© Road Movies / Filmproduktion GmbH / Argos Films S.A
So far, the number of celebrity deaths in 2017 hasn’t been as astronomical as it was in 2016. However, this year has taken its toll on a certain type of male American character actor. I’m thinking of guys who made their names with supporting roles in films in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s and who could be relied up to steal a scene, or indeed steal the whole show, in sweaty, hardboiled action-thrillers directed by the likes of John Milius, Paul Verhoeven, Walter Hill, James Cameron and Robert Rodriguez.
2017 has already seen the demise of Miguel Ferrer, Bill Paxton, Michael Parks and Powers Boothe. To that list we must now add the great Harry Dean Stanton, who passed away on September 15th. Whatever movie he was in, Stanton would project a glorious hangdog, laconic and slightly-disreputable cool without seeming to break sweat.
He acted from the 1950s, initially doing a lot of television and, on the big screen, turning up in many Westerns like Revolt at Fort Laramie (1956), Tomahawk Trail (1957), The Proud Rebel (1958), The Jayhawkers (1959), How the West was Won (1962), Ride in the Whirlwind (1966) and Day of the Evil Gun (1968). Indeed, latterly, there was something of the ageing cowboy about him and it’s no wonder he appeared in music videos for country-and-western and Americana stars like Dwight Yoakam and Ry Cooder.
By the late 1960s he was getting minor roles in prestigious fare like In the Heat of the Night and Cool Hand Luke (both 1967) but his career really started to take off in the 1970s when he played tough guys, never-do-wells and oddballs in Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), John Milius’s Dillinger (1973), Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garret and Billy the Kid (1973), Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather: Part II (1974) and John Huston’s Wise Blood (1979). I suspect, though, that for many people of my age and disposition Stanton first appeared on the radar with his performance as Brett, the disgruntled blue-collar crew-member of the giant space freighter the Nostromo, in Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979).
© 20th Century Fox / Brandywine-Ronald Shushett Productions
As Brett, Stanton should be a disposable and anonymous character. He gets little in the way of dialogue and he’s the second person to get killed – he tries to catch Jones, the spaceship cat, and the irresponsible feline leads him into a dark engine room and right into the alien’s scaly claws. Yet thanks to Stanton’s terse and grizzled presence, he’s strangely memorable. It’s telling to compare him with the characters in this year’s Ridley Scott movie Alien Covenant, where half-a-dozen of them got killed off before I started to figure out who was who.
During the 1980s those hangdog Stanton features became awfully familiar in the cinema. Bernard Tavernier cast him in the offbeat Glasgow-set sci-fi movie Death Watch (1980) and John Carpenter cast him in the overrated Escape from New York (1981) and the underrated Christine (1983). Best of all, Alex Cox gave him the role of Bud, car-repossession kingpin and mentor to Emilio Estevez’s street-punk Otto, in his scuzzy sci-fi / satirical comedy Repo Man (1984). Alternatively seamy and anarchic, Stanton gets many of Repo Man’s best lines: “The life of a repo man is always intense.” “I’d rather die on my feet than live on my knees.” “Goddamn dipshit Rodriguez gypsy dildo punks. I’ll get your ass!” And his mission statement: “Look at these assholes. Ordinary f*cking people. I hate ’em!”
© Edge City / Universal Pictures
In the same year as Repo Man, at the age of 58, Stanton finally got to be a leading man in Wim Wenders’ melancholic Western / road movie Paris Texas. A film with impeccable credentials – a script by Sam Shepherd (who’s been another casualty of 2017, unfortunately), a score by Ry Cooder – Paris, Texas is famous for this scene with Stanton and Nastassja Kinski, which I suspect has had a lot of hits on YouTube over the past few days.
Apparently, two years after Paris, Texas, he won even more fans when he played Molly Ringwald’s father in John Hughes’ Pretty in Pink (1986). But I’ve never seen the film, so I can’t comment on it.
Stanton was as prolific as ever during the 1990s and into the 21st century. Quality control couldn’t keep up with his work-rate and he inevitably featured in some tat, though no doubt he appreciated the opportunity to appear in Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), Frank Darabont’s The Green Mile (1999) and Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths (2012). Thankfully, during this later period in his career, he forged a bond with the weird and wonderful David Lynch and as part of Lynch’s repertory he had roles in Wild at Heart (1990), Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992), The Straight Story (1999) and Inland Empire (2006).
A sprightly and wits-still-about-him nonagenarian, Harry Dean Stanton played trailer-park manager Carl Rodd in Lynch’s long-awaited third season of his legendary TV show Twin Peaks, whose final episode aired only a few weeks ago. Rodd wasn’t a huge component of the show, appearing in five out of 18 episodes, but the scenes he got were memorable. There was a simultaneously vicious, eerie and affecting one where Rodd witnesses the death of a child in a hit-and-run accident and sees a weird light – an untethered soul? – rise from the child’s body; and then, alone among the traumatised onlookers, he shambles forward to try and comfort the child’s grieving mother. There was a scene that said a lot about life on the breadline in 2017 America where he dissuades an ailing and hard-pressed trailer-park resident from selling his blood at the hospital by cancelling his next rent-payment.
And there was a scene where he gets to chill, strum his guitar and sing the old country number Red River Valley. Which was a charming reminder that the gaunt, gnarly figure of Harry Dean Stanton – a musician and singer as well as an actor, who’d performed with the likes of Bob Dylan, Art Garfunkel and Kris Kristofferson – was also blessed with the voice of a troubadour.
© Lynch / Frost Productions