harry dean stanton made clint eastwood seem downright garrulous

Es­ti­mated reading time is 6 min­utes.

READING ABOUT MOVIES be­fore the In­ternet, I often came across de­scrip­tions of Gary Cooper as being Hol­ly­wood’s most la­conic actor. That’s not a common word, nor one that was taught in the class­rooms of America in the ’60s. Ac­cording to Merriam-Webster, Cooper was “using or in­volving the use of a min­imum of words,” which does sum up many of the char­ac­ters he played in his day.

A sec­ondary de­f­i­n­i­tion of la­conic is “con­cise to the point of seeming rude or mys­te­rious.” I sup­pose the other char­ac­ters in Coop­er’s movies could have in­ter­preted the quiet, often stern de­meanor of the star as being rude.

“I play my­self all the time, on camera and off. What else can I do?”

But Coop­er’s early char­ac­ters were rarely less than po­lite, while the western he­roes that he played later in his ca­reer often didn’t even seem to take note of such so­cial mores as po­lite­ness or rude­ness. And strictly speaking, you have to want to be rude to be de­scribed as being rude.

Even as a teenager, I liked the word la­conic. Of course, I rarely used it in con­ver­sa­tion then—nor do I use it now.

Of course, I’m using it right here right now be­cause Harry Dean Stanton is dead. And in his ca­reer on the big screen, Stanton re­fined la­con­ic­ness (sic) to a de­gree where he that Cooper never considered.


Garrulous: poster for the 1952 movie HIGH NOON with Gary Copper.
Gary Cooper, the Chatty Cathy of ’50s west­erns, in his most fa­mous role as former Mar­shall Will Kane in one of Hol­ly­wood’s most fa­mous west­erns, HIGH NOON (1952).

Everybody’s favorite character actor

Like many people who aren’t ar­dent “stu­dents” of film and don’t pay at­ten­tion to every­thing we see and re­call every bit actor in every in­signif­i­cant role, I dis­cov­ered Harry Dean Stanton in 1984 in Wim Winders’ Paris, Texas. The movie was a critic and fan’s fave and a box of­fice failure.

By “dis­cov­ered” I mean that I knew Stanton and had seen him in many movies, al­ways as a char­acter actor with a sec­ondary role. In Winders’ film, he was the star—the leading man.

Harry got the lead serendip­i­tously after meeting screen­writer Sam Shepard in a bar the year be­fore. Paris, Texas re­mains a must-see film, and it marked the be­gin­ning of Stanton being taken se­ri­ously by Hol­ly­wood as more than the guy that gets killed or beat up in the second reel.

“You want people walking away from the con­ver­sa­tion with some kernel of wisdom or some kind of impact.”

Few of us knew that Harry Dean Stanton had started in his first movie in 1956 with an un­cred­ited bit in Al­fred Hitch­cock’s The Wrong Man, and had been in more than fifty films by 1984.

These in­cluded parts in such no­table movies as In The Heat Of The Night and Cool Hand Luke (1967), Kel­ly’s He­roes (1970), The God­fa­ther Part II (1974), Farewell, My Lovely (1975 and the one most of you prob­ably haven’t heard of let alone seen so see it), and the first Alien (1979).

He was a bit of a fave with the both the un­der­ground film world and with fans of rock music of the ’60s, ap­pearing in:

1971   Two-Lane Blacktop (Dennis Wilson and James Taylor)
1973   Pat Gar­rett & Billy The Kid (Bob Dylan)
1978   Re­naldo & Clara (Bob Dylan)

1978   Up In Smoke (Cheech & Chong)

He found his way onto an­other sixty movie sets after Paris, Texas. He also had a ca­reer in tele­vi­sion, ap­pearing in more than sev­enty dif­ferent se­ries. And it is here that I will al­ways re­member Harry Dean Stanton.


Garrulous: poster for the 1984 movie REPO MAN with Harry Dean Stanton and Emilio Estevez.
In 1984, Stanton starred in the un­der­ground classic REPO MEN with a young Emilio Es­tevez. With this movie, Harry main­tained his rap­port with ’60s rock music, as the ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer of the film was Michael Nesmith.

A big hunka love

From 2006 through 2010, Big Love dealt even-handedly with a fic­tional family of fun­da­men­talist Mor­mons in Utah trying to make tra­di­tional polygamy work in a neigh­bor­hood of other Mor­mons for whom polygamy was a link to a past best for­gotten. The se­ries starred Bill Paxton as hus­band and provider to his three loving, hard-working wives played by Jeanne Trip­ple­horn, Chloë Se­vigny, and Gin­nifer Goodwin.

The sto­ry’s bad guy was Roman Grant, the self-proclaimed Prophet of a Mormon com­pound where tra­di­tion is hon­ored and everyone is a po­lyg­a­mist. Played mas­ter­fully by the in­domitable Stanton, Grant was a power unto him­self, with most of the mem­bers of his com­mu­nity be­lieving in his divinity.

While six mem­bers of the cast were nom­i­nated for Golden Globe Awards or Prime­time Emmy Awards, Harry Dean was not among them. How he missed an an­nual nom­i­na­tion I’ll never know, such are the won­ders and mys­teries of the universe.

But he was per­fect as a man that most of us see as cor­rupt and rotten, but who be­lieved that he was car­rying on the will of God in a modern, god­less world.

While Stanton ap­peared in other movies and tele­vi­sion se­ries since, I will al­ways con­sider Big Love and Roman Grant to be his swan song.


Garrulous: poster for the 1964 movie A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS with Clint Eastwood.
Clint East­wood, the Chatty Cathy of ’60s west­erns, in his most fa­mous role as the name­less gunman in A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (1964), the first of three so-called ‘spaghetti west­erns’ with di­rector Sergio Leone.

Downright garrulous in comparison

While looking for an ap­pro­priate obit­uary to post on Face­book, I came across “Harry Dean Stanton, a Zen Cowboy Who Said Every­thing by Saying Nothing” by Stephen Dalton for the Hol­ly­wood Re­porter. It’s per­fect, one of those I-wish-I-had-written-this pieces. So I have lifted the first three para­graphs from Mr Dal­ton’s piece, edited it with ten­der­ness, and present them here:

“Deep in his bones, Harry Dean Stanton un­der­stood the sheer ex­pres­sive power of saying nothing and doing very little. The vet­eran cult actor and mu­si­cian el­e­vated a kind of Zen min­i­malist per­for­mance style into high art.

His bit­ter­sweet re­ward for this un­showy (sic) ap­proach was a spotty screen ca­reer that took decades to blossom, but the huge groundswell of re­spect and good­will he ac­crued served him well in his glo­rious au­tumn years. He gam­bled on the long game, and it fi­nally re­paid him handsomely.

Like a kind of coun­ter­cul­ture Clint East­wood, Stanton had a face that seemed to be hewn from the vast rocky canvas of the Amer­ican land­scape it­self, im­mutable and im­mortal. That mag­nif­i­cently craggy visage, griz­zled and chis­eled, haunted and vul­ner­able, seemed to say every­thing even when his mouth said nothing.

And saying nothing was his de­fault setting.

To Stanton, the bur­den­some du­ties of stardom had lim­ited ap­peal. With his per­ma­nent hangdog frown and blue-collar small-town air, Stanton was type­cast as a char­acter actor, a label he dis­missed during an in­ter­view with The Hol­ly­wood Re­porter in 2013:

‘Every actor is a char­acter actor. I was of­fered a whole ca­reer. I could have been a leading man—much more fa­mous, much richer, and with more pussy, on­screen and off.’

But he chose to shun a main­stream ca­reer be­cause, he said with a dry laugh, [be­cause] it was ‘too much work.’ ”

As Dalton noted, a more modern vari­a­tion on Coop­er’s say-less-do-more char­ac­ters is the on-screen pres­ence of Clint East­wood, going back to the Sergio Leone “spaghetti west­erns.” But Stan­ton’s char­ac­ters made East­wood’s seem down­right gar­ru­lous in com­par­ison. And as close-to-the-vest as East­wood played his verbal cards, I’d still have bet on Stanton in a staring contest.

But Harry Dean Stanton is dead and I’m gonna miss the old blabbermouth . . .


BigLove HarryDeanStanton BillPaxton 1200

FEATURED IMAGE: Stanton as Roman Grant and Bill Paxton as Bill Hen­rickson in Big Love. Paxton died ear­lier this year at 61 from com­pli­ca­tions due to heart surgery. Both men were fine ac­tors. Both ac­tors will be missed. The re­marks in quo­ta­tions marks in the side­bars above were made by Stanton. 5


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