Harry Dean Stanton, one of the finest, most understated American screen actors of the past several decades died today of natural causes at the age of 91.
Stanton was probably best known for his roles as the prophet Roman Grant on the HBO series Big Love, as Molly Ringwald's dissolute dad in Pretty in Pink, as Brain in Escape From New York, as Saul/Paul in Last Temptation of Christ, and above all as Bud in Repo Man. Most recently, he turned up in the new season of David Lynch's Twin Peaks (he was also in Fire Walk With Me, Wild at Heart, and Inland Empire).
Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction
"Turned up" seems like a fair way to characterize the way Stanton tended to appear onscreen. Of all the naturalist actors to emerge from the post-Brando/James Dean/Dennis Hopper school, Stanton was the most laconic, the least-performery, and among the spookiest. He often looked like he'd be surprised to discover there was a camera observing him (and like he might punch the photographer, too). This tension had the mysterious effect of making him absolutely spellbinding to look at, no matter what huge star or special effect he might be sharing a scene with. It made him disarming in comedies and often devastating in dramas. And, to borrow one of his signature line, always intense.
Though he knocked around as a character actor for 30 years—with intriguing TV credits like Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Andy Griffith Show, and Mary Hartman Mary Hartman (!!!), and small roles in interesting films like Cool Hand Luke, Two Lane Blacktop, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Cockfighter, The Godfather Part 2, Bob Dylan's Renaldo and Clara, and Alien—his big break is generally regarded as his role in Wim Wenders's Paris Texas, written by the late Sam Shepard.
Harry Dean Stanton
Stanton is wrenchingly good in the film, though a huge hunk of his performance consists of stumbling mutely through a desert landscape, looking like an archetypal homeless man. Only when he comes face to face with the person he's been seeking, played by Nastassja Kinski, is he allowed to articulate the loss that has left him so broken. True to form for Wenders, Shepard, and Stanton, the revelation is laid out with a minimum of histrionics, the better to reveal just how shattering to power of simple human regret can be.
That scene was the first thing I thought of when I read that Stanton was dead. I have no doubt I'll be revisiting many others in the days to come.