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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,052

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This is the grave of Harry Dean Stanton.

One of the late 20th century’s great weirdos, Stanton was born in 1926 in West Irvine, Kentucky. He didn’t come from some artsy family, though they did play music. His father was a tobacco farmer who also worked as a barber to make ends meet. But while in school, Stanton got into the theater. He then went to the University of Kentucky, where he continued his interest in the stage. He also studied journalism and the radio. He was interested in all the forms of communication and art, basically. That would define his life. At Kentucky, he got to know the well-known British theater director Wallace Briggs, who told him he was too good at acting to waste his time in college. So he said, OK good idea and moved to California to study acting. He worked at the Pasadena Playhouse in these years with Dana Andrews, who became a good friend. This is interesting to me because Andrews feels like he’s out of an entire different century of film. Andrews was 17 years older than Stanton, but he feels like 50 years older. I guess this is because we (or me anyway) primarily think of Stanton as an actor of the later 20th century, but he was one who started very young. He also realized very quickly that the Southern Baptist faith of his family had no relevance to him and this started a lifetime of seeking something else.

Well, World War II got in the way of his career as it did for everyone except chicken hawks like John Wayne and Ronald Reagan. Stanton joined the Navy and mostly worked as a ship cook. Hey, the sailors have to eat too, it’s as important as any other job in the military. After the war, Stanton returned to Los Angeles and mostly worked small acting bits. He first appeared on TV in 1954 on a show called Inner Sanctum. Stanton may have been well known in the LA art scene already but he wasn’t having a ton of success getting good roles. Like so many working actors, he made ends meet by working enough one off TV shows to eat. He knew everyone already–in fact, he was the best man for Jack Nicholson at the latter’s 1962 wedding. He got to be friends with everyone from Sam Peckinpah to Francis Ford Coppola. But it was hard to get consistent work. He got small parts in films, at first uncredited. He usually played toughs in these years. His had a small part in How the West Was Won, the largely unwatchable and endlessly long collaborative 1962 film celebrating the American genocidal project. He was much more common on TV, appearing multiple times on Gunsmoke, The Untouchables, Bonanza, The Rifleman, and other western and gangster shows of the era.

By the 1970s, Stanton became a guy a good director would bring in for a small role. He had a small but memorable role as the Tramp in Cool Hand Luke. It was the same in Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. He was the FBI agent in The Godfather, Part II. He had a fairly prominent supporting role in The Missouri Breaks, but was well behind Brando and Nicholson on the billing. It was the same in Alien, where his role was quite important but it was Weaver and Skerritt’s movie. Same with Escape from New York, a good role but very much supporting bigger name actors. These are all relatively important films in the American canon of this period. So you could see Stanton in lots of things. And you remembered him. But how could he escape That Guy syndrome? He was tremendously frustrated and in fact quite angry about this. He believed in himself. Nearly all his friends had become big time people. But here was, still doing next to nothing. Contemporaries of his remembered his outright fury at his fate. He was also something of a nutcase. He was known for going through women like changing clothes. His behavior became unhinged at times. He was known for saying just the wrong thing to ensure he didn’t get the parts he wanted. Nicholson noted that Stanton was “one of the truly unpredictable entities on the planet.” Coming from Jack, well, that’s saying something.

There’s a notorious incident which sums up Stanton during these years. During the filming of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Peckinpah spent an entire day setting up a shot that had to be filmed in the right light. Just as he was shooting it, he comes Stanton on a jog, running right through the shot and ruining the entire day. Peckinpah picked up a Bowie knife and threw it at Stanton, nearly hitting him. Stanton did later apologize for his long-time erratic behavior, claiming it was his discovery of eastern mysticism in late middle age that helped him through this. Well, sure, why not. Of course he always remained the guy the cool kids wanted to hang out with. Early in her career, when she was just hitting it big, Madonna met Stanton and they became fast friends. Because of course they did.

In many ways, Stanton really didn’t break through as anything more than a minor supporting actor until the 1980s, when he was nearly 60 years old. The real change was his role in Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas in 1984. I confess to not liking this film as much as a lot of people (given me Wenders’ road films such as Kings of the Road and Alice in the Cities, not to mention Wings of Desire of course). But the intro, with Stanton and his suit with a red hat wandering through the desert is unquestionably iconic, perhaps his greatest moment. Stanton also got it after complaining to Sam Shepherd one night over tequila shots in a Santa Fe bar that no one cast him right and that he should be playing more sensitive roles. Shepherd was like, OK, I can do write that for you and Wenders, already in love with all things weird America including Stanton, directed it happily. That same year, he had that leading role in Repo Man, one of the key cult films of the 80s. After that, having Stanton show up was always a joy. Heck, he even got to host Saturday Night Live in 1986. It was frankly bizarre to see him cast as the apostle Paul in The Last Temptation of Christ, but that cast was so bonkers anyway that why not! He had a great role in David Lynch’s surprisingly normal (almost too weirdly so really) The Straight Story, which remains a fantastic film. He was also in Twin Peaks (of course, what an obviously great bit of casting that was) and almost concluded his acting career in the sequel Twin Peaks: The Return, in 2017. He had a couple of final roles after that, including as a sheriff in the minor film Frank & Ava. His other late life TV work was really good too, notably as the evil Mormon patriarch in Big Love, a flawed show but one that Stanton dominated in its early seasons.

On top of his film career, Stanton also played live music. A fan of country music, he had a quasi-country act and sometimes even toured behind it. He was a very good singer and used that to lead three songs in Cool Hand Luke as well as singing in Twin Peaks.

Perhaps the greatest entry into Stanton’s life is the 2014 documentary about him, called Partly Fiction. He’s….a strange dude. Vice put it this way in writing about him:

To get to the root of why Harry Dean Stanton is so amazing, all you need to do is watch Partly Fiction, Sophie Huber’s 2014 documentary about Stanton’s life. It intersperses footage from Stanton’s most iconic roles––wayward amnesiac Travis Henderson in Paris, Texas; the cokey mentor in Repo Man; the guy in Alien who gets killed because he’s looking for his lost cat––with scenes of Stanton riding around Los Angeles in a car, hanging out on his couch, and drinking at Dan Tana’s, an Italian restaurant in Los Angeles that much like Stanton himself is one of the last vestiges of old, weird Hollywood.

“I been doin’ this for 50 fuckin’ years,” he says at the beginning of the film, and by the time it’s finished you’ll be convinced that there is only one true genius in the world and it’s Harry Dean Stanton. “Do you believe we’re going around the sun at 17,000 miles an hour? That makes me nervous. 17,000 miles an hour,” he mutters to no one in particular at one point in the film, before sucking on his cigarette like he’s hanging on for dear life. “There’s nothing I can do about it,” he concludes, his voice full of fear and wonder in equal measure.

What’s notable about Partly Fiction is how indifferent Stanton, who was 88 at the time of filming, seems to be about having a documentary made about him at all. At one point, David Lynch materializes on his couch and raves about coffee before asking Stanton, “How would you describe yourself?” “Nothing. There is no self,” Stanton says. “How would you like to be remembered,” asks Lynch. “Doesn’t matter,” he replies. Undeterred, Lynch asks him what his dreams were like when he was a child, to which he responds, “Nightmares.”

Stanton is like if Yoda were a chainsmoker, a cryptic loner whose age and experience have given him the wisdom to understand the entire universe is inexplicable. The only times in the film in which he seems completely open and uncomplicated are its frequent musical interludes, which find Stanton singing in his crackling, beautiful tenor, accompanied only by a dude playing acoustic guitar. At one point, he whips out a harmonica and plays it. His hands flutter virtuosically as he modulates the notes, and he blows into it so with a purity that suggests a lifetime of smoking hasn’t put a dent into his lungs. When the song concludes, he cracks a grin.

I can’t really add anything to this. Stanton died in 2017, at the age of 91.

Harry Dean Stanton is buried in Blue Grass Memorial Gardens, Nicholasville, Kentucky.

If you would like this series to visit other actors from Cool Hand Luke, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Paul Newman was cremated so no grave there. But J.D. Cannon is in Hudson, New York and Robert Drivas is in Miami. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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