Now is the season of Harry Dean Stanton’s content. After an apprenticeship of nearly three decades, he is no longer numbered among Hollywood’s character actors, those hard-working cogs whose faces and roles are more memorable than their names.
With anonymity only a bad memory, Stanton has just completed work on Slam Dance, in which he plays opposite Tom Hulce, and John Sayles has talked to him about starring in one of his coming films. And earlier this year, three movies featuring Stanton opened almost simultaneously.
Recently, celebrity has also come to Stanton in other ways—his friendships with several members of the well-publicized “brat pack,” his appearances on ‘“Late Night With David Letterman,” and even a gig as guest host of “Saturday Night Live,” where, instead of delivering the traditional opening monologue, he belted out a blues number with the house band.
The 60-year-old Stanton’s rise is unusual for his breed of actor. Supporting performers do not ordinarily attract powerful agents or managers; nor can they afford to throw high-visibility parties; and they must audition several times a week, thus living with constant rejection. Their pay may range up to $25,000 per picture, but when they do get a break, they are usually cast in the same sort of generic roles—mothers, the hero’s best friend or small-time villains. Most characters actors are stuck in such niches for life. Harry Dean Stanton is one of the few lucky ones.
On a warm afternoon not long ago, Stanton, wearing an old denim work shirt, Levi’s and deck shoes, sat on the sofa in his Mulholland Drive home high above Los Angeles, dispensing shopping instructions to a woman assistant to buy a present for his maid. “Get Maria something nice,” Stanton said. “Spend $200, $300. She works so hard.” Then, in a nearly incredulous tone, he added, “I’m not rich, but for the first time in my life I have money.”
Lean and leathery, with a face dominated by hollowed cheeks and deep-socketed brown eyes, Stanton possesses the hard and hungry look of a man who knows about living on the run. No surprise that he has long played tough guys, psychopaths, criminals. Somewhere along the line, he even began to live like a marginal character. His house, a small wooden structure that clings to the hillside, is the epitome of a disheveled bachelor pad.
The bedroom contains a mattress on the floor and not much else; save for a beer or two, the kitchen refrigerator is usually empty. In these spartan quarters, Harry Dean Stanton—despite all evidence to the contrary—clung to the hope that some day he would stop playing murderers, rapists, switch-blade brandishing punks and other snarlers.
After his assistant had been given her marching orders, Stanton slipped on a pair of half-glasses and located the script for Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart, a movie he had turned down.
‘“They wanted me to play a corrupt Southern senator,” Stanton said. “I could have really scored with it, but I would have been a heavy. There’s a scene where the character they wanted me to do kicks the hell out of a black kid, and that’s why I didn’t take it. The role is superbly written, but it’s gotten debilitating over the years to have people say to me, ‘You’re the bad one. You’re the one who gets shot.’ Give me a break for a change. I know I’ve got the ability to bring a sense of menace to the screen. I have that specific competence, and it’s generally kept me working. But I don’t want to do anything else that’s life negative.”
Standing up, he walked to the fireplace. Outside, it was 85 degrees, but a roaring fire was burning, “for company.” For a long time, Stanton stared into the flames.
It is all now finally beginning to change for Harry Dean Stanton. After an apprenticeship of nearly three decades, he is no longer numbered among Hollywood’s character actors, those hard-working cogs whose faces and roles are more memorable than their names. With anonymity only a bad memory, he has just completed work on Slam Dance, in which he plays opposite Tom Hulce, and John Sayles is talking to him about starring in his next film. Earlier this year, a trio of movies featuring him opened almost simultaneously.
In Robert Altman’s Fool for Love, Stanton is the deranged, ornery, but ultimately benevolent “Old Man,” father to both Sam Shepard and Kim Basinger. In Pretty in Pink, he plays Molly Ringwald’s dad. In an episode of Showtime’s Faerie Tale Theater directed by Francis Ford Coppola, he is that most innocent of American folk heroes—Rip Van Winkle. These were quickly followed by Disney’s One Magic Christmas, in which the actor portrays an angel named Gideon.
Recently, celebrity has also come to Stanton in other ways—his friendships with such members of the well-publicized “brat pack” as Madonna and Sean Penn, several appearances on Late Night with David Letterman, and even a gig as guest host of Saturday Night Live, where instead of delivering the traditional opening monologue, he belted out a blues number with the house band.
Stanton’s rise is unusual for his breed of actor. Supporting performers do not ordinarily attract powerful agents or managers, nor can they afford to throw high-visibility parties. They must audition several times a week, thus living with constant rejection. Their pay may range up to $25,000 per picture, but when they do get a break, they are usually cast in the same sort of generic roles—mothers, the hero’s best friend, or small-time villains. Most character actors are stuck in such niches for life.
Prior to 1983, the year everything changed for him, Stanton’s 50 or so film credits read more like a rap sheet than a resume. After breaking into the movies in a 1957 western, he was picked the following year to play a villain opposite Alan Ladd in The Proud Rebel, and the type was cast. What followed was a cinematic crime spree—films like Hostage, Day of the Evil Gun and so on. And during the 1960’s, there was no respite in his television work—each guest spot reprised the tough-guy act that provided his bread and butter.
“I have that specific competence, and it’s generally kept me working. But I don’t want to do anything else that’s life negative.”
Occasionally, Stanton rose up out of his rut to deliver gemlike performances that won him the respect of fellow actors. In The Missouri Breaks, he was winning and dignified as the co-leader of a gang of horse thieves on the lam from Marlon Brando. In Cool Hand Luke, he was the sweet and melancholy convict who serenades Paul Newman with gospel music. In The Godfather, Part II, he played the taciturn F.B.I. agent assigned to guard Frankie Pentangeli.
But the real turning point for Stanton was Wim Wenders’s film Paris, Texas, winner of the 1984 Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival and the first movie in which Stanton was ever cast as the leading man. When Stanton talks about the picture, his voice takes on hushed tones. “That opening scene parallels my own personal quest for the grail, as it were,” he observed recently.
Paris, Texas begins out on the parched Southwestern badlands. To the eerie strains of Ry Cooder’s guitar soundtrack, a solitary figure marches resolutely toward some unknown destination. The face is that of a man who has been deeply wounded, and it belongs, of course, to Harry Dean Stanton, playing Travis.
The film ends with Travis’s rejuvenation. After a reunion with his brother and son, he musters the courage to visit his estranged wife (Nastassja Kinski). Their encounters are heartbreaking, and Stanton gives a wrenching performance as a man working through the debris of his life to arrive at the strength and resolution necessary to quit running and begin again.
Harry Dean Stanton got his breakthrough part because Sam Shepard, author of Paris, Texas, looked across a barroom in Santa Fe, N.M., one evening in 1983. The place was thronged with people attending a film festival, and Shepard’s eyes fell upon Harry Dean. Over shot glasses of tequila, the playwright-actor and the character actor fell into conversation.
“I was telling him I was sick of the roles I was playing,” Stanton recalled. “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.”
Not long after Stanton returned to Los Angeles, he picked up the telephone to hear Shepard offering him the part.
“My first question was, ‘Why aren’t you doing it?’” Stanton said. “Sam said it was too indulgent, and besides, he was also doing Country at the time. So I said, ‘Yes.’”
Nothing better illustrates Stanton’s feeling that his career has been born again than the parts he’s been playing since Paris, Texas. In Robert Altman’s Fool for Love, he is the deranged, ornery but ultimately benevolent Old Man, father to both Sam Shepard and Kim Basinger, while in Pretty in Pink, he plays Molly Ringwald’s dad. In an upcoming episode of Showtime’s Faerie Tale Theater directed by Francis Ford Coppola, he is that most innocent of American folk heroes—Rip Van Winkle. His most astonishing transformation, however, comes in Disney’s One Magic Christmas, in which Stanton, believe it or not, portrays an angel named Gideon.
When Stanton moved to Hollywood during the 1950’s, he was convinced that within a couple of years he’d become a star, an optimism undercut by the insecurities and frustrations he carried with him from childhood.
Stanton was born in the little town of West Irvine, Ky., into a troubled family. His mother and father were constantly separating. During the worst years of the Depression, the brood moved frequently. Often, Harry Dean felt as if there were no place he belonged. Whatever solace Harry Dean drew from his parents’ strict Southern Baptist faith evaporated as he began to sense that fundamentalism was anathema to his rebellious spirit.
When he was upset during boyhood, Harry Dean began to sing about his woes. When the house was empty, he’d climb on a stool in the kitchen and practice the songs. He was about 8 when he started such performances.
“One day, I just got up and started singing, ‘T for Texas, T for Tennessee, T for that girl who made a wreck out of me,’” he recalled recently. “I guess you could say that was the birth of my blues,” he added, “but it’s also when I went into show biz.”
But Stanton never seriously considered acting until he was in college. Following a tour of duty in the Navy during World War II where he served on an LST in the Pacific and received a commendation for coolness under fire, Stanton entered the University of Kentucky. During his junior year, he settled on a major in drama after a successful campus production. But he quit school without graduating.
“I made it a point not to graduate,” he recalled recently. “I thought that was a positive, independent kind of statement. I never liked being ordered around—which, of course, was an overreaction. I eventually found out that I didn’t mind being ordered around at all when it was by someone who knew what he was doing.”
Eventually, after an interval as a student at the Pasadena Playhouse in California, Stanton joined the American Male Chorus on a national tour (he also drove the bus). Then he moved to New York and joined the road company of the Strawbridge children’s theater, and soon, he was back on the highways. But by 1957, when he had had his fill of touring, he returned to the West Coast and began his long run as a movie bad guy.
“I eventually found out that I didn’t mind being ordered around at all when it was by someone who knew what he was doing.”
Stanton’s friend Fred Roos, a producer and casting agent, remembers that throughout the 1960’s, the actor “always had so much anger and resentment. There was a long period when he thought he couldn’t get anything but bit parts, and the frustration level was extremely high. You read interviews with other character actors, and they’re proud of their work, proud of being able to bring a touch of authenticity to a small part. But not Stanton. He kept saying, ‘I have to get out of this.’”
Now “out of this,” Stanton said recently, “I don’t blame anyone but myself for the kind of parts I got. To blame external circumstances is absolute folly. I hated being typecast in those roles. It was personally limiting, only playing stereotyped heavies. But I got those roles because I was angry, because that’s what I projected. I was angry at my mother and father because they didn’t get along, angry at the church. On top of that, I had an extreme lack of self-confidence.”
During those early years in Hollywood, Stanton had numerous brief entanglements with women, none lasting much longer than a year, “I was troubled by all the life problems—finding a mate, having a family, settling down; I just couldn’t get those things right,” he said. Stanton’s longest-lasting relationship was with a young actress, Rebecca de Mornay. However, it ended badly also. Ultimately, Stanton began to develop the Beat-era persona of a man living on the edge of reality. He was mercurial, nocturnal and often unconscious. He had a knack for making improbable statements and winding up in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Jack Nicholson, who roomed with Stanton in a house in the Hollywood Hills during the early 1960’s when both men were scrounging for small character parts, came to regard Harry Dean as “one of the truly unpredictable entities on the planet.”
At his worst, Nicholson said, Stanton “could drive people crazy.” For example, during the filming of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Stanton ruined an expensive shot by accidentally jogging across a set while cameras were rolling. Kris Kristofferson, the film’s star and one of Stanton’s old friends, recalled that the movie’s director, Sam Peckinpah, “had waited all day just to get this one shot right in which James Coburn rides off into the early-morning light after killing me. Peckinpah was furious. He yelled at Harry, ‘You just cost me $25,000.’ Then he picked up a bowie knife and threw it at him. It was a pretty close call.”
At his best, however, Stanton is not awed by Hollywood’s biggest stars. “On the set of The Missouri Breaks,” Nicholson recalled not long ago, “I saw Harry Dean make one of the bravest and most inspired moves I’ve ever had the chance to witness. You remember that Brando wore a dress in that picture. It was all in keeping with his character, a deranged lawman who was after Harry and me. On the day he was finally supposed to kill Stanton—it was awful; he was supposed to impale him on this stake—Marlon briefly turned his back, and Harry snuck up on him, jumped on top of him, and ripped off the dress. Now, I have a singular admiration for the event. Marlon knew what an honest thing Harry was doing. The whole time Harry was wrestling him down, he was smiling.”
The only thing Stanton cared to say about the episode was, “I just couldn’t stand the idea of getting killed by a man in a dress.”
Although Stanton is proud of his distaste for artifice and his refusal to be bound by convention, he’s a little sheepish about his reputation. “I sure wish I’d matured earlier,” he said recently. “There was such a long period in my life in which I was struggling to bloom, and as a result I did a lot of stupid things. I’d say that I’m now a lot more stable. To put it mildly, I was just a very late bloomer. It was Eastern mysticism that began to help me. Alan Watts‘s books on Zen Buddhism were a very strong influence. Taoism and Lao-tse, I read much of, along with the works of Krishnamurti. And I studied tai chi, the martial art which is all about centering oneself.”
But it was The I Ching (The Book of Changes) in which Stanton found most of his strength. By his bedside, he keeps a bundle of sticks wrapped in a blue ribbon. Several times every week, he throws the sticks (or a handful of coins) and then turns to the book to search out the meaning of the pattern they made. “I throw them whenever I need input,” he said. “It’s an addendum to my subconscious.”
Now, he throws them before almost everything he does—interviews, films, meetings. “It has sustained and nourished me,” he said. “But I’m not qualified to expound on it.”
Stanton contends that his quest for self-awareness has given him the courage “to begin the next phase of my career.” In fact, he suggests, “I’ve only started getting good parts because I’ve changed, because I’m no longer so angry. I’m much more confident now, and it comes through.”
Still, Harry Dean Stanton has retained just enough of his rambunctious, childlike self to have grown into a very complex man—part tyro, part tough, part teacher. “Harry Dean has got a rebelliousness in him, a freedom, a youthfulness, that even most young people don’t have,” commented his friend Madonna. “At the same time, he has the wisdom of the ages, an Eastern philosophical point of view.” In short, Stanton is 60 going on 22, a seeker who also likes to drive fast cars, dance all night, and chain-smoke cigarettes with the defiant air of a kid hiding out in the high school boy’s room.
Though Stanton abhors the term “brat pack”—“It’s just a handle for the media, and it confines everyone to the kiddy table when a couple of these people are way beyond that”—he regards several of the young stars grouped under the heading as his best friends.
One reason for this was his work in the title role of the cult-classic Repo Man in 1983. A hard, nihilistic film, set in a California suburb—a place where all the products are packaged in plain wrap, where burned-out hippie parents sit comatose in front of television preachers, and where most folks can’t keep up their car payments—the movie limns the desperation experienced by teenagers who see no place for themselves in the modern world. When one such teenager goes to work for a car repossession agency, Stanton instructs him in the art of legally stealing automobiles. But more important, Stanton imbues the boy with what he calls “the Repo code,” a set of commandments for an unglued society: “Repo man don’t go running to the law”; “Repo man goes it alone”; “Repo man would rather die on his feet than live on his knees.” When Stanton is shot down by the police at the film’s conclusion, he is seen as a martyr.
Stanton’s role in Repo Man elevated him to the position of punk icon, and hence he became one of the few Hollywood old-timers easily embraced by young actors. But it was really his friendship with Sean Penn that made him a member of the club.
Penn, perhaps the most accomplished and surely the most rebellious of the movie’s new stalwarts, sat down beside Stanton one night at On The Rox, a private West Hollywood club, where the two quickly struck up a friendship. “It was just one of those things where I met someone I really liked,” recalled Penn. “He’s a good companion, and he could keep up drinking with me all night. After we met, we went to France together for the Cannes Film Festival where Paris, Texas won the prize. Then we spent a week in New York hanging out. The amazing thing about him is that unlike most older guys, he treats you like an equal. I think this is because he’s so adaptable himself. Behind that rugged old cowboy face, he’s simultaneously a man, a child, a woman—he just has this full range of emotions I really like. He’s a very impressive soul more than he is a mind, and I find that very attractive.”
Penn was so taken with Stanton that he introduced him to his soon-to-be wife, Madonna. Now, the three of them—often accompanied by Sean’s parents—spend many evenings together eating dinner, going to the movies or dancing. Stanton is so fond of Penn and his connections that he’s come to see them as his surrogate family. He calls Sean and Madonna “the kids.”
Similarly, Madonna and Penn feel a strong family tie to Harry Dean. “I know he’s lonely sometimes,” said Madonna “but I guess he’s reconciled to being a lone figure in the universe.”
Nowadays, Harry Dean Stanton shows signs of channeling his self-exploration toward becoming the kind of actor remembered for his artistry. His conversations are peppered with words like “good taste,” “quality,” “art” and “significance.” He wants roles that are “righteous,” using the word in its street connotation to mean “serious and profound.” What he wants is that one magic part, the one they’ll mention in film dictionaries, that will finally make up for all the others.
“The role for Harry Dean really is still out there,” said his old friend Fred Roos. “I’ve been in his corner so long that I’d like to be the one to give it to him, so I’m looking, waiting.”
The danger in the tack Stanton has now taken is that he may become so selective that producers and directors will regard him as a prima donna. “I think Harry Dean’s a victim,” said Robert Altman. “He’s 60, and he’s been doing this all his life, and now he wants adulation and respect. He’s so thirsty for it. Not only does he want the acclaim, but he wants the things that our industry uses to confer wort—more money, a bigger makeup trailer. As much as I wanted him in Fool for Love, he almost didn’t get the part because his agent was gouging us for these things, making outrageous demands. I hope Harry Dean gets beyond this.”
“I just couldn’t stand the idea of getting killed by a man in a dress.”
Stanton, though, is willing to take the chance of alienating Hollywood’s powers because for so many years he feels that he did exactly what he was told and it got him nowhere. “Life is very short, and I have to take advantage of the chance I now have,” he said one evening at dinner at a nouvelle Hollywood restaurant.
Stanton was seated at a good table, and from time to time other patrons glanced over, recognizing that a star was in their midst. It was a new sensation for Stanton—something that rarely ever happens to a character actor—and he liked it. Buoyed by the recognition, he said: “I don’t really want a career right now. What I want is to do what is artistically right, to make an impact.”
Stanton, for so many years the touch of evil in film after film, looked across the table and added: “Well,there is one part I really want to play, but it hasn’t been written yet, although some people are talking about it. I want to play Henry Clay, the man who held the Union together for so long before the Civil War. I want to play him because he’s credited with the line, ‘I’d rather be right than be President.’”
It all seemed so improbable, yet so apt. Clay, like Stanton, was a Kentuckian. He, too, had a weathered look, but is remembered for his noble aspirations. After playing so many men with weathered faces and ignoble desires, it was hard to blame Harry Dean Stanton for dreaming of finishing his acting career not as a sinner, but as a saint.
This story is collected in A Man’s World.
[Illustration by Sam Woolley]