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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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: