Harry Dean Stanton, whose lantern jaw, hollowed-out cheeks, sunken eyes and, more often than not, four-days growth of stubble marked him as one of Hollywood’s most familiar faces and greatest character actors for more than half a century, died today of natural causes at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, his agent John S. Kelly told Deadline. He was 91.
Starting out in 1950s Westerns through this year’s Twin Peaks and Lucky, Stanton lists some 200 film and TV roles to his credit. He’s perhaps best known to younger audiences as Roman Grant, the oily patriarch of a polygamist family in HBO’s 2000s series Big Love, and Carl Rudd, owner of the Fat Trout trailer park in David Lynch’s Showtime revival of Twin Peaks and the 1992 prequel to the original series.
But his friendship with Sam Shepard and appearances in two films penned by the actor-writer – Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas and Robert Altman’s Fool for Love – captured Stanton’s iconoclastic essence as loner, outsider and avatar of controlled rage. (And sometimes not so controlled.)
Born in West Irvine, KY, Stanton served in the Navy in World War II and fought in the Battle of Okinawa. He moved to Los Angeles in the years after the war and did a stint at the Pasadena Playhouse. His first big-screen gig was the 1957 Western Tomahawk Trail and he would work steadily after that for the next 60 years.
From the 1950s into the ’80s, he guested on such classic TV series as The Rifleman, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Untouchables, Gunsmoke, Bonanza, Adam-12, The Fugitive and Laverne & Shirley. During that period he also appeared in such memorable films as How the West Was Won, Cool Hand Luke, Kelly’s Heroes, The Godfather Part II, Alien, The Rose, Private Benjamin and Escape from New York – a name on the credits below such screen legends as Paul Newman, Marlon Brando, Clint Eastwood and Stanton’s lifelong friend Jack Nicholson.
Stanton’s film career picked up in the mid-1980s, when he was in his early 60s. Wim Wenders cast him in Paris, Texas in 1984, and Alex Cox used him opposite Emilio Estevez in the cult film Repo Man that same year. In 1986, John Hughes cast Stanton against type as Molly Ringwold’s working-class suburban dad in Pretty in Pink. He also appeared in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and played, with considerable relish, an ill-fated private eye in Lynch’s Wild at Heart (1990).
He continued to work on the big and small screens throughout the 1990s and into the new millennium. Perhaps his biggest role was in Big Love, the 2006-10 HBO drama starring Bill Paxton as a Utah man with three wives (Jeanne Tripplehorn, Chloe Sevigny and Ginnifer Goodwin) who battles societal mores and a polygamist sect that’s run by Stanton’s Roman Grant and his son Alby (Matt Ross). The series earned back-to-back Golden Globe noms for Best TV Drama, a 2009 Emmy nomination for Outstanding Drama Series and made the AFI’s list of 10 best TV shows of 2010.
Most recently, Stanton recurred on HBO’s Getting On, had a voice role in the toon feature Rango and had a small role in The Avengers. He toplines the upcoming film Lucky. It follows the title character, a 90-year-old atheist, and the quirky characters that inhabit his off-the-map desert town. Having outlived and out-smoked all his contemporaries, the fiercely independent Lucky finds himself at the precipice of life, thrust into a journey of self-exploration, leading toward that which is so often unattainable: enlightenment. It opens September 29 via Magnolia Pictures.
Jeremy Gerard in New York contributed to this story.