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Harry Dean Stanton’s Best Performances: An IndieWire Tribute to ‘Paris, Texas,’ ‘Pretty in Pink,’ ‘Twin Peaks,’ and More

The actor died at 91 earlier today.

Harry Dean Stanton stole more scenes than most other actors even appeared in. Over his six-decade career, the late, great actor managed the improbable feat of being as recognizable from his highbrow fare (like “Paris, Texas”) as he was from his high-school movie (“Pretty in Pink”) — and that was just in the mid-‘80s.

Stanton also worked with David Lynch, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, John Carpenter, and Monte Hellman, among many others; he left his indelible mark on all their movies, as he did on those who watched them. Here are some of our favorites.

Alien

Harry Dean Stanton in Alien
“Right.” Harry Dean Stanton doesn’t say much else in “Alien,” but he doesn’t need to. Along with Yaphet Kotto’s Parker, his Brett provides some much-needed levity aboard the USCSS Nostromo — it may be true that in space no one can hear you scream, but we’re all smiling on the other side of the screen whenever Stanton is on it. And though there are many undignified deaths in the world of “Alien,” his isn’t one of them: Brett is seized upon by the xenomorph while looking for Jonesy, the crew’s beloved cat; Stanton brings his signature mix of workmanlike laconicism and soul-searching to the role, which is essential — in order to fear the alien, we have to believe that the people it hunts are worth saving. That’s never a problem when Brett is around. —MN

“Pretty in Pink”

Molly Ringwald and Harry Dean Stanton in Pretty in Pink

John Hughes’ run of ’80s high school–set dramedies, though still best known and best loved for their take on the teen experience, always managed to slip in some canny (and often heartbreaking) commentary on the pains of adulthood, too. In “The Breakfast Club,” each character was irrevocably impacted by the deficiencies of their parents, while even the more goofy “Sixteen Candles” finds space for young Samantha to be disappointed by her elders (they forgot her birthday!), but it’s the Hughes-penned and Howard Deutch–directed “Pretty in Pink” that includes a parent in crisis who gets his own arc. And with someone like Stanton cast as Molly Ringwald’s hangdog dad Jack, why wouldn’t the character get his own space to add still more well-made drama to a film that’s as dark as these features get.” Perfect casting that’s also somehow a major coup — Stanton?? as the down-and-out dad in a teen movie?? — allowed him to make a supporting role his own, with gravitas to spare. Like any Hughes film of the era, “Pretty in Pink” is ostensibly a love story, but its most satisfying bits come care of Ringwald’s Andie’s other relationships, including her father. Always perfectly calibrated, never over the top, Stanton breathes life into Jack’s complicated middle age, both disappointed in himself and what he’s put out into the world, especially as it applies to Andie. Silly as the film’s big emotional twist may read on paper (that dress!), it’s Stanton that makes it sing, bringing Andie an offering, a hope, a second chance. —KE

“Paris, Texas”

Wim Wenders’ “Paris, Texas” gave lanky veteran character actor Harry Dean Stanton, at 58, the iconic leading role of his career. Written by the late L.M. Kit Carson and Sam Shepard, it finds laconic desert drifter Travis Henderson mysterious and disconnected until he is picked up by his brother (Dean Stockwell) and returned home to his wife (Nastassja Kinski) and young son (Hunter Carson). Stanton’s sad eyes carry this movie. —AT

“Twin Peaks: The Return”

Stanton’s final television appearance was a doozy, reviving his “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me” character Carl Rodd for “Twin Peaks: The Return.” Although Carl spent much of his five episodes looking forlorn at his Fat Trout Trailer Park, he offered two unforgettable moments of light in a show that was often pitch black. The first was a quiet, sincere scene in which he offers one of his tenants money and a rent-free month so that he would stop selling his blood. The second was a fragile mini-performance of the western standard “Red River Valley,” with David Lynch lovingly keeping the camera glued to the actor’s gentle strumming until the performance is pierced by a shock of violence: a coffee cup flying through a window. But that minute of serenity will be how I remember Stanton: country cool, wise, and patient, recalling Johnny Cash in the twilight of his life. —WE

“The Green Mile”

Based on the novel by Stephen King, “The Green Mile” introduced powerhouse Michael Clarke Duncan, but featured a rich collection of supporting characters. Stanton’s scene-stealing turn as a death-row inmate with more than a few screws loose gave the fantasy prison drama one of its only funny scenes. As the officers prepare Toot-Toot for his impending trip to the electric chair, he narrates the whole thing with the frivolity of a deranged ringmaster. When asked if he has any last words, he famously says: “I want a fried-chicken dinner with gravy on the taters, and I wanna shit in your hat. And I got to have Mae West sit on my face, cause I’m one horny motherfucker.” For his antics, Stanton was praised by many who considered this the best scene in the movie. Such is the power of a great character actor, to be the most memorable part of a film no matter the size of the role, and Stanton was one of the greatest. —JD

“Big Love”

Harry Dean Stanton in Big Love

Stanton’s turn as a self-proclaimed Mormon prophet and leader of the Juniper Creek polygamous compound pulled from all corners of his onscreen power. His magnetism and presence gave the soft-spoken leader his gravitas. His sensitive understanding made it believable that he was loved as father, husband, and prophet to so many devoted. His ability to project intelligence was perfect for a manipulative figure always one step in front of his enemies. And the darkness just below the surface made him the violent and abusive presence that could erupt at any moment. Stanton’s Roman Grant was one of the great villains to emerge from an HBO drama. —CO

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