"When I die," Harry Dean Stanton told me once, "people are going to say, 'I thought he was dead already.'" Typical Stanton – and atypically wrong. Though reports insist that the man actually has died at 91, avid moviegoers know he's always been around when we needed a Stanton fix at the movies. Hell, he made over 200 of them. His latest, ironically titled Lucky, with Stanton starring as an atheist on a spiritual journey, opens in two weeks.
Stanton was known as the quintessential character actor. He hated the phrase. "When you label something, you dismiss it." In big roles and small (he played a lot of those), Stanton always made an impression. In 1984's Repo Man, he instructed Emilio Estevez in the tricks of the trade and espoused a life philosophy: "Look at those assholes. Ordinary fuckin' people. I hate ‘em." If the life of a repo man was intense, so was the life of an actor, at least the way Stanton lived it. "I look like four miles of torn-up road," he said. His stock-in-trade was playing gaunt, hollow-eyed loners on the periphery of most of the action. But, damn, it was Stanton you remembered. I recall him in 1979's The Rose, where he played a country legend lacing into Bette Midler as a Janis Joplin character whose morals he found trashy and whose music he found impure. He gives the brief scene a tornado force that keeps thundering through the whole film.
Stanton was the opposite of an overnight sensation. He was 58 when he finally scored a leading-man breakthrough in 1984's Paris, Texas, directed by Wim Wenders from a script by Sam Shepard and L.M. Kit Carson. He played a Texan who's been wandering for years in the desert, broken by the desertion of his wife (Natassja Kinski) and now trying to reunite with the son he left behind. Stanton barely says a word in the film, but everything he does burns in your memory.
Let's take a break on Stanton the actor for a minute and talk about the off-screen guy who was, to the very end, the coolest dude in the room. Back in the day, he used to bunk with Nicholson, kibbitz with Brando, hang with Dylan. No one who worked or partied with Stanton every forgot him or failed to hunger for more. When I told him this, the actor laughed. "I can barely stand up," he cracked. Didn't matter. Last year he was singing and playing harmonica with Johnny Depp at the first Harry Dean Stanton Award Show (yup, there's one of those); singing was his first and lasting love.
And no matter Stanton's age, new generations always gravitated to him. Why? Critics calls it authenticity; young fans cite his "lack of bullshit." What you saw in Stanton is what you got. In tribute, the comic parody film, Not Another Teen Movie, shows students, including a young Chris Evans, hanging out at Harry Dean Stadium. "I find younger people less conditioned and therefore more alive," Stanton said. "I don't take a paternal or authority position with them; I don't play mentor. I try to relate to them on a peer level. I'm trying to function totally in the moment."
Stanton in later life was impossible to interview; you were lucky if he'd answer about a third of the questions you'd throw at him. Ask about his relationship with actress Rebecca DeMornay as the peak of her 1980's sizzle with Tom Cruise in Risky Business, and you got stone silence. Request details about the time thieves broke into his L.A. home in 1996 and pistol-whipped him, and Stanton would light up a smoke and drift into his own reverie. Mystery was ingrained in the man's DNA. His old Kentucky home was a broken one. His parents divorced, and during WW II, he served as a Navy cook aboard the Landing Ship Tank USS LST-970 in the course of the battle of Okinawa. He studied journalism at college before dropping out to take acting lessons at California's Pasadena Playhouse. Stanton claimed the most important lesson came from buddy Jack Nicholson, who gave him a part in 1966's Ride the Whirlwind. "Jack told me not to do anything – just let the wardrobe do the acting," he said. "It was a great revelation that became an acting principle. To be rather than to do. You have to behave on screen as much as you do in real life."
In the last decade of his life, Stanton's career was still hitting new peaks. He had a long-running role in the first three seasons of HBO's Big Love, winning raves as the Mormon polygamist Roman Grant. David Lynch, a frequent collaborator, invited him to recap his role as trailer park owner Carl Rodd on Showtime's new Twin Peaks series. And by all means revel in Lucky, an indie drama and sort of spiritual sequel to Paris, Texas, in which he slouches toward the unknown and preps to shuffle off this mortal coil. It's a role that sums up his entire career – yes, he even sings –and everything that made the man himself intransigent and indelible. Even the poster is pure Harry Dean: a side-angle photo of his scrawny self standing next to a cactus, wearing only underwear, a straw hat and cowboy boots.
If there is a heaven (Harry didn't believe there was), I'd like to picture him entering the pearly gates exactly like that, pretty much naked in the world with only his mischief and hard-ass attitude to announce him. Harry Dean Stanton had a habit of saying goodbye with these words: "Love ya, mean it."
Right back at you, Harry.