Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Harry Dean Stanton has spent more than half a century building a filmography where what he doesn’t say is at least as important—if not more so—as what he actually does say, regularly using silence as a tool to enhance the characters he plays. It’s a tendency that carries over to his offscreen life as well, as evidenced in Sophie Huber’s new documentary, Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction, as well as in his conversation with The A.V. Club. (It should also be mentioned up front that he does not claim to have the greatest recall, which comes into play on a regular basis.)
Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction (2012)—himself
The A.V. Club: So how did this film come about? Did director Sophie Huber approach you about it?
Harry Dean Stanton: Yeah, she approached me about it. I’ve known her for years. And we used to go out a long time ago.
AVC: What was your first reaction when she pitched the idea of doing a documentary about your life?
HDS: Well, I wasn’t too enthusiastic about it. After a few years of doing it, you get tired of talking about yourself. [Laughs.]
AVC: How did she finally sway you?
HDS: Well, for one thing, she got a great cinematographer: Seamus McGarvey. I think he won an Academy Award, but for what… do you know?
AVC: He didn’t actually win, but he’s been nominated twice: once for Atonement, and then just this year for Anna Karenina.
HDS: Well, anyway, he’s great.
AVC: Whose idea was it to incorporate your singing into the film?
HDS: Oh, I don’t know. But I was a singer before I was an actor. I like to sing. She picked some of the songs. I can’t remember which ones, though.
AVC: I know you perform live on occasion. Have you ever contemplated doing an album?
HDS: No, I’ve had many opportunities to do an album, but I’m just too lazy to get into it, I guess. I’ve never pursued my music career as well as I could have. But that’s just the way things happen.
AVC: It’s never too late. Is that something you’d still consider doing?
HDS: Well, I think they might be making an album out of some of the songs I do in this movie. That’s what I hear, anyway.
AVC: Did you have a say in which of your former collaborators she talked to for the film?
HDS: Oh, yeah. We both did. We collaborated.
AVC: Given your initial uncertainty, how you did feel about the film once you finally saw it?
HDS: I liked it. I thought it was a well-shot film, a well-made film.
AVC: You come across as a pretty humble guy.
HDS: What do you mean, “humble”?
AVC: Well, everyone’s talking you up, and you smile at their stories, but then you kind of shrug, and you’re, like, “I just do what I do.”
HDS: Oh, yeah. Well, you know, I’ve been doing it for so long. It’s no big deal.
Inner Sanctum (1954)—“Andrew”
AVC: Your oldest onscreen role listed on IMDB was an episode of Inner Sanctum. Is that right?
HDS: No, I was in an Air Force documentary. That was the first film I ever did.
AVC: You served in the Navy, so you wouldn’t have done that while you were in the service… So how did that come about?
HDS: It was when I was at the Pasadena Playhouse. I was in a road tour with a choral group and we traveled all over the country singing, but when we got out here, I quit. [Laughs.]
AVC: What made you decide to pursue a career in acting in the first place?
HDS: I was… I did a play when I was in high school. I can’t remember the name of that one, but then I did one in college called Pygmalion, by George Bernard Shaw, and I knew then that’s what I wanted to do. So I quit college, and I went to the Pasadena Playhouse.
AVC: How was it for you to transition from being onstage to being in front of the camera? Was it difficult?
HDS: No. Anybody can be a film actor.
Tomahawk Trail (1957)—“Pvt. Miller”
The Proud Rebel (1958) —“Jeb Burleigh”
AVC: So what was your first proper film?
HDS: It was a Western. I can’t remember the name of it. It might be on your list, I don’t know.
AVC: Was it Tomahawk Trail?
HDS: Yeah, I did that one, that’s right. I also did another one along with it, I think. I did one with Alan Ladd… but I can’t remember the name of that one, either. [Laughs.]
AVC: The Proud Rebel?
HDS: Yep, that’s the one.
Cool Hand Luke (1967)—“Tramp”
HDS: Oh, that was fun. I got to sing in that one.
AVC: Quite a bit, in fact.
AVC: Was your singing already in the script, or did they discover you had a bit of a voice and decide to incorporate it?
HDS: You know, I can’t remember.
AVC: What the experience of working with Paul Newman like?
HDS: Oh, he’s fine. Excellent. Easy to work with.
Two-Lane Blacktop (1971)—“Oklahoma Hitchhiker”
Cockfighter (1974)—“Jack Burke”
A Fistful Of Dollars TV prologue(1977)—“Official”
HDS: Yeah, I did Cockfighter. Monte Hellman directed that.
AVC: How was Warren Oates?
HDS: Oh, we were both from Kentucky, and we were up for the same parts a lot of times.
AVC: Did you guys hang out and bond over your Kentucky roots?
HDS: Oh, yeah, we hung out. We were good friends.
AVC: You’d worked with Monte Hellman before that, on Two-Lane Blacktop.
AVC: But my understanding is that you worked with him again a few years later, for a prologue that was added to the broadcast TV version of A Fistful Of Dollars.
HDS: [Uncertainly.] A Fistful Of Dollars? The Clint Eastwood film?
AVC: Yeah. It was done years after the original film, apparently to make the Man With No Name seem like he had moral justification for his actions. Anyway, Monte Hellman directed it.
HDS: Oh, I see. No, I don’t remember that.
Paris, Texas (1984)—“Travis Henderson”
AVC: A decent amount of Partly Fiction revolves around your performance as Travis Henderson.
HDS: Oh, in Paris, Texas? Yeah, that’s my favorite film.
AVC: The character remains mute for a substantial amount of the film.
HDS: Yeah, well, silence is a powerful tool. But that’s how it was written.
AVC: Had you known Wim Wenders prior to doing the film?
HDS: I don’t know if I’d met him before that or not. But first he thought I was too old for it. [Laughs.] Then we had a meeting a couple of times, and he was all for it.
Wild At Heart (1990)—“Johnnie Farragut”
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992)—“Carl Rodd”
The Straight Story (1999)—“Lyle”
AVC: How did you first cross paths with David Lynch?
HDS: How I first met him? I don’t remember.
AVC: It’s revealed in the film that he’d originally envisioned you playing Dennis Hopper’s part in Blue Velvet.
HDS: Yeah, I was up for that one. I just didn’t want to deal with it because of all the violence. At that point in my life, I had been playing myself, and I didn’t want to go there. So Dennis got it. They approached me for Hoosiers, too, which I should’ve done. But they gave that to Dennis, too.
AVC: Why didn’t you do that one?
HDS: I can’t remember. I don’t know why I didn’t do it.
AVC: Well, you did end up working with Lynch eventually. The first time was Wild At Heart, right?
HDS: I think so, yeah.
AVC: How did you find him as a director?
HDS: Oh, yeah, he’s an excellent director. And writer, too.
AVC: You’re not in it for long, but you make a big impression when you finally show up in The Straight Story.
HDS: Yeah, that’s one of my favorite parts. That was nice.
AVC: You and Richard Farnsworth don’t say a lot, but it’s still powerful.
HDS: Yeah, I know. It’s a great scene.
Big Love (2006-2010)—“Roman Grant”
AVC: You haven’t done a lot of time on television in recent years, but you did have a lengthy recurring role on Big Love.
HDS: Yeah, I did that for about three years, I think. It was just like doing a movie.
AVC: No additional challenges?
HDS: No, not really.
AVC: In your documentary, you talk about the song “Everybody’s Talkin’,” by Fred Neil. It wasn’t until I talked to Bill Paxton that I discovered that the heroin use of your Big Love co-star, Luke Askew, inspired it.
HDS: Yeah, Luke gave him the idea for that. I think they were both on heroin at the time. It was written about heroin, written on heroin… and probably performed on heroin, too!
Repo Man (1984)—“Bud”
HDS: Oh, that was fine. Brilliant satire. Great writing. Another of my favorite jobs.
AVC: Did you find yourself with a punk-rock fan base after that?
HDS: I couldn’t say. I just know it was a classic satire.
Laverne & Shirley (1982)—“Johnny Velvet”
Young Doctors In Love (1982)—“Dr. Oliver Ludwig”
HDS: I think I played a rock singer [on Laverne & Shirley], didn’t I? [Laughs.]
AVC: Yep. That was also right around the time you did Young Doctors In Love. I presume one led to the other, but which came first?
HDS: Yeah, who directed that?
AVC: Garry Marshall.
HDS: That’s right. Yeah, that was a fun one, too. I think I did Doctors and the episode of Laverne & Shirley was after that. I like comedy. I like doing comedy.
The Avengers (2012)—“Security Guard”
HDS: I don’t know how I ended up in that. I assume they called me. But I know they cut part of my scene out of that, which pisses me off.
AVC: It is on the DVD, though.
HDS: It is. Did you see the whole scene? Where I give [Bruce Banner] my motorcycle?
AVC: I did, yeah.
HDS: That should’ve been in the film. I don’t know why the fuck they took it out. Best scene in the movie!
AVC: It’s on the Internet for people to watch it. This interview will include a link.
HDS: I hope so!
[The long version of the clip, which features the motorcycle moment that Stanton mentions, isn’t available for embedding, but you can find it here. — Ed.]
The Last Stand (2013)—“Mr. Parsons”
HDS: Is that the one with Schwarzenegger? Yeah, I played a farmer. I think I’m on a tractor or something, and I get shot.
AVC: So you’ve been in some pretty high-profile films lately.
HDS: Yeah, people call me.
AVC: Are you actively looking for work?
HDS: I just take it as it comes. [Laughs.]
Fire Down Below (1997)—“Cotton Harry”
AVC: To jump back to your singing for a moment, you’ve contributed to the soundtracks of a few films over the years. When you did Fire Down Below, you did a cover of “Kentucky Waltz.”
HDS: Yeah, I did that. And I sang on the Paris, Texas soundtrack, too.
AVC: Fire Down Below was, what your third time working with Kris Kristofferson?
HDS: Was he in that? I don’t even remember him in that one. [Laughs.] Oh, that was the [Steven] Seagal picture.
AVC: That’s right. How did you get along with Seagal?
HDS: Oh, we got along fine. We had no problems.
Cisco Pike (1972)—“Jesse Dupre”
Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid (1973)—“Luke”
AVC: As far as Kristofferson goes, you’re apparently the one responsible for starting his acting career.
HDS: Yeah, I was. What was that film?
AVC: Cisco Pike.
HDS: Cisco Pike. Yeah, I got him into that. He’s a sweetheart and a great poet too.
AVC: You guys also did Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid together as well.
HDS: Yeah, we did. He’s always easy to work with.
AVC: How was Bob Dylan?
HDS: He was easy to work with, too. [Laughs.] We became good friends on the movie.
AVC: That’s a great story that you and Kris tell in the film.
HDS: Oh, the one about running through Peckinpah’s shot? [Laughs.]
AVC: Peckinpah seems like he was a bit volatile.
HDS: Yeah, he was crazy. But we got along all right. He was just kind of a madman—a bad boy. But he made good movies.
Ride In The Whirlwind (1966)—“Blind Dick”
The Missouri Breaks (1976)—“Calvin”
AVC: You worked with Jack Nicholson in The Missouri Breaks.
HDS: Yeah, but we worked together before that, in a thing called Ride In The Whirlwind.
AVC: And you also lived with him for a couple of years, too, didn’t you?
HDS: Yeah, we lived together for about two and a half years. That was before he did Easy Rider, which is what really got him started.
AVC: I don’t know if he considers you his good luck charm or not, but you’ve certainly appeared in more than a few films with him.
HDS: Oh, you know, two or three or four. [Laughs.]
The Godfather: Part II (1974)—“F.B.I. Man #1”
AVC: You’ve got a very small part in The Godfather: Part II.
AVC: By then, you were generally doing bigger roles. Was that just a case of being in the right place at the right time?
HDS: If I like the role, I’ll just do it. I don’t care how small it is. There are no small parts. You know that old saying, right? There are only small actors.
Pretty In Pink (1986)—“Jack Walsh”
Two And A Half Men (2004)—himself
AVC: You played yourself on an episode of Two And A Half Men.
HDS: Oh, yeah. [Laughs.] That was great.
AVC: You’d done films with both Jon Cryer and Charlie Sheen.
HDS: Yeah, I worked with Jon in Pretty In Pink.
AVC: Had you maintained a friendship with them over the years?
HDS: Nope, just on the movies.
AVC: A lot of teenagers have worshipped at the altar of Pretty In Pink over the years.
HDS: Oh, yeah. All the girls loved the guy playing the part of the father in that. [Laughs.]
AVC: Do you find that’s the film that most people come up to you and mention as a favorite?
HDS: That’s one of them. That and the first Alien, but there are a lot of them: Missouri Breaks; Paris, Texas; Repo Man…
AVC: Speaking of Alien, are you a science-fiction fan?
HDS: No, I’ve never really liked science-fiction films, or horror movies really.
AVC: And yet Alien’s both, and it’s one of your most recognized films.
HDS: Yeah, and in my audition, I told Ridley Scott that… [Laughs.] I said, “I don’t like sci-fi or horror films.” He said, “I don’t, either, actually, but I think I can make something of this one.”
AVC: And did you end up liking the film?
HDS: Oh, yeah. And I like Ridley too.
Wise Blood (1979)—“Asa Hawks”
AVC: In Wise Blood, you worked with John Huston.
HDS: Yeah, he was great.
AVC: Had you been a fan of Flannery O’Connor’s writing prior to that?
HDS: Well, I liked her writing. I hadn’t really read her before I did the movie, but she’s a good writer.
AVC: What sort of books do you tend to read?
HDS: I’ve read a lot of stuff on Eastern philosophy—Buddhism, Taoism—and the real Jewish Kabbalah. The Jews don’t get it, really. Nor the Christians. [Laughs.] The real Kabbalah is the same thing as Taoism and Buddhism, really. But they don’t get it.
Rawhide (1959, 1962, 1963, 1965)—various characters
Kelly’s Heroes (1970)—“Pvt. Willard”
AVC: You were in Kelly’s Heroes with Clint Eastwood…
AVC: But you’d worked with him well before that. You did several episodes of Rawhide.
HDS: I don’t know that I did several. I did two or… Well, I don’t know how many. [Four, actually. — Ed.]
AVC: When you were doing TV more regularly, in the ’50s and ’60s, was that a case of it just being where the work was? Were you always trying to make the move to film?
HDS: Well, that is where the work was, but television always leads into film anyway.
The Last Temptation Of Christ (1988)—“Saul / Paul”
AVC: Given your comments about your reading, you must’ve enjoyed the opportunity to work on The Last Temptation Of Christ.
HDS: Well, I don’t read about religion a lot. I mean, over the years I have, but… I don’t read much anymore. Occasionally I’ll pick out a paragraph that I like. That’s about it.
AVC: Were you surprised that the film was as controversial as it was?
HDS: No… Wait, what was controversial about it?
AVC: Well, you know, the fact that it, shall we say, strays from the Gospel a bit.
HDS: Oh. The Christians didn’t go for that, huh? [Laughs.]
Escape From New York (1981)—“Brain”
HDS: Oh, yeah, I like John Carpenter.
This Must Be The Place (2011)—“Robert Plath”
AVC: Do you have a favorite film you’ve worked on over the years that didn’t get the love you thought it deserved?
HDS: Well, there’s one out now that… I haven’t seen it yet, but it’s supposed to come out. It’s played in Europe. It’s called This Must Be The Place. I don’t know why it didn’t get a movie release. It might be too controversial. It’s about the Nazis and the Jews, so it might have been too controversial. I don’t know. But I played a great part in it. I played the guy who invented wheels for luggage: Robert Plath. He’s still alive. I talked to him for the part.
AVC: When you play someone who’s a real person, do you tend to make a point of talking to them if you can?
HDS: Oh, of course. Oh, yeah.
AVC: Is there any other instance of that which proved particularly helpful for you?
HDS: I can’t remember. Not offhand.
Straight Time (1978)—“Jerry Schue”
HDS: Oh, yeah, with Dustin Hoffman. [Long pause.] What about it?
AVC: Just, you know, what the experience was like.
HDS: Oh, it was fun working with Dustin. He’s a great actor, good to work with.
AVC: You got to sing in that one, too: “Hand Me Down My Walking Cane.”
HDS: Hey, that’s right, I did, didn’t I?
AVC: Did you find that people started asking you to sing in movies more after they heard you in Cool Hand Luke?
HDS: I couldn’t say. But I’ve certainly done it a bunch over the years. [Laughs.]