Harry Dean Stanton, ‘Big Love,’ ‘Twin Peaks’ Star, Dies at 91

Harry Dean Stanton, the actor with a gaunt, bedraggled look who labored in virtual obscurity for decades until a series of roles increased his visibility, including his breakthrough in Wim Wenders’ “Paris, Texas,” died of natural causes Friday in Los Angeles. He was 91.

The actor was also known for his roles in “Twin Peaks,” “Big Love,” “Pretty in Pink,” and “Repo Man.”

He had a high-profile role as manipulative cult leader Roman Grant on HBO polygamy drama “Big Love,” which ran from 2006-11, and recently appeared as Carl Rodd in the “Twin Peaks” revival on Showtime.

His most recent film, “Lucky,” about an atheist who comes to terms with his own mortality, is set to be released by Magnolia on Sept. 29.

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In 1984, when he turned 58, he not only starred in the Wenders’ “Paris, Texas” — his first role ever as leading man — but in Alex Cox’s popular cult film “Repo Man.” (That year he also had a small role in John Milius’ “Red Dawn,” shouting “Avenge me! Avenge me!” to his sons, played by Charlie Sheen and Patrick Swayze, after being captured by Soviet troops invading America.)

“Paris, Texas,” penned by Sam Shepard, was the darling of the Cannes Film Festival, capturing not only the Palme d’Or, but other juried awards as well. Stanton played Travis, who reconnects with his brother, played by Dean Stockwell, after being lost for four years. Stanton’s performance in the film was not so much powerful as it was intriguingly, sometimes hauntingly, absent.

Roger Ebert said, “Stanton has long inhabited the darker corners of American noir, with his lean face and hungry eyes, and here he creates a sad poetry.”

In the cheerfully bizarre “Repo Man,” he played the boozy repo-biz veteran who takes young punk Emilio Estevez under his wing but provides at-best nebulous guidance: “The life of a repo man is always intense.”

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In 1986, Stanton hit the mainstream when he played Molly Ringwald’s unemployed father in “Pretty in Pink.” Later in the 1980s he played a fiery Paul/Saul in Martin Scorsese’s controversial 1988 effort “The Last Temptation of Christ,” but the actor was among those in the film criticized by many as miscast.

Later film roles included a pair of David Lynch films in the early 1990s, “Wild at Heart” and “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me”; Bob Rafelson’s “Man Trouble,” with Jack Nicholson; “The Mighty,” with Gena Rowlands and Sharon Stone; “The Green Mile”; Sean Penn’s “The Pledge”; Nick Cassavetes’ “Alpha Dog”; and Lynch’s “Inland Empire.”

Stanton was close friends with Nicholson — Stanton was best man at Nicholson’s 1962 wedding, and they lived together for more than two years after Nicholson’s divorce — and the character actor’s first step in emerging from obscurity was a part written by Nicholson for him in the 1966 Western “Ride the Whirlwind.” Stanton played the leader of an outlaw gang; Nicholson told him to “let the wardrobe do the acting and just play yourself.” “After Jack said that, my whole approach to acting opened up,” Stanton told Entertainment Weekly.

In the early ’70s Stanton appeared in films including “Kelly’s Heroes” and “Two Lane Blacktop”; he also had a small role in “The Godfather: Part II.”

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On the shoot for 1976’s “The Missouri Breaks,” starring Marlon Brando and Nicholson, Stanton made a long-term friend in Brando when he courageously dissuaded the increasingly eccentric actor from making a foolish choice in his performance.

The actor played one of the doomed crewmen in Ridley Scott’s “Alien” and a crooked preacher in John Huston’s “Wise Blood,” and he had a fairly significant role in John Carpenter’s “Escape From New York” as Brain, who keeps the machines running in the high-security prison Manhattan has become.

In 1983, Shepard got to talking with Stanton at a bar in Sante Fe, N.M., and later offered him the lead role in “Paris, Texas.” “I was telling him I was sick of the roles I was playing,” Stanton told the New York Times. “I told him I wanted to play something of some beauty or sensitivity. I had no inkling he was considering me for the lead in his movie.” He also worked with Shepard in the 1985 “Fool for Love.”

In a 2011 review of Paolo Sorrentino’s “This Must Be the Place,” Variety said, “Like all great directors who make a road movie, Sorrentino captures the physical location as well as the inner transformation, and in keeping with the genre, he also knows Harry Dean Stanton has to be included.”

Stanton did voice work for the Johnny Depp animated film “Rango” in 2011. In a 2010 episode of NBC’s “Chuck,” Stanton reprised his “Repo Man” character.

Stanton was born in West Irvine, Ky. After serving in the Navy during WWII, he attended the University of Kentucky, studying journalism and radio, and performing in “Pygmalion.” He then pursued an interest in acting by heading to California to study at the Pasadena Playhouse.

He made his small-screen debut in 1954 in an episode of the NBC show “Inner Sanctum.” In another early TV role, he was directed by Alfred Hitchcock in an episode of “Suspicion” called “Four O’Clock.” (The actor was credited as Dean Stanton in most of his early roles to avoid confusion with the actor Harry Stanton, who died in 1978.)

On the big screen, Stanton’s earliest, mostly uncredited work was in Westerns and war pics, debuting in 1957’s “Tomahawk Trail” and appearing in 1959 Gregory Peck-starrer “Pork Chop Hill.” (He also guested on many TV Westerns, including “The Rifleman,” “Have Gun — Will Travel,” “Bonanza,” and “Gunsmoke”).

Stanton also led his own band, first known as Harry Dean Stanton and the Repo Men and later simply as the Harry Dean Stanton Band, and would play pickup gigs in L.A. area clubs. Bob Dylan, with whom he worked on Sam Peckinpah’s 1973 film “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid,” was a friend. Another friend was Hunter S. Thompson, and Stanton sang at his funeral.

The character actor was the subject of two documentaries: 2011’s “Harry Dean Stanton: Crossing Mulholland” and Sophie Huber’s 2013 “Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction,” which featured interviews with Wenders, Shepard, Kris Kristofferson, and Lynch.

He never married, though he has said he has “one or two children.”

Watch “Harry Dean Stanton: Crossing Mulholland” below:

 

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    1. Not now not ever says:

      Got very stoned with him once on a park bench. Lovely man with an ear for language… Always a pleasure to see on the screen and always will be.

    2. TV Viewer says:

      He was also memorable in the important role as the recruiter who gets Goldie Hawn to enlist in Private Benjamin (1980).
      Rest in Peace Mr. Harry D. Stanton who made his appearance on the screen unforgettable and rewarding.

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    4. SalULloyd says:

      PAT GARRETT & BILLY THE KID, 1973

    5. vinni says:

      He played a costarring role in Fire down below opposite StevenSegal.

    6. jose says:

      New MOVIE 2017 update full HD this link [ 4kputlocker.pro ]

    7. What a loss; such a great brooding character actor! The angels will be singing Debbie Harry’s “I Want That Man”…”I want to dance with Harry Dean, drive through Texas in a black limousine…”

    8. Jay says:

      For me he was also memorable as Detective Junkins in John Carpenter’s film adaptation of Stephen King’s novel “Christine.”

    9. Ms Finch says:

      “I’d rather die on my feet than live on my knees”

      -Bud from “Repo Man”

      That you did and for it, I loved you and now salute you. Rest in peace…

    10. Jim Sells says:

      Or they may be removed when you point out a mistake.

    11. Bony H says:

      Paris, Texas features the greatest unrewarded performance in the history of movies — HDS’s portrayal of Travis.
      RIP Mr Stanton. Thank you for that performance and all the others.

    12. Dick Lalonde says:

      …and the Christmas Angel in The Christmas Story.

    13. deannaferguson645 says:

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    14. Bonkolo says:

      To me, the part where he cools himself with Nostromo’s condensation water before getting axed by the Xenomorph will be always iconic.

    15. Pierre Edelman . says:

      Harry Dean was also and briefly in “The Straight Story” David Lynch Picture in the last sequence. I even gave him my “Viper Room” cap as per David’s instructions. He was great as always!

    16. Ruth says:

      Harry Dean Stanton was the ultimate character actor who always gave a true and moving performance. Thanks and may he RIP.

    17. Mark Tarte says:

      He had a fine singing voice, on display in a small role in Cool Hand Luke as “Dean Stanton.”

    18. gamersa2000 says:

      What a sad piece of news. first really remember noticing him in Alien playing, appropriately, a working class crew member of a space mining vehicle. After that it was a process of discovering him in both old movies (The Missouri Breaks, Ride the Whirlwind) and the wonderful rush of films he made after like Repo Man and Paris, Texas. He was never less than wonderful and compelling to watch on-screen and any movie benefited from his presence, He belonged to a great tradition of american actors, like Walter Houston and Gary Cooper, who truly felt as if they possessed a part of the soul of America. I look forward to seeing his final film Lucky when it comes out.

    19. MovieBabble says:

      Everyone should definitely go out and see Lucky now. Not only will he probably get the Academy award, but we should all pay tribute to a true titan in the industry.

    20. Yogi says:

      Cool Hand Luke ?

    21. Mark McKennon says:

      I remember Harry from many roles as a character actor. This quite incomplete and insufficient obit neglects his appearance in The Avengers, asking naked Banner (Mark Ruffalo) if he would like some pants. I first recall seeing him as a hapless bad guy in The Proud Rebel, a late ’50s western with Alan Ladd, a movie more or less (actually, less) of the same stripe as Shane.

      The piece could have offered a lot more detail and clarity that Mr. Stanton had worked with many of the best screen and tv and directing talent of the era. He was a unique actor, steady, earthy, you-knew-what-you-were-getting, no frills and very capable, from the misfit to the villain. You believed every word he said.

    22. Do you have to write in yuppie jargon? Gregory Peck “starrer” and “guested.” Horrible stuff. Otherwise your obituary lacks living intimacy with its subject. Most people encountered Harry Dean Stanton for the first time in a role as a corrupted lawman in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” (1969; I believe.)

    23. Robin Shumaker says:

      Anyone who loves Harry will love this video

    24. iamtrue2bill says:

      I’m very glad I watched the documentary. I think BB Thornton and R Dreyfus are correct. He didn’t really belong in this time. He epitomized America’s past. His face, etched with history, somehow reminded us of what was America, not necessarily what America has been in the 2nd half of the 20th century & beginning of the 21st.
      I didn’t know what a fine singer he was, it was lovely to hear him sing, along with his great harmonica playing! He surely lived life on his own terms. Not much else one can ask for.

    25. KB says:

      I first saw him in Red Dawn, and then in Alien. My mom was the one who pointed him out and told me about how good of an actor he was. I am going to miss him. May he rest in peace.

    26. What a terrible loss. I’m glad his career has touched and entertained so many people. Loved him in Wise Blood and Big Love, and need to see his new (and final) film Lucky as well as the classic Paris, Texas that’s been on my list for ages. A brilliant actor who will be missed. RIP, Harry Dean Stanton.

    27. Randy Turrow says:

      Loved eating dinner with him in the 80’s at Helena’s, as well as, will miss his engaging detailing of world events and women.

    28. so sad to see him go, I always enjoyed him in old episodes of Gunsmoke…

    29. Burt…or Curt….in “Rancho Deluxe”

    30. John says:

      He was a true original.

      RIP

    31. Anita Slater says:

      he also starred in fire down below with steven segal

    32. Joseph John Polockow says:

      So sorry to hear this news. He was such a great actor! Another one gone but never forgotten!!

    33. angel says:

      He also played Gideon the angel in the movie ” One Magical Christmas ” !

    34. My all-time favorite character actor, bar none. (Apologies to Linda Hunt.) The man never, ever turned in a bad performance. Roger Ebert, my favorite critic ever, was also a huge fan and–until they each appeared in a terrible picture–decreed that no movie could be completely bad if it had him or M.Emmett Walsh. Heck, even his face was more interesting than half the performers he appeared with.

      Truly unique in all ways.

    35. Make Mine Stanton says:

      He was perfectly cast in the one-line role in The Avengers of the guy who finds a naked Bruce Banner in his barn after he falls from the sky.

      “Son, you have a condition.”

    36. Alex Meyer says:

      RIP.

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