Goodbye, Harry Dean

Article by Sarah Walker

— Alien (1979)
Years before it became just another Hollywood franchise, Ridley Scott’s terrifying masterpiece was like nothing anyone had ever seen. Stanton plays Brett, the mercenary, trucker-hat-wearing engineer on the “commercial towing vehicle” Nostromo, and the second victim of the titular monster, after John Hurt’s abdominal blowout. Yet another supporting role for Stanton, but a breakthrough one at that.

— Escape From New York (1981)
Alright, so John Carpenter’s futuristic cult classic isn’t as great as we remember, but it’s campy and fun and so off-the-mark from what NYC actually became. Air Force One crashes into the maximum-security prison island of Manhattan, and Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) must rescue the POTUS from the inmates. Stanton plays “Brain,” a demolitions expert and BF of sexy scream queen Adrienne Barbeau. It’s a nonsensical film (currently getting a Robert Rodriguez reboot) that’s somehow grounded by Stanton’s presence.

— Repo Man (1984)
Helmed by first-time director Alex Cox (Sid & Nancy), this film was required viewing for 80s punks. Stanton plays Bud, an obscenities-spewing repo man who’s on the hunt for a Chevy Malibu with radioactive aliens in the trunk. The role was originally offered to Dennis Hopper, who wanted too much money; thankfully Stanton stepped in, owned the part, and secured his cult status for all eternity.

— Paris, Texas (1984)
HDS’s first leading role, at age 58, in Wim Wenders’ gorgeous desert drama. Sam Shepard co-wrote the screenplay, and it was his idea to cast Stanton as Travis, an amnesiac wanderer who’s lured back to the civilized world by his brother (Dean Stockwell) to reconcile with his wife (Nastassja Kinski) and their young son. Arguably one of the most gut-wrenching scenes in cinema occurs when Travis reconnects with her at the sex club where she works, tears pouring down his face as he recounts their doomed relationship.

— Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction (2012)
Also the name of an album released jointly with the film (Stanton was an accomplished musician), this documentary, directed by Sophie Huber, follows the then 87-year-old actor around, asking him questions he’d rather not answer. Stanton drinks, smokes, and visits with old friends and collaborators — Wim Wenders, David Lynch, Shepard. He’s a tired old man who’s sick of talking, but ask him to sing and he lights up the room.

— Lucky (2017)
Just as the film’s title card says, “Harry Dean Stanton is Lucky”: a bullshit-free curmudgeon whose small, regimented world is comprised of five daily yoga moves, cigarettes, pots of coffee, silent wandering, and the occasional song. This was Stanton’s second leading role, and like Paris, Texas, it was written for him (by his longtime assistant, Logan Sparks). The film serves as both tribute and eulogy, and in it, Lucky and Stanton appear ready to shuffle off this mortal coil — and shuffle off he did, at age 91, two weeks before the film’s release.

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