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King of the Hoboes

July 13th, 2009 · 7 Comments

Harry Dean Stanton

By Joe Valdez

Harry Dean Stanton
was born July 14, 1926 in West Irvine, Kentucky. His father was a tobacco farmer — supplementing income with work as a barber — and his mother was a hairdresser. Attending LaFayette Senior High School in Lexington, Stanton joined choral groups and sang in a barbershop quartet with his two brothers. Right out of high school, Stanton tried joining the Merchant Marines, but missed the enlistment deadline by a day. With World War II raging, he was drafted into the U.S. Navy, where his uncle — a chief petty officer — got him a job as ship’s cook. Stanton would serve on an LST (a troop landing ship) during the Battle of Okinawa.

Returning home after the war, Stanton enrolled at the University of Kentucky, studying journalism, then radio arts, before trying a role as Alfred Doolittle in a staging of Pygmalion. Stanton recalled, “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.” Urged to go to New York, Stanton instead settled in Los Angeles for two years of study at the Pasadena Playhouse. He followed this by answering the ad of a Baptist revival preacher who was touring with a band.

Harry Dean Stanton, The Untouchables, 1961

Finally making it to New York, Stanton studied under esteemed Method acting teacher Stella Adler, but was put back on the road touring with the Strawbridge Children’s Theatre. Television got him next. Stanton’s role as a cop killer on an episode of The Walter Winchell File won him the job of a bad guy in the Alan Ladd flick The Proud Rebel in 1957. Stanton would appear in an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents (with Burt Reynolds) in 1960 and two episodes of The Untouchables the following year. He was credited as “Dean Stanton” to avoid confusion with Harry Stanton, whom Harry Dean would do an episode of Petticoat Junction with in 1969.

Stanton was best man at the 1962 wedding of Jack Nicholson. In 1965, Stanton was cast in a western written by and starring Nicholson titled Ride in the Whirlwind. Nicholson advised his friend to let the wardrobe do the acting and to just be himself. ”After Jack said that, my whole approach to acting opened up. I was the head of a gang, I had a patch over one eye and a derby hat, and my name was Blind Dick Reilly … It dawned on me that the crew, the writers, the director, and the thousands and thousands of people who watch it all know that I’m the head of a gang. I can be indecisive, I can make mistakes, but I’m still the head of a gang. So that just freed me.”

Harry Dean Stanton, Cool Hand Luke, 1967

Amid the ensemble of Cool Hand Luke (1967), Stanton picked a guitar and sang three songs for the Paul Newman chain gang classic. From there, Stanton’s careless rambler would find his way into some of the classic films of the next 15 years: as a burned out musician in Cisco Pike (1972), a desperado in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973), gunman Homer Van Meter in Dillinger (1973), an FBI agent in The Godfather, Part II (1974), an outlaw gunned down by Marlon Brando in The Missouri Breaks (1976), a stick-up man opposite Dustin Hoffman in Straight Time (1978), a space trucker in Alien (1979) and the idiosyncratic Brain in Escape From New York (1981).

1984 was a career milestone in for Harry Dean Stanton. He accepted a lead role in Paris, Texas, playing a mysterious drifter reunited with his family, directed by Wim Wenders from a script by Sam Shepard. Stanton would then play Emilio Estevez’s laconic mentor in the cult classic Repo Man. Both remain favorites among the actor’s own work. Stanton recalled, “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. Alex Cox did a wonderful job.”

Harry Dean Stanton, Repo Man, 1984

Encouraged by blues guitarist Ry Cooder during his Paris, Texas period, Stanton would go on to sing and play rhythm guitar and harmonica for The Harry Dean Stanton Band, performing pickup gigs around Los Angeles over the next three decades. He counts Bob Dylan, Kris Kristofferson, ‘30s jazz, mariachi songs and Cole Porter tunes among favorites to perform. Stanton was even asked to sing at the funeral of his friend Hunter S. Thompson in 2005. The following year, he accepted the role of a polygamist cult leader on the HBO series Big Love. The series –now in its fourth season — is drawing Stanton some of the best notices of his career.

Film critic Roger Ebert went as far as to coin “The Stanton-Walsh Rule”, which stated that no movie featuring Harry Dean Stanton or M. Emmet Walsh could be altogether bad (Ebert amended his rule after Stanton appeared in Dream A Little Dream and Walsh popped up in Wild Wild West, but you can bank on it 98% of the time). Stanton’s unlikely charisma lies in his droopy sincerity. Like ‘A’ Number One, king of the hoboes, Stanton exudes the abandon of a wanderer — guitar case in one hand, cigarette in the other — most content with wherever he’s standing. He currently lives tucked away in the Hollywood Hills and is addicted to the Game Show Channel.

Your thoughts?

Harry Dean Stanton, Big Love, 2006

Where Are You Getting This *&#!?
“Harry Dean Stanton”
By Alex Simon. Venice Magazine, August 1997

“Wild At Heart”
By Karen Valby. Entertainment Weekly. 26 May 2006


Tags: United Federation of Character Actors

7 responses so far ↓

  • 1 moviezzz // Jul 13, 2009 at 5:22 pm

    Great pick. He is especially good on BIG LOVE.

    Although I have to argue with Ebert. DREAM A LITTLE DREAM really isn’t that bad. It is the best of the 80’s body switch movies.

  • 2 Tommy Salami // Jul 13, 2009 at 7:30 pm

    Great post! among many. I have awarded you a Great Read for your unfailing duty to write entertaining content. The post with the fancy widdle badge will show up in the morning.

  • 3 Peg Patrick // Jul 14, 2009 at 8:53 am

    That first, most recent picture of Mr. Stanton really tells you everything you need to know. The guy just wears his entire life on his face.

    Jack Nicholson had the right idea when he told his buddy to just relax let the costume do most of the work. Harry Dean Stanton is a deeply talented guy, but his unimitable look served as his calling card from the very beginning of such an illustrious career.

    Great post, my dear. Well done.

  • 4 Pat Evans // Jul 16, 2009 at 8:48 am

    The ultimate Stanton moment for me is in “The Straight Story”. When he sees his brother Farnsworth arrive, he just looks up — and his eyes say more than words ever can.

  • 5 Joe Valdez // Jul 16, 2009 at 10:55 am

    Jim: I’m just starting to get into Big Love. Whoever cast that show deserves an award of some type. As for Dream a Little Dream, I can’t recall what Ebert’s problem with that movie was. I always thought of it as an innocent little B-movie. You’ve made me curious to check it out.

    Tommy: My last award was Outstanding Theatre Arts performer in the 8th grade. Sadly, a role on Mad TV eluded me. I hope the Good Read Award is a sign of better things to come. Thanks!

    Peggy: Harry Dean seems to have spent a lifetime just being himself, as opposed to angling to win notoriety or million dollar paychecks like so many other performers. As a result, he’s lasted longer. He’s certainly proof that cigarettes, scotch and partying don’t necessarily shorten your life span. Thanks for commenting!

    Patricia: According to Stanton, he was offered the role of Frank Booth in Blue Velvet, as well as the parts in Hoosiers and River’s Edge that Dennis Hopper would use to refuel his comeback. I think Stanton might have been too laconic to play Frank, but he has been memorable in several David Lynch films since, including The Straight Story. Thank you for commenting!

  • 6 Joseph R. Valdez // Jul 18, 2009 at 8:44 am

    Dear #1 son,
    Great read! Still can’t help but wonder just how long denial of “cigarettes, scotch and partying” could have increased his life span and in the process his wonderful career’s too. Me thinks, contrary to your reply to Peggy , the fact is his life span has been unalterably shortened by this self-abuse.


  • 7 lainhart // Jan 31, 2010 at 8:28 pm

    long way from irvine ky. my mom and dad still live on jones branch, wagersville. dad was from red lick. mom was a brinegar. kentucky hasnt changed a whole lot. come see us sometime… it will make you homesick, for california….

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