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Sunday
Sep172017

VALE HARRY DEAN STANTON: AN OBITUARY

Sometimes he was known as Dean; sometimes he was Harry. Ultimately, it would be a combination of both, a three-word moniker as simple yet resonant as any spoken, that would come to define one of the most naturally gifted character actors to ever bless world of film. Harry Dean Stanton passed away at the age of 91 in Los Angeles on September 15, from natural causes. The work he leaves – in film, music, theatre, poetry and prose – represents a contribution to art and society as unique and authentic as has ever been…

THE BEGINNING: 1954-1961…: The Kentucky native slung hash as a US Navy cook in such fiercely staged World War II arenas as The Battle of Okinawa, before settling into a post-war life in California. Trained at the Pasadena Playhouse and honing his craft on long regional tours, he made his small screen debut in the horror anthology series Inner Sanctum in 1954; guest spots and small support arcs followed in Suspicion, Panic!, The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin, Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color, Bat Masterson, The Texan, The Rifleman, Zane Grey Theatre and The Untouchables (pictured, right; , to name a few of his vast TV credits. His first feature film experience would be an uncredited bit part in the western Revolt at Fort Laramie (1956), starring John Dehner. In the decade that followed, Harry Dean Stanton did the ‘character actor shuffle’ between the casting offices of Hollywood, building a reputation on the back of work in films like Tomahawk Trail (1957), The Proud Rebel (1958), Pork Chop Hill (1959), The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1960) and Hero’s Island (1962).

THE REPUTATION: 1962-1978…: Those casting agents realised that the young Stanton was a reliable presence on set and asset to any production. The TV work was plentiful, as the heyday of the small screen was in full flight; he was earning guest star credits in hits like Combat!, Bonanza, Rawhide, The Fugitive and The Andy Griffith Show. His bigscreen career was progressing in smaller steps. He was securing minor support roles in major studio works for directors like John Ford (How the West Was Won, 1962), Frank Tashlin (The Man from the Diner’s Club, 1963) and Monte Hellman (Ride in the Whirlwind, 1966, with Jack Nicholson). 1967 represented a turning point in Stanton’s career, with a small role (ultimately uncredited) in the Best Picture Oscar winner, Norman Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night; a second billing turn in Russell Doughton’s thriller The Hostage; and, most significantly, a small but standout part in the ensemble of Stuart Rosenberg’s Cool Hand Luke (pictured, left), opposite Paul Newman. Harry Dean Stanton was now in the running for the best character parts in Hollywood; he spent the 1970’s working with the likes of Brian G Hutton and Clint Eastwood (Kelly’s Heroes, 1970);Hellman and Warren Oates (Two Lane Blacktop, 1971); Sam Peckinpah and James Coburn (Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, 1973); John Milius (Dillinger, 1973); Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather: Part II); Mike Nichols and Warren Beaty (The Fortune, 1975); Arthur Penn and Marlon Brando (The Missouri Breaks, 1976); Ulu Grosbard and Dustin Hoffman (Straight Time, 1978); and, John Huston (Wise Blood, 1979). By the time 20th Century Fox and upstart British ad industry whiz Ridley Scott were casting their new space thriller, Harry Dean Stanton’s name was already high on the list of potentials…

THE BREAKTHROUGH: 1979-1984…: Alien (1979) turned Harry Dean Stanton into an overnight star after 30 years in showbusiness. As ‘Brett’, the blue collar engineer on board the doomed spacecraft Nostromo, Stanton shared a rare chemistry with the diverse ensemble; his laconic contribution to any conversation, “Right…”, provided crucial moments of levity, while his demise is one of modern cinema’s most iconicsuspense sequences. That same year, his role as ‘Billy Ray’ opposite Bette Midler in Mark Rydell’s The Rose only strengthened his reputation, leading to memorable second- and third-tier characters in Bertrand Tavernier’s Death Watch (1980), Harold Becker’s The Black Marble (1980), Howard Zieff’s Private Benjamin (1980), John Carpenter’s Escape from New York (1981) and Christine (1983), Francis Ford Coppola’s One from the Heart (1981), Garry Marshall’s Young Doctors in Love (1982) and Alex Cox’s Repo Man. It would be German director Wim Wenders, working from a script by the late Sam Shephard, who rolled the dice on Harry Dean Stanton’s leading man potential in 1984, casting him as ‘Travis Henderson’ in Paris, Texas (pictured, right). Stanton was mesmerising in a role that would emerge as one of the most compelling of the decade. Remarkably, it earned no award nomination anywhere for the actor, despite the film taking out three top honours at Cannes and a slew of trophies worldwide.

THE WORK: 1985-2017…: The next two decades solidified Harry Dean Stanton as the most admired character actor of his generation and one of the great personalities to grace the industry (captured with stark honesty in Sophie Huber’s 2013 documentary, Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction). He would effortlessly enliven studio gigs (Red Dawn, 1984; Pretty in Pink, 1986; The Fourth War, 1990; Down Periscope, 1996; The Green Mile, 1999), then disappear into the booming indie-cinema scene, emerging in unforgettable performances (UFOria, 1985; Fool for Love, 1985; The Last Temptation of Christ, 1988; She’s So Lovely, 1997; Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, 1998; The Pledge, 2001). Stanton found his kindred spirit in auteur David Lynch (pictured, left), together creating such characters as ‘Johnnie Farragut’ in Wild at Heart (1990), ‘Lyle’ in The Straight Story (1999), and ‘Freddie Howard’ in Inland Empire (2006); ‘Carl Rodd’, a character first introduced in Lynch’s 1992 feature Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, would be the penultimate part played by the actor, revived for the recently aired third season of the series. John Carroll Lynch’s Lucky, featuring Stanton in the title role, is set for a US release on September 29; the actor’s last role, in Michael Oblowitz’s Frank & Ava, is due for release late in 2017.

 

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