(On the Red Carpet for the premiere of the film Lucky at the Harry Dean Stanton Festival in Lexington, Kentucky, this past weekend.)
LEXINGTON, Ky. – I first noticed him in the 1967 film Cool Hand Luke. He played Tramp, the
guitar-picking inmate who crooned “Just A Closer Walk With Thee” as Paul Newman
walked out to see his soon-to-die mother for the last time.
It was a film that evoked the bad old days of places like Mississippi’s
own Parchman Farm, where a special kind of Southern cruelty ruled.
He was a Southerner himself, son of a Kentucky tobacco
farmer and a hairdresser. His mother liked to dangle a black sock in front of
her infant son just to scare him. After a tough Depression-era youth, he served
as a ship’s cook during the Battle of Okinawa in 1945, and he felt lucky none
of the Japanese suicide bombers overhead hit their target.
Maybe those experiences added a degree of poignancy to his
roles in the 100-plus movies he made and 50-plus television shows.
Maybe what attracted me most to Harry Dean Stanton, who died last month at the age of 91, was that lean, weather-beaten look of the classic
underdog. He was a “character actor”, a term he didn’t particularly like, one
of those working stiffs of the Big Screen whose faces are known to everyone but
not their names.
Stanton’s life and work (I'm writing a biography of him for the University Press of Kentucky) were celebrated this past weekend at
the seventh annual Harry Dean Stanton Festival in Lexington, Kentucky, an event
that included the premier of his last film, Lucky,
and its director, John Carroll Lynch, and co-writer Drago Sumonja. Also on hand
was musician and actor John Doe, who joined Stanton in the cast of the 1987 film
Slam Dance. Created and organized by
Lucy Jones of the Lexington Film League, the festival not only draws Stanton
fans from far away but also a good many Stanton family members.
(To the right, Lucky director and noted actor John Carroll Lynch with Labor South author Joe Atkins at The Kentucky Theatre in Lexington, Kentucky)
I’ve always loved character actors. Cool Hand Luke was full of them. Who’ll ever forget Strother Martin
as the warden saying, “What we have here is a failure to communicate”? George
Kennedy, Dennis Hopper, Joe Don Baker, Ralph Waite and Stanton perfectly
portrayed “the great mix of faces and personalities” you might find in a
prison, said director Frank Darabont, whose own prison films, The Shawshank Redemption (1994) and The Green Mile (1999, with Stanton in
the cast) are classics of the genre.
Countless hours in front of the television or in a movie
theater in my youth made me as much a fan of actors like Royal Dano, James Best,
Dub Taylor, Cloris Leachman, Thelma Ritter, and R.G. Armstrong as of the big
stars I also loved, such as Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster, and Robert Mitchum.
Many of the greatest character actors were Southerners.
Stanton, Warren Oates and James Best were Kentuckians. Armstrong was from Alabama,
Dub Taylor from Virginia. Let me add here Johnny McPhail and his
wife Susan McPhail of Oxford, Mississippi, where I live.
Character actors are “not gorgeous enough to be stars,”
write Melissa Holbrook Pierson and Luc Sante in their 1999 book O.K. You Mugs: Writers on Movie Actors.
“Their noses have been broken one too many times. … In short, they are real.”
Stanton is unique among them, however. His career began in
the mid-1950s with cowboy and other roles that led to regular appearances on TV
Westerns like Gunsmoke, Have Gun, Will Travel, Rawhide and Bonanza. He played an Oklahoma hitchhiker in Two-Lane Backstop (1971), a bogus blind preacher in Wise Blood (1979), a member of Billy the
Kid’s gang in Pat Garrett & Billy the
Kid (1973), and the crew member in Alien
(1979) who is killed by the monster after calling out “Kitty, kitty, kitty” to the
crew’s missing cat, Jones.
Stanton finally got his big break to play a starring role in
Wim Wenders’ 1984 film Paris, Texas.
His character, Travis Henderson, was a silent, lone wanderer in the desert in
search of some sort of penance for past sins. “It got more and more hard to say
that this is Travis and this is Harry Dean,” Wenders has said of the film.
Stanton himself agreed. “I don’t know what happened to Travis. I’d say … it’s
me. Still searching for liberation, or enlightenment, for lack of a better way
to put it, and realizing that it might happen, it might not.”
Such comments point to another side of the actor, a lifelong
bachelor, the one in Hollywood known as “Harry Zen Stanton”. A philosopher of
Buddhist-tinged fatalism, Stanton has attained a kind of cult status that may
be due as much for his musings about life as for his work as an actor and his
musicianship. “In the end, you end up accepting everything in your
life—suffering, horror, love, loss, hate—all of it.”
Besides, he said, “It’s all a movie anyway.” Okay, Harry.
Then I say what a great movie your life was.
A version of this
column appeared recently in the Jackson Free Press in Jackson, Mississippi.