Harry Dean Stanton: actor who found cult stardom late in life

Harry Dean Stanton, the gaunt, hollow-eyed, scene-stealing character actor, broke out of obscurity in his late fifties in two starring movie roles and capped his career with an acclaimed characterisation as a corrupt polygamist on the HBO series Big Love.

Stanton, who has died aged 91, spent two decades typecast in Hollywood as cowboys and villains before his unusual talents began to attract notice on the strength of his performances in the movies Straight Time (1978), Alien, Wise Blood and The Rose (all 1979); and Escape From New York (1981).

Stanton (centre) with Tom Skerritt and Veronica Cartwright in ‘Alien’ (1979) (Getty)

In those roles – as a former criminal bored in the law-abiding world, a 22nd-century space traveller, a street preacher pretending to be blind, a devastatingly cruel country-music star and a crazed demolitions expert – his look and his down-home voice were the same, but his characters were distinct and memorable. 

Vincent Canby wrote in The New York Times in 1978 that Stanton’s “mysterious gift” was “to be able to make everything he does seem immediately authentic”. The critic Roger Ebert once wrote that Stanton was one of two character actors (the other was M Emmet Walsh) whose presence in a movie guaranteed that it could not be “altogether bad”.

But he remained largely unknown to the general public until 1984, when the seemingly impossible, or at least the unexpected, happened: Stanton, the quintessential supporting player, became a leading man.

That year he starred as a wandering amnesiac reunited with his family in Paris, Texas, which won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, and as a fast-talking automobile thief training Emilio Estevez in the ways of his world in Alex Cox’s cult comedy Repo Man.

Stanton with Isaac Hayes and Adrienne Barbeau in John Carpenter’s 1981 sci-fi classic ‘Escape from New York’ (Corbis/Getty)

If there was any remaining doubt about his newly attained star status, it was eliminated in 1986 when he was invited to host Saturday Night Live. Stanton was never anonymous again, although he continued to make his contributions almost entirely in supporting roles. He played Molly Ringwald’s underemployed father in the teenage romance Pretty in Pink (1986), the apostle Paul in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), a private eye in David Lynch’s Wild at Heart (1990), a judge in Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), the…

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