BMD Picks Their Favorite Harry Dean Stanton Roles

An attempt at eulogizing the late, great character actor.

He was your best friend. He was your worst enemy. He was your neighbor. He was an enigma. He was completely relatable, while also totally unknowable, all at once. Harry Dean Stanton embodied the word “icon” absolutely, parlaying the visage of a used car salesman into a spiritual and sexual healer, never trustworthy, but always welcome. Now he’s gone, and there’s a void in existence where this great man used to be.

It’s difficult to eulogize an artist who owned his particular brand so thoroughly, yet transcended the term “character actor” in way few ever could. So, instead of attempting to sum up Stanton’s seemingly endless contributions to the world of filmed entertainment, we here at BMD got together and took some time to share our thoughts on our favorite HDS roles. Even then, it doesn’t feel like enough (as you’ll notice one of his best characters – Bud from Repo Man – is absent from the list), but what can we say? Harry Dean Stanton was a legend, and no amount of spilled ink could ever do a career like his justice.

Kelly’s Heroes [1970] (d. Brian G. Hutton, w. Troy Kennedy-Martin)

If you look at the long list of amazing actors that appear in 1970’s Kelly’s Heroes, it might take a minute before you find Harry Dean Stanton’s name. But that’s typical for the actor. While we remember him most for his bigger roles in arguably more classic films, movie watchers are far more likely to see him pop in and out of already stacked films, if only for a minute. We call that the “oh shit, it’s Harry Dean Stanton” effect.

Stanton plays just one of many soldiers that make up Kelly’s (Clint Eastwood) group of Army grunts, who decide to go behind enemy lines for a good, old fashioned German bank robbery. His role is small and mostly peppered in for asides, but of course he stands out for being Harry Dean Stanton (and for singing and playing harmonica!), and contributes greatly to the notion that all of these guys - while not being Clint Eastwood, Telly Savalas, Don Rickles or Donald Sutherland - are their own individual characters you immediately feel you know despite minimal screen time.

Stanton excelled at roles like this, and one gets the idea that he loved just being on set, palling around without much responsibility. For all his iconic cinematic contributions, this flavor, this special spice added to so many great dishes, is what I think about when I think about HDS. He was a true gift. And also, Kelly’s Heroes is fucking great if you haven’t’ seen it. – Evan Saathoff

The Films of Monte Hellman

(Ride in the Whirlwind, Two-Lane Blacktop, Cockfighter) [1966/1971/1974]

(d. Monte Hellman, w. Jack Nicholson, Rudy Wurlitzer, Will Corry & Charles Willeford)

Harry Dean Stanton was a working actor and would appear in movies and TV shows of any genre, but in Monte Hellman’s films his hangdog face (often in congress with Warren Oates’) felt like a specific signifier of the melancholy at the heart of the American West. In each film, his presence said there was something sad and painful about the taming of this frontier, and when taken together they paint a tragic picture.

The actor first worked for Hellman in the director’s low-budget western Ride in the Whirlwind (written by the film’s star and Stanton’s sometime roommate, Jack Nicholson). Just sticking Stanton’s eye-patched scarecrow mug in Whirlwind gave it a deconstructionist vibe, a sign that maybe the myth of the Western cowboy is a little messier, a little uglier than the movies told us. That frontier is well and conquered in Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop, with nothing left for men to do but to drive back and forth across it in search of empty victory. Thirty-four years before Brokeback Mountain, Stanton’s brief cameo as a gay hitchhiker is an impactful paean to loneliness, a cowboy silhouette wandering the landscape, bereft of human connection. By the time we get to Cockfighter (1974), which casts Stanton as the unlikely Apollo Creed to Oates’ Rocky in the competitive world of cockfighting, these conquerors of the land have taken to turning nature on itself for their own amusement. Sporting an expensive suit, a lazy smile and a condescending attitude, Stanton is a successful bloodsport profiteer; a slick, quiet monster who’ll take your money, your house, even your woman if you’re foolish enough to let him.  – Phil Nobile Jr.

Alien [1979] (d. Ridley Scott, w. Dan O’Bannon)

They say ninety percent of directing is casting. But really, ninety percent of directing is casting Harry Dean Stanton. Ridley Scott assembled a top-flight cast for Alien, as has been frequently noted, but rarely do we speak about what an actor’s mere presence lends to the film. Casting Harry Dean Stanton in a role automatically gave any film an everyman authenticity – absolutely vital in creating the blue-collar future of Alien. As Brett, Stanton’s quiet screen presence makes the Nostromo’s grimy industrial aesthetic feel like home. While the other cast members do the heavy lifting of the plot, Stanton lends the film texture and grounds its high concept in working-class realism. That Brett dies doing something as simple as looking for a lost cat makes his character all the more human – and his death all the more tragic. Apply the same logic to Stanton's own death, and you'll understand why people are so heartbroken. Even in a space monster movie, Stanton was our affable neighbor, a working Joe we could always rely on to get the job done.  – Andrew Todd

Escape From New York [1981] (d. John Carpenter, w. Nick Castle and John Carpenter)

Harry Dean Stanton's character Brain (don't call him Harold) doesn't enter John Carpenter's Escape From New York until around the halfway point, which means on subsequent viewings you might find yourself impatiently waiting for him to show up. In a film that might be overstuffed with great characters, the fact that you want to spend more time with Brain might be the movie’s most fascinating element; a weasel who looks out only for himself and will shift his allegiance twice in a single conversation if it means he might survive another ten seconds.

Yet that's the character on paper - onscreen he's played by Harry Dean Stanton, which means you can't help but love the guy even as he's selling our hero down the river. I could happily watch an entire movie of Brain scheming his way through life on Manhattan Island Prison, but I guess I'll settle for one tiny moment near the end of the film, after Brain manages to secure a seat for him and Maggie (Adrienne Barbeau) on Snake's ride out of New York. It's his 5th or 6th "you need me" kinda moment in the film, and when his gamble works, he turns and offers Barbeau the greatest shit-eating grin I've ever seen in a motion picture. It's the sort of moment that can make anyone an instant fan out of an actor – I know that's what it did for me. – Brian Collins

Paris, Texas [1984] (d. Wim Wenders, w. LM Kit Carson & Sam Shepard)

“I used to make long speeches to you after you left. I used to talk to you all the time even though I was alone.”

Travis Henderson was Harry Dean Stanton’s favorite character, and for good reason. The wayward soul of Wim Wenders’ ’84 existential masterpiece (and one of this writer’s top ten favorite films of all time), in which the shards of a dissolved marriage have left its former participants nothing more than feral animals lost in life’s endless desert, Henderson isn’t so much a beacon of hope as he is a representation of the beyond. LM Kit Carson and Sam Shepard take the idealistic imagery of the American West and transform it into an abyss, where a man can be lost or cleansed (or both) following a trauma so great, it causes him to want to escape into its scorching embrace. Wenders filters this wasteland through his distinctly European lens (the auteur was, after all, a pioneer in the 70s New German Cinema), and the end result is a hauntingly sad treatise on not just male fragility, but also the flimsiness of the basic human condition at large.

Yet without Stanton, none of it would work. Travis’ search to find the wife he tragically ran away from (a devastatingly beautiful and despondent Nastassja Kinski), and reconcile with the young son he abandoned, allows Stanton to transform himself into a fleshy ghost, floating in and out of scenarios, while those who once called him friend and family cannot seem to comprehend this newly transfigured shell of a person. Stanton’s taking the loneliness he embodied in Monte Hellman’s acid Westerns and stretching it to the breaking point, while never once losing sight of Henderson’s beautiful core. This culminates in one of the greatest monologues in filmic history, which acts like a climactic set piece in a brilliant action picture would – only instead of bombastic fireworks, we’re watching a man reclaim his past and own his worst mistakes. All the while, we stare into Stanton’s soft, brown eyes, as they convey miles upon miles of highway, on which he lost everything he once was. Then he runs again, until he loses what he regained. No movie will ever haunt me the way that first viewing of Paris, Texas did, because I could see every fear I’d ever harbored, right there on that weathered, craggy mug. Godspeed, Harry. You were the greatest who ever lived. – Jacob Knight

Pretty In Pink [1986] (d. Howard Deutch, w. John Hughes)

He's not the perfect dad. He's terminally unemployed, spends his days drinking cheap beer on the couch or in a lawn chair, lives in a perpetual state of mourning after his wife walked out on him. But Harry Dean Stanton's Jack adds a level of humanity and pathos to the frilly 1986 John Hughes-written (though Howard Deutch directed) classic Pretty in Pink

Jack also offers a lens for viewing Andie (Molly Ringwald) as a true heroine instead of a Hollywood victim. Sure, Andie's "poor," but she has a cool car, amazing style, a great job at TRAX (with the world's best boss in Annie Potts' Iona) and the only three men in this movie who aren't related to her are in love with her. It'd be hard to feel much sympathy for Andie if not for Jack. We learn to love Andie as we watch her take care of her father, who by all rights should be taking care of her. We cry with her as she begs her dad, "Why can't you just realize that she's gone and she's not gonna come back?" 

But thanks to Stanton's warm, woeful performance, we never blame Jack for his chronic inability to get his shit together. We cry with him, too, when he answers Andie, simply, "Because I love her, that's why." And when he brings his daughter a pink prom dress he bought from the thrift store, our hearts melt a little at this kind and pitiable man who has given Andie almost nothing she needs – financial support, accountability, typical parental guidance – but who has kept her rich in love in the years since her mom bailed on them both. – Meredith Borders

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me / The Return [1992 / 2017]

(d. David Lynch, w. David Lynch, Robert Engels & Mark Frost)

Like so many others, I did not love David Lynch's Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me on first viewing. The story of Laura Palmer's final days simply wasn't what I wanted Fire Walk With Me to be, and I was both young and arrogant enough to feel confident writing the film off as a result. Half a dozen viewings and a whole lotta growing up later, my outlook on the film has completely changed (I now consider it one of the greatest horror movies ever made), and I've been thrilled to see others giving Fire Walk With Me a similar reappraisal over the last half-decade. 

While I wasn't always a fan of the film as a whole, I have always been a fan of Fire Walk With Me's opening half hour, which takes place not in Twin Peaks, WA, but in the neighboring town of Deer Meadow, which basically functions as the Bizarro World version of Twin Peaks. This is where we first encounter Harry Dean Stanton's Carl Rodd, owner and proprietor of the Fat Trout Trailer Park. Everyone we meet in Deer Meadow is memorable in their own terrible way (the horrendous local sheriff, the venomous waitress behind the counter in Hap's Diner), but Carl Rodd has always been my favorite. 

Let me tell you about my friend Carl Rodd. Carl wanders about all day in a dirty bathrobe. He has no time for your shit. He doesn't want to be disturbed before he's had his coffee, he's made grouchy by literally everything around him, and nothing makes any goddamn sense to him anymore. Between how he's written and how Stanton plays him, I understand Carl Rodd on a molecular level. Were I a character in the Twin Peaks universe, I would absolutely be Carl Rodd. 

Final thought: when Carl popped up again in this year's Twin Peaks: The Return, I was overjoyed. After all these years, it turned out Carl was still in business, running the "New" Fat Trout Trailer Park within Peaks’ city limits. He looked a little worse for the wear, perhaps, but it felt to me like relocating to Twin Peaks had done Carl some good. Stanton's work here (at the ripe old age of ninety, no less) was no less sharp than it had ever been, and his presence on the show ended up being one of my favorite things about Twin Peaks' triumphant return. Now that he's passed, I'll probably watch The Return a little differently, but – all things considered – Stanton knocking it out of the park one last time for David Lynch feels like a fitting send-off for one of our most iconic character actors. – Scott Wampler

The Avengers [2012] (d. & w. Joss Whedon)

The Avengers changed the way we look at superhero movies. The heroic ensemble significantly raised the bar for films of its kind not just through its action, but with its characters.  It’s not easy to shine in a movie with six larger than life heroes played by some of Hollywood’s biggest stars, but that’s just what Harry Dean Stanton did with this and any other role he was given. His charming and kind security guard brought much needed levity to what would otherwise be a grim scene with Bruce Banner. Hell, without him, The Hulk may not have returned to the fight. With that in mind, I think we all know who the real hero of The Avengers was. – Amelia Emberwing