Lucky To Know Him:
The Career of Harry Dean Stanton

By Peter Sobczynski

Kate Micucci, Alison Brie,  & Aubrey Plaza in "The Little Hours."

The late Roger Ebert once wrote that he was creating what he called The Stanton-Walsh Rule, which stated that “no movie featuring either Harry Dean Stanton or M. Emmet Walsh in a supporting role can be altogether bad.”  When it comes to Stanton’s resume, which includes more than 100 features, even the lesser endeavors temporarily come to life when he comes into a scene, thanks to his distinctive hangdog look and prodigious acting talents. On the other hand, when he is working with worthwhile material and with filmmakers who know their stuff (and his filmography has seen him working with the likes of Alfred Hitchcock, Sam Peckinpah, Francis Ford Coppola, John Huston, John Carpenter, Wim Wenders, John Milius and David Lynch) you would be hard-pressed to find a more mesmerizing on-screen presence than his. If anyone wanted to put together a Harry Dean Stanton Film Festival, the program would be all killer and no filler with the only possible hiccup coming in trying to decide which of the numerous classics and cult favorites in his filmography would make the cut and which would be held back for a later edition.

He began his screen career with an unbilled bit part in Alfred Hitchcock’s docudrama The Wrong Man (1957), working steadily in small roles on both the big and small screens over the next decade, mostly in westerns and crime stories that were able to make effective use of his distinct look. By the mid-‘60s, he was turning up in more notable films like Cool Hand Luke (1967) and Kelly’s Heroes (1970). At the same time, he began getting cast in films made by an emerging breed of iconoclastic filmmakers who preferred his air of absolute authenticity over the kind of blandly handsome types that populated most films. Monte Hellman gave him a supporting part in his existential western Ride in the Whirlwind (1966), beginning an association that would also include appearances in Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) and Cockfighter (1974). Sam Peckinpah cast him as a member of Billy the Kid’s gang in the cult classic Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973) and John Milius put him in his directorial debut, Dillinger (1973). He turned up as an FBI agent in The Godfather, Part II (1974) and he had one of his biggest roles to date as part of the ill-fated crew of the Nostromo in Alien (1979).

As the ‘80s began, demand for Stanton was increasing with turns in such films as The Black Marble (1980), Private Benjamin (1980), Escape from New York (1981), One from the Heart (1982) and Christine (1983). For first-time filmmaker Alex Cox, he co-starred with Emilio Estevez in the cult sci-fi comedy Repo Man (1984) and stole every single scene he was in as a world-weary car repossessor showing the ropes to his new protégé while tracking down a 1964 Chevy Malibu with a big surprise in the trunk. For rising German director Wim Wenders, he got his first true leading role when he appeared as a largely silent drifter who returned after a mysterious four-year absence and struggled to reconcile with the wife and young son that he abandoned in Paris, Texas (1984). Although he had precious little actual dialogue in the film, he was able to convey a lifetime of pain, shame and hurt with a single glance, and the only thing more astonishing than his performance is that his work did not receive any of the traditional industry accolades despite richly deserving all of them.

Over the next couple of decades, Stanton turned up in a wide variety of films in a wider variety of roles. Some of these films were wonderful, such as his appearances in a number of films that he worked on with David Lynch, The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and his recurring role on the HBO series Big Love. Some of them were quite popular—his performance in the Molly Ringwald hit Pretty in Pink (1986) exposed him to a new generation of moviegoers.  In all of these films, he brings a presence to his parts that comes at least as much from him as it does from the script—probably more in most cases. Almost invariably, whenever one of his characters leaves the screen, most viewers want to follow.

One exception to that notion is his latest film, Lucky, and that is partly because he is front-and-center for virtually the entire running time, his first major lead role since Paris, Texas. Set in a small desert town, he plays a 90-year-old man who attributes his shocking good health (despite a pack-a-day habit) to his self-sufficiency and willingness to stick to his daily regimen. He also claims to be an atheist but as the end theoretically draws near, the notion of entering a great void now fills him with unease. The film by actor-turned-director John Carroll Lynch is concerned less with plot than with character. In the lead role, Stanton is such a perfect fit that it is simply impossible to think of anyone who could have remotely approximated what he does here. Although not precisely a one-man show—there are standout bits from actors as varied as Tom Skerritt and David Lynch—it is Stanton’s show all the way, serving as a beautiful reminder of just how much of a genuine screen presence he possesses. It is tempting to consider a film like Lucky to be some kind of career summation but one hopes that Harry Dean Stanton will continue to be as surprisingly resilient as his character. We should be so lucky.