Harry Dean Stanton: a tribute

Lou Thomas praises one of the all-time great characters actors, an immortal presence in classics such as Repo Man, Wild at Heart and Paris, Texas.

Lou Thomas
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Paris, Texas (1984)

Paris, Texas (1984)

An hour into Paris, Texas (1984), Harry Dean Stanton walks his estranged son home from school. This being Wim Wenders’ sublime, slow-burn Palme d’Or winner and Stanton doing the walking, it’s an odd, funny and beguiling scene. For most of it, father and son stroll on different sides of the road and the son mirrors his dad’s confident gait – spins, shuffles, skips and all. By the end of the scene, we know that amnesiac Stanton and his offspring have finally emotionally reconnected after their initial difficulties following the man’s four years of estrangement. It’s something out of nothing, true and spirited.

Paris, Texas (1984)

Paris, Texas (1984)

During the last 60 years, Stanton has been a resolute character actor of almost unrivalled pedigree. For the most part, perambulation aside, his work is a less-is-more masterclass, aeons away from the (admittedly equally superb) histrionics one often finds in the work of his former housemate and close friend/party buddy Jack Nicholson. When viewers see Stanton on screen, they know he has lived and that’s enough.

Wild at Heart (1990)

Wild at Heart (1990)

It would be a fool’s errand to try to get to the heart of all the 200-250 film and TV appearances Stanton guesses he has made (though he himself has long since lost count) but most people with an interest in brilliant, life-affirming and sometimes plain odd American cinema will have come across him many times. He’s in Cool Hand Luke (1967), The Godfather Part II (1974) and The Missouri Breaks (1976). He’s the reluctant, maybe tending towards recalcitrant, engineer Brett in Alien (1979). He’s the wild, scheming, bullying and cheating preacher Asa Hawks in Wise Blood (1979). He’s heartbreaking and heartbroken as Andie’s dad in Pretty in Pink (1986). He’s the hapless private detective Johnnie Farragut in Wild at Heart (1990). But, best of all, he’s Bud in Repo Man (1984).

Alex Cox’s Repo Man is a punk-rock cult classic. And not just because of its peerless hardcore soundtrack. Like many cult films, it can easily be dismissed as frivolous, weird or esoteric. A fair reaction. It would be easy not to get it. The lead characters are all named after beers, for one thing. For another, one scene sees the eccentric Miller (Tracey Walter) discusses the connections between UFOs, missing people in South America and time travel, and ends with one of the picture’s best and most quotable lines: “The more you drive, the less intelligent you are.” Elsewhere the film is populated by crazed televangelists, conspiracy theories and incompetent thieves (the running joke/subplot about a teenage crew of robbers would make a brilliant film on its own). Trying to make sense of it all is Harry Dean Stanton, a seen-it-all-before repo man schooling Emilio Estevez in the fine art of repossessing cars.

Repo Man (1984)

Repo Man (1984)

Stanton’s acting is consistently brilliant because he often plays a normal bloke viewers can totally believe in. His performance as Bud is no exception. We first see him conning Estevez into working for him and quickly delve into his very particular, edgy way of living. We find out that what makes him tick is the grimy life of late hours, car chases and living on your wits, a street sensibility of poise, routine calmness under pressure and a steadfast refusal to put up with the quotidian hassles we all face. Etched on his face in almost every scene is a combination of pragmatism, confidence in his professional ability and wry amusement at the way things are unfolding. Not a bad way to approach any job, in fact.

Thank you, Harry Dean, and eternal respect for six decades of being a reliable, likeable and compelling screen presence.

  • Harry Dean Stanton’s final film, Lucky, screens at this year’s BFI London Film Festival

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