LOS ANGELES – For more than 60 years, Harry Dean Stanton played crooks and codgers, eccentrics and losers.
He endowed them with pathos and compassion and animated them with his gaunt, unforgettable presence, making would-be fringe figures feel central to the films they appeared in.
The late critic Roger Ebert once said no movie can be altogether bad if it includes Stanton in a supporting role, and the wide cult of fans that included directors and his fellow actors felt the same.
“I think all actors will agree, no one gives a more honest, natural, truer performance than Harry Dean Stanton,” director David Lynch said in presenting Stanton with the Inaugural “Harry Dean Stanton Award” in Los Angeles last year.
Stanton died Friday of natural causes at a Los Angeles hospital at age 91, his agent John S. Kelley said.
Lynch, a frequent collaborator with the actor in projects like “Wild at Heart” and the recent reboot of “Twin Peaks,” said in a statement after Stanton’s death that “Everyone loved him. And with good reason. He was a great actor (actually beyond great) — and a great human being.”
When given a rare turn as a leading man, Stanton more than made the most of it. In Wim Wenders’ 1984 rural drama “Paris, Texas,” Stanton’s near-wordless performance is laced with moments of humor and poignancy. His heartbreakingly stoic delivery of a monologue of repentance to his wife, played by Nastassja Kinski, through a one-way mirror has become the defining moment in his career, in a role he said was his favorite.
“‘Paris, Texas’ gave me a chance to play compassion,” Stanton told an interviewer, “and I’m spelling that with a capital C.”
The film won the grand prize at the Cannes Film Festival and provided the actor with his first star billing, at age 58.
“Repo Man,” released that same year, became another signature film: Stanton starred as the world-weary boss of an auto repossession firm who instructs Emilio Estevez in the tricks of the hazardous trade.
He was widely loved around Hollywood, a drinker and smoker and straight talker with a million stories who palled around with Jack Nicholson and Kris Kristofferson among others and was a hero to such younger stars and brothers-in-partying as Rob Lowe and Estevez.
He appeared in more than 200 movies and TV shows in a career dating to the mid-1950s. A cult-favorite since the ’70s with roles in “Cockfighter,” ”Two-Lane Blacktop” and “Cisco Pike,” his more famous credits ranged from the Oscar-winning epic “The Godfather Part II” to the sci-fi classic “Alien” to the teen flick “Pretty in Pink,” in which he played Molly Ringwald’s father.
While fringe roles and films were a specialty, he also ended up in the work of many of the 20th century’s master auteurs, even Alfred Hitchcock in the director’s serial TV show.
“I worked with the best directors,” Stanton told the a news agency in a 2013 interview, given while chain-smoking in pajamas and a robe. “Martin Scorsese, John Huston, David Lynch, Alfred Hitchcock. Alfred Hitchcock was great.”
He said he could have been a director himself but “it was too much work.”
By his mid-80s, the Lexington Film League in his native Kentucky had founded the Harry Dean Stanton Fest and filmmaker Sophie Huber had made the documentary “Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction,” which included commentary from Wenders, Sam Shepard and Kristofferson.
More recently he reunited with Lynch on Showtime’s “Twin Peaks: The Return” where he reprised his role as the cranky trailer park owner Carl from “Fire Walk With Me.” He also stars with Lynch in the upcoming film “Lucky,” the directorial debut of actor John Carroll Lynch, which has been described as a love letter to Stanton’s life and career.
Stanton, who early in his career used the name Dean Stanton to avoid confusion with another actor, grew up in West Irvine, Kentucky, and said he began singing when he was a year old.
Later, he used music as an escape from his parents’ quarreling and the sometimes brutal treatment he was subjected to by his father. As an adult, he fronted his own band for years, playing western, Mexican, rock and pop standards in small venues around Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley. He also sang and played guitar and harmonica in impromptu sessions with friends, performed a song in “Paris, Texas” and once recorded a duet with Bob Dylan.
Stanton, who never lost his Kentucky accent, said his interest in movies was piqued as a child when he would walk out of every theater “thinking I was Humphrey Bogart.”
After Navy service in the Pacific during World War II, he spent three years at the University of Kentucky and appeared in several plays. Determined to make it in Hollywood, he picked tobacco to earn his fare west.
Three years at the Pasadena Playhouse prepared him for television and movies.
For decades Stanton lived in a small, disheveled house overlooking the San Fernando Valley, and was a fixture at the West Hollywood landmark Dan Tana’s.
Stanton never married, although he had a long relationship with actress Rebecca De Mornay, 35 years his junior. “She left me for Tom Cruise,” Stanton said often.
In listing Stanton’s survivors, the statement announcing his death said only:
“Harry Dean is survived by family and friends who loved him.”