Who Was Harry Dean Stanton?
Born in 1926 in Kentucky, actor Harry Dean Stanton began appearing on TV programs like Gunsmoke in the 1950s. He quietly built a reputation as a respected character actor via films like Cool Hand Luke (1967) and Alien (1979), and earned praise for his starring roles in the 1984 features Repo Man and Paris, Texas. Stanton remained a recognizable screen presence well past his 80th birthday, particularly for his contributions to the popular HBO drama Big Love. On September 15, 2017, he died of natural causes at the age of 91.
Harry Dean Stanton was born on July 14, 1926, in West Irvine, Kentucky. The oldest son of a tobacco farmer and a hairdresser, he attended Lafayette High School in Lexington, Kentucky, before joining the U.S. Navy, his service carrying him to the Pacific theater as a ship's cook during the 1945 Battle of Okinawa.
Following the war, Stanton enrolled at the University of Kentucky, where he tried multiple majors before catching the acting bug. He subsequently dropped out of school to move to Hollywood, beginning his pursuit of an acting career at the Pasadena Playhouse in 1949.
TV and Film Success
Stanton initially made a living as a singer, his voice taking him across the country with a touring 24-piece choral group. Eventually he worked his way onto television, nabbing parts on such programs as Gunsmoke and Rawhide. The film offers gradually followed, and Stanton appeared in multiple features with his good friend and housemate Jack Nicholson, including Monte Hellman's Ride in the Whirlwind (1966).
One of Stanton's earliest acclaimed performances came in Cool Hand Luke (1967), in which he showed off his vocal abilities as a singing prisoner. In the following years, he quietly built an impressive resume while working for some of Hollywood's most notable directors: In addition to rejoining Hellman for Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) and The Cockfighter (1974), he appeared in Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973), Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather II (1974), Ridley Scott's Alien (1979) and John Carpenter's Escape from New York (1981).
'Repo Man' & 'Paris, Texas'
In 1984, Harry Dean Stanton delivered one of the signature performances of his career in Repo Man, but he earned his greatest acclaim for his headlining role in Wim Wenders's Paris, Texas. Silent for most of the feature, Stanton shined as a man seeking to reunite with his estranged family, his performance accentuated by his hangdog, haunted countenance. Paris, Texas won multiple awards at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival and was soundly praised by critics.
Stanton's moment as a leading man came and went with Paris, Texas, but he continued to make his mark on camera for the industry's top directing talents, including John Hughes in Pretty in Pink (1986) and Martin Scorsese in The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). Stanton also figured in several David Lynch productions, including Wild at Heart (1990) and the cult TV hit Twin Peaks, which also made it to the big screen in 1992.
'Big Love' & 'Twin Peaks' Revival
Harry Dean Stanton continued to work steadily as he passed his 70th birthday, appearing in such films as The Green Mile (1999) and TV programs like Two and a Half Men. In 2006, he landed one of his most acclaimed roles in years, as polygamist sect leader Roman Grant on the HBO drama Big Love. He went on to voice the character of Balthazar the mole in the animated feature Rango (2011), and played a security guard in the superhero blockbuster The Avengers (2012).
Long respected within the industry, Stanton began receiving recognition for his extensive list of credits late in life. Since 2011, the Kentucky-born actor has been celebrated by hometown fans with the annual Harry Dean Stanton Fest in Lexington. In 2013, he was profiled in the documentary Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction, with Kris Kristofferson and Debbie Harry among the famous faces singing his praises.
Not ready to retire and bask in the attention, Stanton continued working at his craft. He made several appearances in the HBO comedy Getting On, and revisited the character of Carl Rodd for Twin Peaks: The Return (2017). His final starring role came later that year in Lucky, a drama about a 90-year-old atheist.
Stanton died of natural causes on September 15, 2017, at the age of 91. Director David Lynch remembered Stanton with these words: “The great Harry Dean Stanton has left us. There went a great one. There’s nobody like Harry Dean. Everyone loved him. And with good reason. He was a great actor (actually beyond great) — and a great human being — so great to be around him!!! You are really going to be missed Harry Dean!!! Loads of love to you wherever you are now!!!”
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