Entertainment Magazine

Harry Dean Stanton 1926-2017

Posted on the 16 September 2017 by Thehollywoodinterview @theHollywoodInt
Harry Dean Stanton 1926-2017Actor Harry Dean Stanton.
Alex Simon

This article originally appeared in the August 1997 issue of Venice Magazine.
Apparently, Harry Dean Stanton has passed, at 91. I had one of the most remarkable conversations of my life with him 20 years ago, for Venice Magazine, attached here. For a good two to three years after our chat, I would see him play at The Mint, then down the street from my house on Curson Ave. He would call me late at night, often in his cups, to "chew the fat" or play me a song on his acoustic guitar, the same one he played in COOL HAND LUKE, which he was kind enough to let me strum during my visit to his home. We won't see his kind again. RIP.
"Genius is formed in quiet, character in the stream of human life." --Goethe
Harry Dean Stanton is probably the most recognizable character actor working in film today. A veteran with over 80 films to his credit, 1997 marks Harry Dean's 40th year as a film actor. Just a sampling of the Harry Dean Stanton oeuvre includes: Pork Chop Hill, How the West Was Won, Cool Hand Luke, Cisco Pike, Two Lane Blacktop, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Dillinger, Godfather II, Rancho Deluxe, Farewell My Lovely, The Missouri Breaks, Straight Time; Wise Blood, Alien, The Rose, Private Benjamin, One From the Heart, Escape From New York, Christine, Repo Man, Paris Texas, Pretty in Pink, The Last Temptation of Christ ,The Mighty with Sharon Stone and Gena Rowlands, and his newest release, Nick Cassavetes' She's So Lovely.
Taken from a screenplay written by the late John Cassavetes (Nick's father), She's So Lovely tells the Charles Bukowski-esque tale of Maureen and Eddie, played by Robin Wright Penn and Sean Penn (who won Best Actor at this year's Cannes Film Festival), two unstable barflies whose combustible romance causes havoc for everyone around around them. Harry Dean plays Shorty, one of their inner circle of drinking buddies, who tries to help Eddie cope upon his release from a mental hospital. The film is a sight to behold, as these seemingly low-life characters are brought to life and made sympathetic and very real, thanks to the skill and talent of the very impressive cast, script and direction. As always, Harry Dean is a delight to watch in his role as the boozy sage Shorty.
In addition to his film work, Harry Dean worked extensively in TV throughout the late 50's and 1960's. As if he wasn't alrea dy busy enough, Harry Dean is an accomplished musician, whose band The Harry Dean Stanton Orchestra, plays weekly Monday night gigs at The Mint on Pico Blvd. in West L.A., as well as at the Moonlight Supper Club 13730 Ventura Blvd. Friday August 8th.
Born in West Irvine, Kentucky, Harry Dean Stanton grew up around Lexington, Ky. and served in the Navy during WW II. Following graduation from the University of Kentucky, he trained at the Pasadena Playhouse and for many years performed modestly on stage before entering films in the late 1950's. Before long, he emerged as one of Hollywood's most convincing character actors, a versatile performer with a broad repertoire of roles, from psychos and villains to sympathetic, even good-humored leading men. With his lean, everyman looks, and down-home folksy manner, few screen actors since James Stewart or Spencer Tracy could be called as quintessentially American as Harry Dean Stanton. On screen, he represents the sort of man we both know and would like to know. He carries this quality over into his own life, as well.
Harry Dean recently sat down at his comfortable hilltop home, surrounded by his collection of guitars, records, books and photographs, and reflected on his phenomenal life both on and off-screen.
You were born in West Irvine, Kentucky, a long way from Hollywood. What was that like?
HARRY DEAN STANTON: It was a small town, mostly tobacco farmers, things like that.
As a kid were you always interested in acting?
I always had a dramatic flare. I'd like to dress up as a cowboy, play make believe...but I didn't realize acting was something I had to do until I was in college.
Harry Dean Stanton 1926-2017Stanton in "The Proud Rebel."
You served in the Navy during WW II, before college. See any action overseas?
Yeah. I was in the battle of Okinawa when the suicide planes were coming in. But I was pretty lucky. We had so many ships over there. One of the (Japanese planes) got through one day, they'd come in with the sun behind them. But usually the destroyers would go out and meet them. I was on an LST--ammunition ship. If we'd gotten hit...like I said, I was lucky.
Did you study drama in college?
No. First journalism, then radio arts...and I did a play and got a good response from that. I understood it. I was at home on stage. At that point I was trying to decide if I wanted to be a singer, musician or an actor. But I thought that by being an actor I could dabble in a little bit of everything, because I've always been interested in lots of things. But as an actor I figured I could travel and hopefully make a little money (laughs), which I did and I've been lucky.
What was that first play you did?
Pygmalion by Shaw. I played Alfred Doolittle, Eliza's father, with a Cockney accent. I was pretty good. I had a good ear for dialects, so I guess it was a pretty good stage accent, but a real Cockney probably would've turned over in his grave, or a Brit. (laughs) And from there, I hopped on a Greyhound bus and studied at the Pasadena playhouse.
What was that like?
Well, I studied there for two years and then stayed two more years after that, but I should've gone to New York after (I graduated), like everyone was telling me. That's when the Actor's Studio was really hot and the Neighborhood Playhouse. But I found myself a home in Pasadena and stayed there for two more years, doing plays, then I went back east, did another play in Lexington (Kentucky), then I answered an ad in the paper that said "Singers Wanted" and got on a singing tour with this Baptist preacher who wanted to spread the word of God through song. So we'd go into a town, pass out leaflets, give concerts. Actually we sang in Tennessee, too, for (Jimmy) Carter when he was Governor of Tennessee. I was impressed with him then and I still like him. I think he was one of the most decent Presidents we've ever had.
I think he's our best ex-President with all the humanitarian things he's done after leaving office.
Yeah, he's done a lot. I just don't think he was strong enough to deal with all those high-powered politicians...but I think he's the most decent President we've ever seen, at least in my time. Especially, like you said, with all the work he's done out of office. Carter was probably the truest public servant we've had in the presidency.
Harry Dean Stanton 1926-2017Harry Dean Stanton 1926-2017Stanton in two early TV appearances, circa late '50s/early '60s.
What happened after the choral group?
I went back to Kentucky for about a year, then went to New York where I signed up with Stella Adler, but then got stuck doing another miserable road tour with a children's play (laughs) that went all over the country. Then when we got out here I quit and that was 1957 and one of my early gigs was an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which Hitchcock directed. I was impressed with him. I loved Hitchcock. He was great. Then I got a movie called The Proud Rebel, starring Alan Ladd and Alan Ladd, Jr., when he was just a little kid. It was directed by Michael Curtiz, who did Casablanca. And ever since then, I haven't stopped working.
I understand that during the 1960's, you and Jack Nicholson were roommates?
Yeah for about two and a half years in Laurel Canyon on a road called Skyline Drive. And during that time is when Jack did Easy Rider. Jack's always been very smart. Even then he was producing, writing...he's very well-grounded.
Any great stories about living with Jack?
Oh yeah. I could talk forever about that, but...it's all a lot of personal things. We're still good pals. He's a crumudgeon sometimes, but he's been a loyal friend. He's been attacked enough in the press.
Harry Dean Stanton 1926-2017Former roommates Jack Nicholson and Harry Dean Stanton at a Lakers/Suns game.
Tell me some more about working with Hitchcock.
He was great. I remember we had a whole sequence to shoot, me and this kid Tom Pitman, who later got killed in a Porsche driving in Benedict Canyon, rest his soul. And we were standing around waiting for Hitchcock to direct us in the scene, where Tom and I were kidnapping E.G. Marshall, tying him up. So Hitchcock tells us (imitating him) "You fellows just go down there and work it out." (laughs) Never said another word! Nothing! He just let us do it. That's what I loved about him. All great directors do that, they say very little to actors. It's the insecure ones who start giving a lot of directions, thinking that they have to be doing something all the time. You never want to tell an actor how to do his job. Good actors know what to do anyway.
Tell me everything a director should know about actors.
Well number one, you don't have to be an authority figure. If you hear a director say "I'm the director and you'll do what I say!"...If you ever feel yourself wanting to say that, you're in deep shit. (laughs) I worked with George Lucas too, and you wouldn't even know he was there, hardly. I did a video for him with Linda Ronstadt, Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris. Still plays sometimes. If you know your material, you've got to get good actors. Casting is 75% of it, or more. If you've got a good script and good actors, you're in good shape.
Was Hollywood pretty overwhelming to a nice boy from Kentucky at first?
Not really when I started to do films, because I'd already been doing plays and those two nightmare road tours...but it was rough at first because I got stuck doing so much television...I did a lot of westerns, Gunsmoke, The Virginian, did The Walter Winchell Files, where I played a cop killer and that got me the The Proud Rebel, my first break. I kept doing TV until '69.
Was any of your family in Kentucky artistic at all?
No, not really. We sang a lot. Our mother taught us. My brothers Ralph and Archie and I sang barbershop harmoney together. We'd sing Irish songs. I was always singing. I was in the Glee Club, choral groups in high school and college, in the Navy. I had a barber shop quartet in high school. Still love barbershop. I still love music. I've got a band now, playing every Monday night down at The Mint. I'm the lead singer and play rhythm guitar and harmonica.
Harry Dean Stanton 1926-2017
Tell me some more about your family.
I had two brothers and two half-sisters and later on I had a half-brother when my mother re-married. My folks got divorced when I was in high school. My father was a farmer, tobacco farmer. He combined that with being a barber. My mother was a hairdresser. And that's about it. My family was the usual family, you know. 50% or more of all marriages end in divorce. It's sad. It's a dysfunctional society as far as I'm concerned. Religion...I'm not into religion much. It hasn't really done the job.
Tell me some more about The Harry Dean Stanton Orchestra.
I've got a great bunch of musicians with me. Jamie James is my guitar player. He was with the King Bees. They had some records on the charts in the early 80's. Tom Slick is the bass player. He's great. Danny Marfisi is our drummer. Stu Ulster plays keyboards. They're all great. We'll be playing at The Mint through September. We're building up a good crowd. We also play Jack's Sugar Shack at Hollywood and Vine about once a month and New Year's Eve.
Have you ever sung on film?
Yeah. In Cool Hand Luke I sang a song called "Just a Closer Walk With Me." Matter of fact, they gave me the guitar that I played in the film. I also taught Paul (Newman) that song he sang, "I Don't Care if it Rains or Freezes, Long as I Got My Plastic Jesus." (laughs) It was a good time. A good shoot.

What was it like working with Sam Peckinpah on Pat Garrett?
Well, the thing I remember most about that shoot is becoming friends with Bob Dylan. We hung out quite a bit during the shoot. Drove together all the way from Guadalajara, Mexico to Kansas City together. We jammed together quite a bit. He liked my Mexican songs. I can sing in Spanish. But Peckinpah, he was a volatile, very difficult guy. He never got on my case, but he was very hard on women. He was a drinker, you know. A real character. My theory was, he had a TV series once about an anti-hero called The Westerner, or something. The guy had a dog, and didn't always win the gunfights. It got canceled...Sam was really trying to do good work, but my theory is he just got pissed off at the whole industry and started making violent films. I never really liked that whole genre, the western. Most were just morality plays with a good guy and bad guy...not really my bag.
What is your favorite genre?
No genre, really. Anything that's original.
You seem to be drawn toward character-driven material and to stay away from blockbuster films with lots of pyrotechnics, explosions, and so on.
Yeah, well that stuff's all too obvious. It's like a circus. Circus maxiumus. It's reminiscent of the Forum in Rome, with the lions and the Christians. (laughs)
Tell me about doing Godfather II.
Well working with (Francis) Coppola is always fun. I did three films with him. One was a television film. I played Rip Van Winkle (laughs). I love Francis. He's a wonderful director. Respects actors. He did something on One From the Heart that was, especially for a "big time" director was really wonderful. There was a scene with Teri Garr and Fred Forrest and he came up to me and said "Harry Dean, you direct this scene." No director has done that before, or since with me. And I did, I helped him direct it. Of course he had the final word on it, but for a director to do something like that is pretty special.
You did Farewell My Lovely with Robert Mitchum, who just died. What was he like?
Oh, he was a legendary character. Great story teller. He was good to be around. Always stoned (laughs).
You hung out with some legendary people yourself during the 60's: Nicholson, Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda. It must've been a great time.
The 60's were great. They ought to re-run 'em. A lot people didn't get it.

What didn't they get?
The whole revolutionary concept is the consciousness revolution against the whole system. The state, government, religion, everything. A lot of eastern religion started having an effect on the culture, too, at that point. Alan Watts, Kerouac, Ginsberg, Leary of course, who leaned a little too heavily on LSD saving the world, but I understood exactly what he was doing. On LSD the ego just goes out the window. It's all tied in to eastern philosophy and Bhuddism, although they certainly wouldn't recommend LSD (laughs) because that's not the answer to it.
It sounds like you really relate to eastern philosophy and spirituality more than western.
Oh yeah, totally. I can't relate to the Judaic-Christian concept at all. It's a fascistic concept. All fear-based. All about there being a boss. Someone in charge. A creator. As far as we know, infinity is a reality. There's no beginning to this and no end. So (the Judaic-Christians) made it, 'Okay, after you die you're gonna live forever, but not before.' But with a positive eternity, there's no ending and you also have to realize there's no beginning, which blows the creationist theory totally out the window.
The other interesting thing about most western religions if you read about their history is that they were all based on commerce: the upper class exploiting the lower, uneducated class.
Well I'm convinced that Christ was a Bhuddist. And the Jewish hierarchy and certainly the Romans didn't want any part of that, because that would blow their whole trip. They were in charge and they had their "Bossman" religion. It's totally hypocritical, egotistical and presumptuous to think that God is a guy, you know?! Mark Twain I think, said "God created man in his own image. Who do you suppose thought of that?" (laughs) It's almost naive, such a ludicrous concept. It's a Bronze Age concept. You have to be careful not to go around preaching, you know. Get labeled as "subversive." Which is why they killed Christ! They always talk about there were years they didn't know where Christ was. I'm convinced that's when he went to India, because everything he talks about is Bhuddistic. "Take no thought for the morrow." "The way and the light." He was trying to teach everybody that everybody's the son of God. Then the Romans came along and said "Uh-uh. You can be the son of God, but nobody else." (laughs) So they kept their authority and kept Christ as the authority figure: followers, fear.
Let's talk some more about your films. Alien sticks out as the one blockbuster you've been involved in.
Yeah. And that's a really classic movie now. I never liked science fiction movies or monster movies, but that one was very believable. I told Ridley Scott during my interview with him that I didn't like those sorts of films and he said "Well I don't either, actually, but I think I can make something of this one." And he did.

How about Repo Man?
That and Paris, Texas are my two favorites. Repo Man was hectic. Both were low budget films, which makes it tough. But I thought Repo Man was a brilliant satire on the whole culture, on everything: violence, religion, desperation of the whole society trying to make it. How a man's got to have a "code." Some wonderful lines in that. (Writer-director) Alex Cox did a wonderful job.
Your performance in Paris, Texas is one of the most amazing I've ever seen, especially since you remain silent throughout most of the film.
Thank you very much. Sam Shepard's writing also contributed a great deal to that. The script is the thing that draws all the talent together: director, actors, everyone. The emotional effect it all has on the audience is due to the script.
Your character in Paris, Texas is one of the saddest I've ever seen. How do you get to a place like that?
I just play myself. Even with other actors, I just play to the actor, I don't play to the character. I talk to the other actors as myself, as the actor, not as the character. That's my approach. Nicholson helped me to start doing that. I had been thinking about it for a long time anyway, that I want to learn to play myself before I start worrying about getting into character with all the limps and accents, which some actors are really good at, like Dustin, Sean Penn, Marlon, Johnny Depp, Meryl Streep.

When you have to go to a dark place with a character, like in Paris, Texas, does that take a toll physically?
No, not with that kind of character. There was something haunting about him, very believable. Dark characters to me are serial killers, like Dennis Hopper's role in Blue Velvet. As a matter of fact, David Lynch wanted to meet with me to play that role originally and I turned the meeting down because I think I was afraid of it. That was a big mistake, though. I wish I'd done it and just seized the bull by the horns. The older I got, the more I didn't want to go (to those dark places) which is a mistake for an actor. And this isn't to say that in the end I would've gotten the role...this is tricky, but Dennis knows all this. There were three roles I turned down that he wound up doing: Blue Velvet, River's Edge and Hoosiers. And Dennis was nominated for an Oscar for Hoosiers. For River's Edge I told 'em to call Dennis (laughs). And I sincerely don't want to sound self-serving or to rain on Dennis' parade, although I probably have (laughs). Dennis and I have laughed about it before.
What was it like working with Scorsese on Last Temptation of Christ?
He's one of the best. I think it was great material. I think that film will be around for years, in spite of all the protests from the whole Christian world who didn't want to see Christ as a human being.
What amazed me about all the protests was that Last Temptation is one of the most reverent films ever made!
It is! All it did was show his last temptation on the cross which was that he wanted to be married with kids and live a regular life. And most of the protesters and their leaders never even saw the film. It was just a follow-the-leader situation.

Do you think most people find it easier to live life that way?
Oh sure. That way they have no responsibility. Total tunnelvision. Wilhelm Reich, who was a contemporary of Freud's, had something interesting to say about that. He said that human beings are terrified of total freedom, and of feeling good. I'm talking about total psychological freedom, which the eastern religions are into, where you're your own guru, really. And your own master, ultimately. In fact everybody's God and capable of that consciousness. That's what Christ was talking about. That was the good news, the gospel, which is a Bhuddist concept. Again, he was a Bhuddist, philosophically and a Jew ethnically.
How was it working with Nicholson, Brando and (director) Arthur Penn on The Missouri Breaks?
That was a great experience. Marlon has since become a great friend to me. Me and Sean Penn and him have talked about doing a film together. And Arthur is a great director. There was this scene where I was with a big group of people around a campfire and all hell breaks loose with shooting, running...and I said to Arthur "What do I do?" and Arthur says "Nothing!" And it was great! It gave me the freedom just to honestly react to everything going on around me.
Harry Dean Stanton 1926-2017
Almost every movie I've seen this summer, I've wanted to yell at the actors "Bring it down!"
There's a great story about that. A veteran director is talking with this young actor who's just chewing the scenery, hamming it up and the director tells him "Cut it in half." So they do another take. The director says "Now cut that in half." They do another take. "Now cut that in half." And the actor yells "If I cut it down anymore I won't be doing anything!" And the director says "Exactly!"
That's a great story.
And the other biggest problem an actor faces is rushing. That was my biggest enemy. Don't let the camera crew and lighting people...they take all the fucking time in the world. Mostly it's the lighting people. And when they finally get ready to shoot it, they're rushing the actors. "C'mon, we gotta get this shot!" Meanwhile you've got a lighting crew taking all the time they want.

Tell me about your newest film She's So Lovely.
It was a real pleasure working with Robin, Sean, John Travolta and Debi Mazar and the rest of the cast and crew. It's always a pleasure working with talented people.
Did you ever work with John Cassavetes?
No. I love Nick, though. I loved working with him. Nick's practically a first time director. This is only his second film as a director. He's as good as any director I've worked with. He's great with actors.
Music plays a major part in your life. What's your favorite kind?
I love all kinds of music: country, folk, rock n' roll if it's not loud. I hate blast out rock n' roll, which most of them make the mistake of doing. They start way up here at a volume and they've got no place to go. As far as artists I like there's Phil Ochs, Dylan, Kristofferson, Credence Clearwater Revival, I love. John Fogerty, their lead singer, is great. Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed, all the black blues singers. I like roots rock. Pretty much everything.
Harry Dean Stanton 1926-2017Two icons: Stanton and Kris Kristofferson, in the documentary "Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction."
Since we've talked so much about eastern religion and philosophy, how did you discover it originally?
I started reading Ralph Waldo Emerson, which got me started questioning the whole traditional concept of religion. I was at the Pasadena Playhouse and found this book just lying in the dust one day. Somebody had dropped a book of Emerson and I picked it up.
That was no accident that you found that.
No. There are no accidents.

Back to Featured Articles on Logo Paperblog