The Good, The Bad & The Badass: Harry Dean Stanton

Last Updated on August 2, 2021

Harry Dean Stanton

Earlier this summer, I was delighted when the great Harry Dean Stanton turned up in “Twin Peaks: 25 Years Later”, recreating the part he played in TWIN PEAKS: FIRE WALK WITH ME. A longtime favorite of David Lynch’s (who co-stars in LUCKY – Stanton’s last starring vehicle), there’s a great line where he, looking every one of his ninety-one years, remarks in disbelief at the fact that, after seventy five years of smoking every day, he’s still alive. Every now and then Lynch cuts back to him, sometimes singing a song (Stanton was also a celebrated tunesmith), delighting in the fact that his muse was still plugging along.

Too bad then that Stanton recently died, but hey, it was a great run. A minor player in the fifties and sixties, Stanton’s career only took off in the seventies, by which time he was already middle-aged, with one of his earlier, more prominent parts being the doomed Brett in ALIEN. Juicy parts in movies like ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK and CHRISTINE followed, but it wasn’t until 1984 that he really broke out, being the year that REPO MAN & PARIS, TEXAS came out.

The two films are a beautiful study in contrasts, with one, REPO MAN, being a extroverted performance, as the speed snorting, gun-toting repo guy, while in PARIS, TEXAS, he doesn’t speak at all for the first hour, and plays things introverted. From there, Stanton became much in-demand, and to his dying day, worked steadily, while also cultivating a mystique that made him unlikely friends with a generation of Brat Pack actors, as well as showbiz vets like the late Don Rickles, who Stanton memorably paid tribute to in the John Landis doc, MR. WARMTH.

His Best Work

Unquestionably, Stanton’s finest hour is in Wim Wenders’s PARIS, TEXAS. Among the most evocative films of the eighties, he plays a vagrant named Travis, who returns to his family after years, and tries to make amends. Beautifully written by another late icon, Sam Shepard, this is an all-out masterpiece, and it’s sick that Stanton (and the film itself) was entirely shut out of that year’s Academy Awards. Whatever the case, it stands the test of time, and is a touchstone film for many.

His Most Underrated Film

A movie that loomed large over my early childhood was Disney’s ONE MAGIC CHRISTMAS. Kinda gritty in its depiction of poverty and death, Stanton’s performance as the angel Gideon is one of the first I can say deeply affected me. Stanton, while his off-kilter looks, actually scared me a bit as a child, but I remember being totally won over, even at about five years old, by the warmth of his performance, and the kindness he evokes. I haven’t seen it in awhile (like twenty-five years to be honest) so I can’t say if it holds up, but for kids of my generation, this is a cult classic.

His Most Overrated Film

Stanton, like anyone, had to take the occasional crap role to pay the bills. A movie like DREAM A LITTLE DREAM isn’t too painful given that’s it’s eighties camp (and his paycheck role in PRETTY IN PINK is actually kind of great), but watching Stanton pluck a banjo with Steven Seagal in FIRE DOWN BELOW is almost too much to bear. Some actually think this is an alright Seagal movie, but I say there were no alright Seagal movies after UNDER SIEGE, and this is among the worst of his theatrical output. I hope, at least, Stanton and his equally awesome co-star, Kris Kristofferson, got paid well. Both try, which is more than can be said for Seagal, who, even twenty years ago, was already getting lazy.

His Most Badass Moment

RED DAWN often gets shoehorned into an eighties camp category, but it’s actually a pretty dark depiction of war, with some dark twists and an uncompromising ending that people overlook. John Millius was clearly trying to make a serious film, and Stanton is the ace up his sleeve. He plays Patrick Swayze and Charlie Sheen’s dad, who, in one scene, talks to his boys from the inside of a Soviet re-education camp. It’s a pretty harrowing moment, and a powerful piece of acting from him.

His Five Best Films


Up Next

With such a huge filmography, Stanton will never be forgotten, and his final feature, LUCKY, is currently making the rounds. To everyone reading this that maybe only knows him from his higher-profile, genre-friendly stuff or PRETTY IN PINK, do yourselves a favor and dig into PARIS, TEXAS. You can’t go wrong.


About the Author

Chris Bumbray began his career with JoBlo as the resident film critic (and James Bond expert) way back in 2007, and he has stuck around ever since, being named editor-in-chief in 2021. A voting member of the CCA and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic, you can also catch Chris discussing pop culture regularly on CTV News Channel.