Harry Dean Stanton and Public Mourning

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Harry Dean Stanton seemed like someone who was never young. He seems like he should have left the womb wearily smoking a cigarette and wondering what the hell the big deal was. For the forty-one years I’ve been alive, Harry Dean Stanton always seemed like a grizzled, weather-beaten old man who took perverse pride in treating his body as badly as possible, as an awkward cage he found himself imprisoned inside instead of a temple. 

And in a sense, Stanton really did spend my entire lifetime playing a weird old codger whose every wrinkle, scar and blemish tells the story of a man intent on living on his own terms in a world without much respect for that level of individualism. Stanton was already fifty when I was born but looked and seemed much older. I knew and revered him primarily as an unlikely sage in the iconic cult classic Repo Man but his legacy is so huge and so staggering that his career-defining role in Alex Cox’s dark comedy is really only the beginning. 

In the decades leading up to his death, Stanton somehow seemed simultaneously like a man who might die at any moment and immortal. When he died, Stanton had a starring vehicle in theaters, which is not something many men in their seventies can say, let alone men in their nineties. The last time I was in Los Angeles, about a month ago, a friend was flying in separately to do a big profile on Stanton. It sure seemed like he had at least a little bit more life left. 

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So when Stanton died recently at 91 it shouldn’t have come as a surprise. After all, he’d spent a good half century being a prickly, cantankerous old man onscreen. Yet it nevertheless came as a bit of a shock. As long as I can remember, Harry Dean Stanton had always been around. He was low-key ubiquitous, a reassuringly craggy face in independent movies and science-fiction blockbusters and everything in between, a leading man at times but more often a supporting player. 

 All smiles at the Lakers game! 

All smiles at the Lakers game! 

Stanton was a character actor rather than a star. The world might have known his face but he was not a household name, nor any kind of a box-office attraction. Indeed, I actually just chuckled at the very idea of people trying to sell a movie on the basis of Harry Dean Stanton’s popularity at the box office. 

So I was very pleasantly surprised at the incredible outpouring of love and attention that followed Stanton’s death. We live in a culture with a tiny memory and the attention span of a fruit fly. Unless the deceased is someone like David Bowie or Prince, we tend to give the dead a day or so to be remembered, then move onto less depressing and more timely manners. 

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But that hasn’t happened with Stanton. We seemed to have collectively wept upon learning of his death and since then the tributes and homages and remembrances have not stopped, or even really slowed down. And there’s something beautiful about that. Because even though Harry Dean Stanton was not a big star, he made a big impact on a lot of people’s lives, both as unusually intense and distinctive actor, and as an unusually intense and distinctive man. When we publicly mourn Stanton it’s as one of the all-time great character actors onscreen and one of the all-time great characters offscreen. There will never be another Harry Dean Stanton, and I’m pleasantly surprised that he’s receiving a farewell commensurate with his extraordinarily life and career. 

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