Harry Dean Stanton's Defining Film Roles

Harry Dean Stanton in Twin Peaks: The Return.
Showtime/Rancho Rosa Partnership Production
Harry Dean Stanton in Twin Peaks: The Return.
Harry Dean Stanton, a veteran actor who appeared in over half a century's worth of film and TV shows, died on September 15 at the age of 91. He left behind a body of work that's remarkable in consistency and quality.

In an industry where movie star looks are everything, Stanton stood out by looking like "a real person." His lean, weathered frame made him look like the kind of guy who could pump your gas, sell you cigarettes, sit next to you on a prison bus, or take your kids to church on Sunday in his "world's best grandpa" plated car. He was a man who looked like he had seen everything that the world had to offer and not a damn bit of it impressed him.

A nicotine-stained stoic, Stanton's hangdog looks weren't the only thing that set him apart from other actors. He had an effective acting technique — one so affective that it rarely seemed like he was acting at all. Whereas so many other performers resorted to Method acting tricks that made them seem like they were trying to shout and emote their way out of the film screen, Stanton blended into his surroundings like a chameleon. He seemed as much a part of the world of his films as a rock or a brick wall. Wherever he turned up onscreen, it seemed like he belonged there.

He's had many memorable roles over his long career, but a few of them stand head and shoulders above his other work. Here are some of the roles that truly defined Harry Dean Stanton as an actor.

click to enlarge Harry Dean Stanton in Ride the Whirlwind. - WALTER READE ORGANIZATION
Harry Dean Stanton in Ride the Whirlwind.
Walter Reade Organization
Ride in the Whirlwind (1966)
Before Stanton got his start in movies, he was a regular bit player on TV Westerns like Rawhide, Bonanza, Laramie, The Rifleman. Stanton's weathered mug cropped up over and over again in "oatmeal operas."

It's only fitting that his first big film break was in a Western, when his old roommate Jack Nicholson got him onboard a Monte Hellman film (the actor would later appear in Hellman's cult classic car flick Two-Lane Blacktop as a hitchhiker).

If you only watch one Stanton movie, make it Alex Cox's sci-fi/punk classic.

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Over the years, Stanton credited this film as being where he learned his less-is-more approach to acting, after Nicholson told him to "let the wardrobe play the character." His one-eyed Blind Dick doesn't feel like a character. He feels like Harry Dean Stanton being dropped into the middle of the Old West after a jaunt in a time machine.

Cool Hand Luke (1967)
In a film full of iconic moments, Stanton's singing almost outshines them all. The moment when his Tramp starts singing "Just A Closer Walk With Thee" shifts the movie onto a higher plane. Stanton's voice is surprisingly powerful.

You could hear all the miles his character must have traveled and suffered on by the way he sang that song. The fact that every film he was in after Cool Hand Luke didn't find an excuse to have him sing something feels like a huge missed opportunity.

click to enlarge Harry Dean Stanton (second from left) in Ridley Scott's Alien. - 20TH CENTURY FOX
Harry Dean Stanton (second from left) in Ridley Scott's Alien.
20th Century Fox
Alien (1979)
Perhaps no other film used Harry Dean's regular Joe mojo quite as effectively as Ridley Scott's classic intergalactic monster movie. Stanton's Brett looks like an honest-to-God working stiff in his rumpled tropical shirts and trucker hat.

Cigarette tucked into his mouth, muttering "right" so many times that he gets called a parrot, Stanton's totally believable as an unlucky schmuck on a spaceship. And his eventual death proves that it does not pay to be a cat person in horror movies.

click to enlarge Harry Dean Stanton in John Carpenter's Escape from New York. - 20TH CENTURY FOX
Harry Dean Stanton in John Carpenter's Escape from New York.
20th Century Fox
Escape from New York (1981)
While getting his start as a character actor in Westerns, Stanton made the transition to a different type of genre movies in the '80s. Following his turn in Alien, he got a juicy role as Brain in John Carpenter's classic dystopian action movie.

Playing well off of Kurt Russell's badass Snake, Stanton shines as a wry presence who has to unload a fair amount of exposition. He also gets to have Adrienne Barbeau as a girlfriend, which definitely feels like a major upgrade after costarring with an acid-spitting H.R. Giger freak.