A Book Review by Ali Moosavi.

I’ve always felt like an outsider….”

–Harry Dean Stanton

One of my abiding movie memories comes from the 1984 Edinburgh International Film Festival. I got to watch a late night showing of the full, uncut, 229 minute version of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America and was up early next morning to catch a 9 am screening of Wim Wenders’s Paris, Texas; two masterpieces in the space of a few hours. The image of Harry Dean Stanton’s Travis walking aimlessly in the Texan desert, accompanied by the haunting music of Ry Cooder, is firmly and permanently etched on my mind. I had of course seen Harry Dean Stanton in many other films; Alien (1979), The Godfather Part II (1974), The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973), to name a few. Though in all those films he is a supporting player in the background, it just shows how much renowned directors valued his work that he was constantly in demand, racking up 208 roles in film and TV in a career spanning seven decades.

It might surprise some people that Joseph B. Atkins has written Harry Dean Stanton: Hollywood’s Zen Rebel (University Press of Texas, paperback, 2023), containing around 300 pages, about an actor who never achieved stardom, was never even nominated for an Oscar, whose name on the poster didn’t mean much to those who financed movies. But then again, how many actors have had a film festival named after them during their lifetime? The annual Harry Dean Stanton Film Festival in Lexington, Harry Dean’s birthplace, is this unique event.

Harry joined the navy and then became a singer, performing in stores and on the streets of small towns across the country. You can sample his singing in Cool Hand Luke (1967) and the music CD that he released. He then studied acting, first at the Pasadena Playhouse and later, together with his buddy and lifelong friend Jack Nicholson under Martin Landau. What I really loved about Atkins’s book is that even though I am a big HDS fan, the book covers far more than Harry’s life and career. Atkins has done extensive research, talking to many of Harry’s friends, family and colleagues and come up with truly fascinating stuff relating to the events and people in his movies. For example, one of Harry’s first roles was a bit part in Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man (1956). HDS says that Hitchcock “trusted the actors. He told us to work it out, and we did work it out. We did the whole scene on our own.”  

Jack Nicholson was a lifelong friend of Harry Dean, and we learn from Atkins’s book that in Ride in the Whirlwind (1966, Monte Hellman). Nicholson taught Harry Dean an important lessons about acting. HDS has said, “It was a key film for me. Jack told me not to do anything, just let the wardrobe do the acting. It was a great revelation that became an acting principle—to be, rather than to do. You have to behave on screen as much as you do in real life.” However, Harry Dean was bothered by the fact that some of the actor friends who had struggled with him in those early years, like Warren Oates and specially Jack Nicholson were getting lead roles.

Another interesting incident recalled in the Atkins book is during the shooting of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973, Sam Peckinpah). When Peckinpah was shooting a key scene, he looks into the camera and sees Harry Dean and Bob Dylan jogging in the background! Kris Kristofferson has recalled that Peckinpah “had waited all day just to get this one shot right in which James Coburn rides off into the early morning light after killing me, Peckinpah was furious. He yelled at Harry, ‘You just cost me $25,000.’ Then he picked up a Bowie knife and threw it at him. It was a pretty close call.”

The Missouri Breaks

One interesting fact in the book comes from Thomas McGuane, the scriptwriter for The Missouri Breaks (1976, Arthur Penn), starring Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson (both getting big pay deals for the film, which flopped at the box office). Harry Dean had a supporting role. McGuane has said that if he had directed the film, he would have cast Warren Oates and Harry Dean Stanton in the roles given to Brando and Nicholson respectively. Also, according to McGuane, Brando had a very low opinion of Nicholson’s acting abilities and said at one point that watching him act was watching a man with one finger playing a piano in one key!”

Harry Dean also featured in John Huston’s Wise Blood (1979) and they remained close after that movie. We also find out that they became fellow poker players, and Harry Dean was at the table at Huston’s last game before he died.

One of my favourite films, and one that I feel is vastly underrated, is Francis Ford Coppola’s One from the Heart (1981). Harry Dean had a supporting role in it and Atkins quotes from an interview HDS gave in 1997 in which he said that aside from giving him the role in the film, Coppola “did something on One from the Heart that was, especially for a ‘big time’ director, really wonderful. There was a scene with Teri Garr and Fred Forrest, and he came up to me and said, ‘Harry Dean, you direct this scene.’ No director has done that before or since with me. And I did. I helped him direct it. Of course, he had the final word on it, but for a director to do something like that is pretty special.”

The account of Harry Dean’s brief romantic relationship with Rebecca De Mornay that Atkins describes is quite touching. HDS helped her career by using his contacts in the film business. He got her the role in Risky Business (1983), starring Tom Cruise. Harry Dean has said, “I got her in the movie with Tom Cruise, and she ends up with him. I was heartbroken.”

Harry Dean Stanton: Hollywood’s Zen Rebel is not just a book about a great actor. It is about Hollywood and filmmaking, about life of supporting players, about triumphs and regrets, about love, about life.”

An interesting anecdote in Atkins’s book related to the cult movie, Repo Man (Alex Cox, 1984). When Cox met with Harry Dean’s agent, the agent shocked him by suggesting Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones for the role Cox was offering to Harry Dean! Cox is quoted as saying, “This was an eye-opener. I spent twenty minutes chatting to Harry’s agent about what a great actor Harry was, the wonderful work he’d done. The agent listened and then said, ‘Harry Dean’s okay, but he’s past it. You need someone younger, more up-and-coming. I also represent Mick Jagger. Why don’t you offer Mick Jagger the part?!’”

One role that HDS regretted not accepting was Frank Booth in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986). The role was ultimately played by Dennis Hopper. Harry Dean turned down the role because of the violence but a few years later regretted his decision. He said, “I think I was afraid of it. That was a big mistake, though. I wish I’d done it and just seized the bull by the horns. The older I got, the more I didn’t want to go to those dark places, which is a mistake for an actor.”

But of course the role that Harry Dean Stanton will forever be remembered for is Travis Henderson in Paris, Texas (see top image). Atkins has provided very comprehensive details of how Harry Dean got to be in this movie. Wenders initially wanted Sam Shepard, who had co-written the screenplay for Paris, Texas, and had some acting experience, to play the lead. Wenders had some concerns about Harry Dean having never played a lead role. Harry himself needed more assurance. He was fifty-seven, Nastassja Kinski who would play Travis’s wife, was twenty-two. Harry Dean told Shepard and Wenders, “I want to know if you both are totally convinced that I’m right for the part,” “We want you for the part,” Shepard told him.

Lucky (John Carroll Lynch, 2017)

Wenders has said, “Harry turned that part into his own story. It got more and more hard to say this is Travis and this is Harry Dean. His whole person, his whole biography, everything he had got into character.” Wenders has recalled having lengthy discussions with Harry Dean about the ending. “Harry felt that Travis had deserved this family. I felt he had made up for the past, but that his son and wife had a better chance alone, just the two of them, than with him. I felt that Travis leaving them was a heroic act, and that this act would take much more courage than trying to reestablish that little family. The happy ending, in my book, would have been phony. Harry later on saw my point. 20th Century Fox, who released the film, made another effort to convince me. They wanted me to do ‘just one more shot’: Travis making a U-turn in the end. I declined that, much to their dismay”.

Wenders has recalled a poignant moment with Harry Dean as they were wrapping up their work on Paris, Texas. “At the very end of the shoot, one night Harry opened his heart and told me that he had identified so entirely with the part of Travis as he himself had a son that he had abandoned. He told it to me in tears, and it dawned on me how much of his life Harry had really invested in his performance.”

Paris, Texas was Harry Dean’s favorite film. In an interview in 2013 he said, “It’s my favorite film that I was in. Great directing by Wenders, great writing by Sam Shepard, great cinematography by Robby Müller, great music by Ry Cooder.”

Harry Dean’s favorite joke? “What did the skeleton ask the bartender? ‘Give me a beer and a mop.’”

Harry Dean Stanton: Hollywood’s Zen Rebel is not just a book about a great actor. It is about Hollywood and filmmaking, about life of supporting players, about triumphs and regrets, about love, about life.

Ali Moosavi has worked in documentary television and has written for Film Magazine (Iran), Cine-Eye (London), and Film International (Sweden). He contributed to the second volume of The Directory of World Cinema: Iran (Intellect, 2015).

2 thoughts on “Always an Outsider – Harry Dean Stanton: Hollywood’s Zen Rebel

  1. Hi, thanks for mentioning PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID in your review. As another biographer, I can tell you that it was probably Bob Dylan’s idea to go for a jog at that moment, and he dragged poor HDS into his obliviousness. I interviewed Peckinpah’s assistant Katy Haber for DERVISH DUST: THE LIFE AND WORDS OF JAMES COBURN and she spoke of Dylan’s inexperience at the time.
    Gotta love those University Presses for publishing interesting biographies! Mine is Potomac Books, an imprint of the University of Nebraska Press. Congratulations and best wishes for great sales to Joseph B. Atkins.

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