There went a great one. 1926 – 2017
“I think Harry Dean should run for president of the United States!”
– David Lynch
“…son, you’ve got a condition.”
– Harry Dean Stanton in The Avengers
I remember the night we set out to watch Paris, Texas, the 1984 Wim Wenders film starring Harry Dean Stanton in his most celebrated role. Being a two and a half hour movie, blocking out that time took some doing. My wife sat down ready for me to press play, which I’d do just as soon as I gave her a quick, unrequested primer on Wenders, and why they say this film is special. Minutes later, with the intro complete, “play” was pressed. The picture emanating from the then-new Criterion blu-ray was stunning. The sound… silence. Something was wrong. The audio receiver had crapped out. All that build-up for nothing. And to this day, I’ve still yet to see Paris, Texas.
For that reason, I’ve felt shamefully ill-prepared to properly eulogize Harry Dean Stanton, who died last week at the age of ninety-one. With 199 acting credits listed at IMDb, there’s no denying the prolific nature of his varied career. Most of his roles have been decidedly supporting in nature. Alien. The Green Mile. Pretty in Pink. One From the Heart. The Last Temptation of Christ. Red Dawn. Dillinger. Memorable and elevating, every one of them.
And lest we forget his bountiful abundance of television work, most notably playing Bill Paxton‘s zealous father on Big Love, and of course recently turning up in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return. That would prove to be the last of many collaborations with his kindred spirit, Lynch. Previously, there was Wild at Heart (1990), Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992), The Straight Story (1999) and Inland Empire (2006).
Stanton played many different roles in a myriad of different types of films over a long and bountiful career. Yet, he never seemed to be a Hollywood animal. There was always a salt of the earth humble quality about him, even when he was playing as despicable. The Academy Awards never gave him notice, though he did win a DVDX Award, whatever that is, for Best Audio Commentary on the Alien Quadrilogy box set. An off the beaten path salute to an off the beaten path guy. Somehow fitting. Did we really want to see Harry Dean Stanton in a tuxedo standing at a podium, anyway? But wait – he also won (and I’m not making this up) the first ever Harry Dean Stanton Award, presented to him in October of last year at the Harry Dean Stanton Awards. True story.
More of a musician and enigma, though an actor always; like the Kris Kristofferson song goes, “partly truth, partly fiction.” Fittingly, the latter part of that phrase served as the title for an acclaimed 2012 documentary about Stanton by Sophie Huber. Of course, now that he’s shuffled on, he might just have some Oscar luck with Lucky, his forthcoming starrer that’s been gathering a head of critical steam. Though such a thing probably matters as much to him now as it did when he was alive.
As unfit as I as to eulogize Harry Dean Stanton, it’s then only fitting that we look to David Lynch for his words on the man: “There went a great one. There’s nobody like Harry Dean. Everyone loved him. And with good reason. He was a great actor (actually beyond great) – and a great human being – so great to be around him!!! You are really going to be missed Harry Dean!!!”
In the nearly 200 acting credits on Harry Dean Stanton’s resume, Pretty in Pink isn’t his biggest claim to fame, but it’s the one that has stuck with me. As Jack, the father of Molly Ringwald’s Andie, he grounds the class-based drama of her teenage love triangle. He balances the broken heart of an abandoned husband, the resilience of a dedicated single father, and the frustration of an out-of-work man.
Many teen dramas relegate parents to the background as casual antagonists who glibly oppose their son or daughter’s dreams or romantic interest. John Hughes had the wisdom to make Jack the absolute opposite, both supporting Andie’s romance with Blane (Andrew McCarthy) despite his friendly relationship with Duckie (Jon Cryer) and believing more in her dreams than his own. Stanton takes that role and runs with it, embodying all the humility, tenderness, and confidence in his daughter needed to create one of the best modern movie dads. You will be missed, Mr. Stanton.