The film world has lost another legend in 2017 with the passing of Harry Dean Stanton, a staple of the industry dating back to the 1950s. A veteran of both film and the armed forces, Stanton passed away of natural causes on September 15, 2017 and left behind a memorable legacy spanning many films and mediums. Time to take a look back at a great career of iconic films and devotion to the craft. Known as the “Dean of Character Actors”, Stanton may not be a well known name to the average filmgoer, but he filled an important role taking both big and small parts to add to the overall presentation of every film he was a part of.
Harry Dean Stanton was born in Irving, Kentucky as the son of a tobacco farmer and barber and a cook. One of three brothers in the family along with a fourth half-brother Stanton grew up loving the art of acting. He attended Lafayette high School and later the University of Kentucky where he performed at the Guignol Theater under the direction of Wallace Briggs. There he also studies journalism and radio, embracing his talent as a writer but always having the drive to be a performer, whether in music or on stage. With encouragement from Briggs, Stanton left the university and pursued his acting ambitions, studying at the Pasadena Playhouse in California. Prior to his acting debut in the 50s, Stanton was a veteran of the United States Navy. He served in World War II as a cook aboard the Landing Ship Tank USS LST-970. His service coincided with the Battle of Okinama and while he reportedly never saw battle, he did get to experience one of the most famous U.S.-involved conflicts in the 1940s.
Stanton’s career began the way many acting careers do, on television, as he made his debut on the 1954 show “Inner Sanctum”. It wasn’t long before he made the transition to the big screen with a role in “Tomahawk Trail” three years later. Stanton spent the first 8 to 10 years of his career utilizing a shortened name, Dean Stanton, and he was mostly involved in bit roles until the late 1960s when he appeared in “In the Heat of the Night” and “Cool Hand Luke”. In the 1970s he graduated for more prominent roles in iconic films like “The Godfather: Part II” and “Alien”, the later role as Brett becoming one of his most notable early performances with a legendary background story as Director Ridley Scott cast Stanton after he said he didn’t enjoy science fiction movies. It was these roles that introduced him to the public eye, but his best work was yet to come as Stanton would become known as the “Dean of Character Actors”, a name that stuck with him until his death.
The 1980s were the true breakout years for Stanton’s career. He started out strong with roles in the cult classic “Escape From New York”, the Stephen King adaptation “Christine” and the science fiction comedy “Repo Man” where he played alongside rising star Emilio Estevez in a starring role. His true breakthrough role came as the lead in Wim Wenders’ “Paris, Texas” in 1984 after the movie’s screenwriter Sam Shepard, another legend we lost this year by the way, met Stanton at a bar during a film festival in 1983. This interaction opened the door for Stanton to come into his own as an actor, taking on more serious and subtle roles as leading man and allowing him to fully embrace whatever character he decided to take on. In the years to come Stanton appeared in “Red Dawn”, “Pretty in Pink”, and “The Last Temptation of Christ” quickly making him a perennial favorite of noted film critic Roger Ebert.
Stanton road this consistency into the 90s, having permanently adopted his full three-part name by this point, and appeared in 15 full-length feature films over the next ten years including “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me” and “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” before closing out the decade with his first major nominated film role in 1999 as Too-Toot in “The Green Mile” The role earned Stanton a Screen Actors Guild nomination for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture. During this time Stanton also became a more prominent figure on television with appearances in “Dead Man’s Walk” and the television film “Against the Wall”. He also served a one-episode stint on 1993’s “Hotel Room”, which earned him a CableACE Award nomination.
In the 2000s Stanton continued to be a regular presence on the screen, even if viewers may not have realized it, continuing to play a slew of different parts fitting his “character actor” reputation. He appeared in at least one film every year from 2000 to 2009 except for the year 2008 and in total appeared in 19 films in big and small roles during that time. Those films included “The Man Who Cried”, “The Wendell Baker Story”, “You, Me, and Dupree” and “Being Michael Madison”. Stanton became even more notable during this time for his television roles however with a guest appearance in “Two and a Half Men”, the role of the caterpillar in the “Alice and Wonderland” Syfy miniseries “Alice” and he was nominated for a Satellite Award for Best Supporting Actor in a Series, Miniseries or Television Film for his 37 episode stint in “Big Love”. In the 2010’s Stanton slowed down, appearing in only 10 movies between 2010 and 2017 with this year’s “Lucky” being his final recorded role before his death.
What made Stanton such an icon was that his craft allowed him to fill any character role he needed to big or small and he wasn’t just an actor either. In addition to being a devoted performer on stage and screen Stanton was also more than willing to embrace other talents in the public eye. Stanton often frequented night clubs and played many country-influenced covers while appearing in music videos for the likes of Dwight Yoakam and Bob Dylan and also being a frequent collaborator of Kris Kristofferson. In 2013 Stanton was the subject of a documentary called “Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction” that featured Kristofferson and many others who knew Stanton well talking about the actor and his life. Stanton also sang for the film.
While he may not have many awards to his name or iconic roles that many outside of his fan base would know by heart, Harry Dean Stanton was an idol and icon who did it his way and, despite his career as a background actor filling in more obscure characters, he managed to earn legendary status due to the quality of his work and the respect he earned from critics and his peers. A veteran, a powerfully talented actor, and a man many looked to as an example of how to make a career in the art and do it right, Stanton will be sorely missed. To the Dean I say rest in peace and God speed.