RIP Harry Dean Stanton, Even If He Took Some of His Best Material With Him


Sure, I’d love to see one more Harry Dean Stanton movie or TV performance.

But what I’d really love would be the transcripts from some of his phone conversations.


Stanton, who died Thursday at the age of 91, was a close pal of Jack Nicholson. They shared a house back in the early 1960s, when they were two of the 250,000 young guys in L.A. who wanted to become movie stars.

He was a close friend of Marlon Brando. They had regular long phone conversations.

Brando never shared any of that. Stanton just mentioned that it happened. Nicholson doesn’t go around discussing this stuff.

So what did they talk about? Method acting? Who all the actors and actresses in their films were sleeping with? Native American rights? The quality of location catering? The Cold War? Directors who didn’t know what they were doing? The best frozen yogurt in L.A.?

Were the conversations deep and interesting or were they indulgent and boring, like something you could have overheard in a supermarket checkout line, except then the speakers wouldn’t have been famous?

Sure, it’s shallow to wonder about stuff like that. It’s just hard not to.

Knowing Harry Dean Stanton talked with a lot of intriguing and private performers made him, honestly, a little more intriguing himself.

That said, he didn’t need reflected celebrity glow to have carved out a career as a justly revered actor.

I’m not sure I ever went to a movie or tuned in a TV show because I saw that Harry Dean Stanton was in it. I came away from dozens of them feeling like the film or show was better because he had been.

Repo Man would have been less of a classic with anyone else playing Bud, the title character. Paris, Texas is a terrific movie even though playing the lead character, Travis Henderson, was somewhat out of character for Stanton.

He built his career and name with supporting roles, so many he would semi-joke that he didn’t really want starring roles because he’d have to work too hard.

His trademark on screen, of course, was looking like he wasn’t working at all. He came off as this lean, weathered guy who just happened to be in front of a camera.

His last major role, as Roman Grant in the HBO polygamy drama Big Love, was also a bit of an anomaly, because Roman was crafty, deceptive and more than somewhat creepy.

Stanton could do that character. More often he was straightforward. Not always the good guy, but you knew where he stood.

If he hadn’t been credible doing that, he probably never would have gotten his acting career off the ground.

He was 28 when he scored his first small role, on the Inner Sanctum TV show. Over the next decade, as he landed a handful of tiny movie parts, what kept him alive – or least kept his career alive – was recurring roles on just about every TV Western in that golden age of the horse opera.

Four roles on Laramie, four on Rawhide, two on Have Gun Will Travel, eight on Gunsmoke. The Rifleman, Johnny Ringo, Bonanza.

I probably saw most of those. I don’t remember Stanton and I certainly don’t remember thinking that here was a future star, if only because Westerns employed so many young actors in those days. But all those roles certainly shaped the persona Stanton would develop as he gradually built up a resume of supporting movie parts and guest TV spots.

Two years after the 1984 release of Paris, Texas, he was hosting Saturday Night Live. You don’t get that spot if you’re just the guy who gets shot by the hero in a string of TV episodes.


So he made it a career, and good for him. The 2011 bio-documentary Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction showed a man who got to spend his life doing what he liked, which was acting and playing in a band.

Some people are more eager than others to talk about their lives, so it’s gratifying when someone seems to enjoy it, which Stanton did.

Even if he took his Jack and Marlon chats with him.



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