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What Harry Dean Stanton Taught Me About Life

Wise words the late, great film actor told me 35 years ago


When Harry Dean Stanton was 90, he made his final picture, Lucky, which is in theaters now. He died September 14th at 91. There’s hardly a moment of the film that Stanton isn’t in. He plays Lucky, a cantankerous World War II vet who lives by himself in a small desert town in Arizona. He’s a man of few words.

Stanton didn’t need much dialogue. There are entire monologues in his silent stares.

I saw Lucky at my local duplex the other night. As the credits rolled, the audience, mostly of my boomer generation, broke into applause. They understood the movie’s message about not retreating from life. Whatever your age, walk in the sunlight.

When I got home from the theater, I made a visit to my attic.  It’s where I keep a cardboard box filled with yellowed newspaper clips from my days as a reporter at The San Francisco Examiner. I got lucky. I found what I was looking for: an interview I had done with the gaunt, beleaguered-looking actor in 1982. At the time, I was 32. Harry Dean Stanton was 55.

I wish I had grasped what he was saying back then. I do now.

Harry Dean Stanton: An Actor’s Actor

Stanton had come to San Francisco to promote a French art-house film called Death Watch, in which he had a supporting role.

He wasn’t famous at the time, even though he had already been in dozens of movies; small parts in films like Cool Hand Luke, Godfather II and The Missouri Breaks.  Fame wouldn’t come for two more years, when he played a loner with amnesia in Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas.

I got a call from a publicist for Death Watch asking me if I would interview Stanton over lunch at a Nob Hill hotel. Everyone else in the press had declined the offer. “Do you know who Harry Dean Stanton is?” the PR woman asked me. I said, “Of course,” but I wasn’t sure. “Harry who?” I thought.

I researched the actor before the interview, which wasn’t so easy in those pre-Google days. I learned that he grew up in Kentucky, was unmarried and lived in Los Angeles. Stanton, I discovered, was anything but “Harry, who?” to his peers. He was an actor’s actor who always got the job done.

If your circle of friends defines you, then Stanton was the coolest guy on the planet.  “Let’s see,” he said, when I pressed him to name some of his celebrity pals. “I hang out with Nicholson, Harvey Keitel and Bob DeNiro. I hung out with Dustin for a while when we made Straight Time. (John) Huston comes over to my house to play poker. I’m not name dropping. It happens to be the truth.”

I don’t recall what Stanton had for lunch. I do remember him smoking a lot of cigarettes. You could light up anywhere then.

Trusting His Instincts

In my article, I said that interviewing Stanton was like trying to pull a stop sign out of a cement sidewalk. He didn’t like talking about himself. “I’ve never sought publicity,” he told me. “I don’t have a press agent. I made my mind up years ago that I hated interviews and wouldn’t do them.”

Why he chose to make this exception I still don’t know. He looked genuinely embarrassed when a photographer showed up to take his picture.

Towards the end of the interview, Stanton started to relax and open up more about himself. Age had taught him a few things.

“When I started out, I was good, but I’ve grown tremendously. I trust myself more,” he told me.  “I wish I had more confidence in myself in the beginning. I’ve had a lot of growing up and learning to relax. It’s taken years for me to be confident with my talent. My goal in life is not to be typical. Unique is where it’s at. I want to realize my potential in a natural, organic and totally realistic fashion. If that means being a star or a character actor, so be it. My work speaks for itself. Years and years ago, I decided I’d get so good they’d have to hire me.”

And that they did, for 35 more years.

“Everything Harry Dean Stanton has done in his career, and his life, has brought him to his moment of triumph in Lucky, wrote Variety. “It is quite simply, the performance of a lifetime.”

Sad that he didn’t live to hear the praise. There’s even Oscar talk.

But then it wasn’t fame he was after.

John Stark
By John Stark
John Stark is a writer, editor and real estate agent in Boston who previously worked at Next Avenue. You can contact him at [email protected]

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