It's not a coincidence that Harry Dean Stanton featured in so many singular and effective films: Alien, Repo Man, The Godfather Part II, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (and The Return), Paris, Texas, to name a few. Stanton had an unmatched quality that brought everyday characters to life, and which could make them feel at home in stories of fantastic proportion without fracturing a film's reality.
Roger Ebert coined the Stanton-Walsh rule: "No movie featuring either Harry Dean Stanton or M. Emmet Walsh in a supporting role can be altogether bad. An exception was Chattahoochee (1990), starring Walsh. Stanton's record is still intact." Years after Ebert wrote that blurb, I'd argue that Stanton's record remains.
Brett, the laconic engineer's assistant Stanton played in Alien, was just a working schmoe who happened to toil in outer space. His conversational input was often limited to the word "right," like a human Groot stuck in a dead-end job. But Harry Dean Stanton's face was more expressive than almost anyone, and in his encounter with the film's vicious alien he displays a stunned inability to process the moment that breaks convention. The moment is direct and understated, and all the more effective for its avoidance of histrionics.
Harry Dean Stanton was familiar, like a guy who was somehow always buying cigarettes at the gas station every time you went to fill up. But he understood the power of the moment – he could move in, set up shop, and make a life in one pregnant pause – and conveyed, seemingly without effort, the sense that his characters had lived. That they were living.
Harry Dean Stanton died today at the age of 91, of natural causes, at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles. He was an actor, a raconteur, a singer. He played regular gigs in Los Angeles, singing country and folk and lounge songs at The Mint, on Pico. The green room at The Mint has a wood plaque on the wall naming it the "Harry Dean Room."
Stanton was a veteran of World War II, serving in the Navy. His first TV and film roles were in the mid-1950s, as he hit 30. A late start by many measures.
That late start was balanced by over sixty years in entertainment, and Stanton's more recent roles are still on screens and utterly of the moment. He played a significant and compassionate role in Twin Peaks: The Return. The movie Lucky, directed by the actor John Carroll Lynch with Stanton in the lead role, is just getting to theaters now.
Conveying the accomplishments of Harry Dean Stanton in a few hundred words is impossible; even a small selection of his films could be the basis for a film festival, or a masters course of study. Certainly every other working actor can learn something from Stanton's ready empathy and intuitive command of the simplest sentence.
In Twin Peaks: The Return, Stanton reprised his role as Carl Rodd, the once-irascible manager of a run-down trailer park. As we return to the character decades after his 1992 debut, however, we find a man who has mellowed, who turns moments of solemn contemplation into the centerpiece of his afternoons. Witnessing a child struck by a car – then seeing the child's soul, seemingly departing heavenward – he comforts the boy's grieving mother with little more than the depth of his gaze.
That gaze understands and empathizes with loss, and the onrushing fear of a new life without the child. Stanton always seemed to understand and accept so many of the things we try to brush aside: solitude, pain, loneliness, uncertainty. He made all these difficult things plain as part of life, and then he made life look beautiful despite, and often because of the persistence of those trials. His movies, and his face, will stay with you, and your life might be a little better for it.