Harry Dean Stanton, the gaunt, laconic character actor whose career spanned more than six decades and appeared in more than 100 films and 50 TV episodes, has died at the age of 91. Stanton passed away Friday of natural causes in Los Angeles at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. Stanton never married, but he is survived by his family and many veteran actors in Hollywood mourned his passing.
Stanton was born in 1926 in West Irvine, Kentucky, to Sheridian Stanton, a tobacco farmer and barber and Ersel Moberly, a cook. He served as a cook in the Navy during World War II, and was aboard an LST during the Battle of Okinawa. After the war, he attended the University of Kentucky, where he studied drama but never graduated.
In the late fifties and early sixties, he got many background roles in TV and movie westerns, then began getting higher-profile roles in films like Cool Hand Luke, Kelly’s Heroes, and Dillinger. One of his more memorable roles from his earlier years was as the engineer Brett in Ridley Scott’s sci-fi thriller Alien in 1979.
“I hated being typecast in those roles. It was personally limiting, only playing stereotyped heavies,” he told The Sydney Morning Herald in 1987. “But I got those roles because I was angry, because that’s what I projected … and I had an extreme lack of self-confidence.”
The year 1984 was the breakout one for Stanton. His easygoing, laid-back style caught the eye of director Wim Wenders, who cast him in the lead in Paris, Texas. The film went on to win the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. That same year, he starred as Bud in the bizarre cult comedy Repo Man (a part that was originally meant for Dennis Hopper).
Stanton’s career quickly took off after that, with major roles in such diverse films as Pretty in Pink, The Last Temptation of Christ, Wild at Heart, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, The Green Mile, and The Big Bounce.
Stanton also began to make it big in TV at the same time. He recently appeared in Twin Peaks: The Return and had a memorable turn as Roman Grant on Big Love. When his character was killed off at the end of the third season, he joked that the show had generated the biggest response he‘d ever gotten, “except for a couple hundred other movies.”
Stanton was also an accomplished singer who fronted The Harry Dean Stanton Band for several decades. He sang onscreen in Cool Hand Luke, and released an album in 2014. “Singing and acting are actually very similar things,” he told the Observer in 2013. “Anyone can sing and anyone can be a film actor. All you have to do is learn.”
Was Stanton ever bothered by being labeled a character actor rather than a leading man? “Every actor is a character actor,” he said in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter. “I was offered a whole career. I could have been a leading man, much more famous, much richer … onscreen and off.” Then he shrugged it off and chuckled. “Too much work.”
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