was once attached, for a time, to Rebecca de Mornay, and starred in films like Repo Man and Pretty in Pink. He even hosted Saturday Night Live‚ a far cry from the bit parts in forgotten westerns that defined the early chunk of his career.

Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel once famously said that no movie could be too bad if Stanton was in it. True enough, I think. What comes to mind when I think of Stanton, however, aren’t the bad movies his presence elevates, but rather the great ones, made in collaboration with great writers and directors, that his presence catapulted into the stratosphere. I’m thinking especially of Wim Wenders’s Palme d’Or–winning Paris, Texas, from 1984, in which Stanton played Travis, a man who wanders for years in the wake of losing his wife and child through reckless madness. I think of Stanton and my mind comes back, instantly, to that dirt-streaked face buried under the vibrant heat of his red cap, looking out from deep within the heart of the desert toward some untold beyond. All that lies beyond, in Paris, Texas, is grief. Stanton got the part through a chance encounter with the script’s author, the late Sam Shepard. How appropriate it is, in retrospect, that Shepard and Stanton would find each other. They were men of similar quietude, men cut from the same, inwardly raging cloth. It’s no mistake that theirs was a collaboration that would redefine their careers.

Paris, Texas is the first movie I plan to revisit this weekend to celebrate the man and artist Stanton was. It’s the movie that imprinted Stanton’s face and presence into my mind, a movie that defined his career as a movie star as much as it did my career as a lover of movies. Stanton’s face was a place. It instantly called to mind everything he was and everywhere he’d been. More than that, his face was a destination. And it will live on in movies forever.