What is a character actor? Harry Dean Stanton has been called a “legendary character actor” in most of the headlines I’ve seen observing his passing today at the age of 91. A character actor is a lot of things. The easy answer is that they aren’t typically cast as leading actors or actresses. That certainly applies to Harry Dean. Throughout his long and illustrious career, Harry Dean starred in some of the biggest films of all time but rarely as the leading man. Godfather 2, The Green Mile, Alien, Cool Hand Luke, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas—all considered to be classics. Pretty in Pink, Repo Man, Escape From New York, Christine, Red Dawn, The Avengers and Kelly’s Heroes are all huge films in their own right. That list doesn’t include any of the television work Harry Dean did or his work with filmmaker David Lynch. Harry Dean wasn’t the leading man in any of those projects. Paris, Texas and the soon to be released Lucky are two of the few films where he was the leading man, and they will both be interesting footnotes in the story of his life: Paris, Texas for giving him his most significant breakthrough performance and Lucky for being his goodbye film.
A character actor is someone who can slip into any role they’re given, no matter how different from the last and become that character. When you think of how easily actors and actresses get typecast, its a true sign of being a master of your craft to be able to have the kind of career Harry Dean Stanton did. I find myself tonight recalling fondly his work on HBO’s Big Love as the leader of a polygamist cult. At times he played the character as a loving older man. Moments later, the power hungry religious zealot would reemerge and would be one of the most frightening characters I’d ever seen in any film or show. Compare that to the beyond touching scene Harry Dean shared with Richard Farnsworth at the end of David Lynch’s The Straight Story. Then compare those two roles with anything else from his body of work. Harry Dean Stanton got to play a multitude of different roles, each one different from the last and each leaving their mark on viewers. “You want people to feel something when you tell a story, whether they feel happy or sad” Harry Dean once said, and he was successful in doing just that, every time.
A character actor that played as many roles in as many projects as Harry Dean Stanton did for over seven decades becomes a part of our lives. We can look back at various points in our own lives and connect a point in time to a film we saw and our emotional attachment to that film grows stronger. Our attachment to the actors in those kinds of films grows stronger. When I think about movies like Alien, Christine and Escape From New York, those are childhood memories. When I think about Paris, Texas and Harry Dean’s work with David Lynch, that’s my teenage years and early twenty’s when I was falling in love with independent films and more artistic cinema. Because of his wide body of work, Harry Dean Stanton has been in my home, on my television for a majority of my life. That makes me feel like I know him and makes his loss personal.
As a Twin Peaks fan, I was overjoyed when I learned that Harry Dean would be returning to play his character from Fire Walk With Me, Carl Rodd. A character that in barely a few minutes screen time became an iconic character in the Twin Peaks franchise. Many fans wondered if Carl Rodd in The Return would be connected to the show’s mythology because of his famous line in Fire Walk With Me: “I’ve already gone places. I just want to stay where I am”. Instead, longtime friend and collaborator David Lynch (along with co-writer Mark Frost) cast Carl Rodd as a superhero in a sense. In a show where so much of it was about how the town’s spirit had decayed over the past 25 years, leaving Twin Peaks filled with jaded older residents and a younger generation that just did not seem to care about morals and common decency, Carl Rodd was used to show that goodness still exists in the world, that people still care and that the power of a good deed from another human being can go a long way. Carl Rodd was used to show that no matter how dark things seemed, there was always a light still shining. What a powerful role for Harry Dean Stanton to play towards the end of his life, all while being directed by his dear friend David Lynch one last time.
Harry Dean Stanton was a World War 2 veteran, a musician and was often referred to as “the coolest man alive” before his passing. He was also a legendary character actor. So what is a character actor? The definition I’ve provided in this article is as follows—-an actor or actress that because they aren’t always cast as a lead in films gets a chance to play a wide variety of characters, each different from the last. Because they are so good at their craft, they make us feel a wide variety of emotions through their art over the years and as a result, we have a deep personal connection to them and their work. If my definition is at all true, then that’s perhaps one of the best tributes we can give to any artist. Rest in peace Harry Dean and thank you for the memories.