Willowy and wise, with a down-home voice abraded by a lifelong affinity for smoking, Harry Dean Stanton was the great supporting actor of American cinema. As cowboys, detectives, bar-stool sages, scruffy-faced wage slaves, he was a man comfortable dwelling in silence, whose presence and unfussy utterances commanded, without begging for, your attention. He had the air of a proletarian flaneur, a dusty wanderer with a landscape for a face, carved with wrinkles. As prolific as he was consistent, he appeared, by his own estimations, in over 200 films and television shows, and he never gave a bad performance. He didn’t seem to even be giving a performance. He simply existed. Like Robert Mitchum, he under-acted his parts, buttressing a film, augmenting its other performances, with authentic behavior and natural reactions. “You look at me when I talk to you,” he spits to Alan Ladd in 1958’s The Proud Rebel. “I’m looking but I don’t see anything,” Ladd retorts.
One gets the sense that Stanton didn’t love being a “character actor,” and he expressed vexation over the dearth of leading roles offered to him. But he helped to legitimize the importance of supporting actors, a vocation often considered a prerequisite to bigger roles. Especially in the second half of his career, he epitomized what a supporting actor should do. As the bereaved father in 1986’s Pretty in Pink, swaddled in the agony of loneliness, he brings to the film an aching knowingness that its younger stars had yet to experience. And as the estranged brother in David Lynch’s The Straight Story, he makes crying feel like the most painful, meaningful thing a man can do.
Stanton died, at the age of 91, just weeks after the finale of Twin Peaks: The Return aired. Though he worked with Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Sam Peckinpah, Arthur Penn, John Carpenter, and had a labile friendship with Marlon Brando (begot by insults, and conducted mostly through phone calls when the corpulent Brando was in his twilight years), it was in David Lynch that he found his greatest consort. The filmmaker, also an American Spirits aficionado, cast Stanton in five projects, beginning with Wild at Heart in 1990. Watching animals tear a chunk of meat on television, his lips pulled back in a macabre smile, Stanton puts a demented spin on the detective archetype he’d played so many times throughout his career. An agitated F.B.I. agent in The Godfather Part II, a corrupt L.A.P.D. detective in Farewell, My Lovely, an intervening good cop in Slam Dance, an astute detective in Christine—he imbued all of these roles with tonal and emotional variations, finding in their broad generalizations the details that make a character memorable.
Before he played cops, Stanton killed them. He began his career playing criminals, creeps, and ballbusters. “I was a classic cop killer,” he told The Washington Post in 1985. “That’s what started me off.” The first film to really make sincere use of his dramatic gifts was Monte Hellman’s 1966 western Ride in the Whirlwind, written by and starring Jack Nicholson, for whom Stanton had been best man at his 1962 wedding. Nicholson explained to his friend, “I want you to just play yourself.” Nicholson, three years from his breakout role in Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider, saw in the insouciance and composure of Stanton’s acting style something that others had overlooked, and rather than cast him against type, he cast the role of the murderous gang leader, the kind of role that would normally have gone to someone intimidating and a little unhinged, a Lee Marvin or Jack Palance, against actor type. Eventually, Stanton decided to hang his guns up: “I wanted to play lovers,” he said.
Though he didn’t often, if ever, play romantic roles, he found in his collaborations with David Lynch a painful romanticism, a sense that life, however cruel, would, eventually, offer solace, something in the way of love. Joaquin Phoenix, in his recent New York Times Style Magazine profile, says that great performances are the result of great direction. Lynch isn’t known for coaxing subtle or naturalistic performances from actors, but he brought out the best in Stanton. As Carl Rodd, the coffee-swilling proprietor of the Fat Trout trailer park, introduced in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, Stanton tapped into the malaise of age. He’s initially a torpid-eyed grump, staring off like a somnambulist; he makes the best goddamn cup of “Good Morning, America” and wears flannel on flannel. He isn’t ambitious.
Twenty-five years later, in The Return, Carl, now calmer, kinder, a man who’s appalled that one of his tenants is selling his own blood to pay the rent, is still in the same place. He says, “Not much I got to look forward to at my age…except the hammer slamming down.” Sitting on a park bench, staring at the trees rustle in the breeze, he witnesses the hit-and-run death of a child. Carl watches the boy’s essence rise in a luminous golden orb. As the passersby stop and gawk, bray, react with varying histrionics, Carl slowly approaches and comforts the mother. The scene vacillates between the absurd and the tragic, but Stanton, the most reliable of American actors, provides a brief sense of stability. In this tragic moment, Carl performs a minor miracle, consoling the inconsolable. He shows that Twin Peaks still has good people in it.
Lynch’s direction of actors is rarely discussed, but he placed palpable trust in Stanton, allowing him to act against the hysterical happenings surrounding him. In a series that showcases career-best performances from most of its cast, the actor remains compelling because he represents the average guy, the citizen often forgotten in the cursed vicinage of Twin Peaks, whose more eccentric characters and striking oddities garner the most attention. Stanton, as always, augments the film enfolding him. As a supporting actor, his artistry was unparalleled: Method actors are often heralded for “disappearing into roles,” but Stanton disappeared into his work.
In a later episode, Carl strums his guitar, singing the western folk song “Red River Valley,” the prophetic words pouring sinuously from him. Around him is violence, chaos. The image acts almost as an elegy for Stanton’s enduring appeal. Even on the cusp of 90 (The Return was filmed in 2015), he seems, if tired, still committed, his body sagging, the words coming slower, but his heart is still in it. Some of cinema’s most luminary A-listers, like Pacino and De Niro and Brando, gave way to mawkish caricature in later years, taking roles for paychecks. Stanton, denied leading-man status for most of his career, never slipped into self-parody. His persona only grew more sagacious.