I don’t think it is hyperbole to say that Harry Dean Stanton will be remembered as one of the greatest character actors of all-time. Throughout a career that lasted over 60 years, he appeared in everything from The Godfather Part II to Alien to Pretty in Pink and even The Avengers. As a David Lynch regular on many an occasion, it was only a matter of time before the late, great Harry Dean Stanton got his due here on “As Seen on Twin Peaks.”
This series takes a look at the acting careers of the cast of Twin Peaks — one performer at a time. But instead of looking A-Z through their entire filmography, I’ll be picking out one film to represent each actor, which will be followed by a 10 Questions-style discussion between myself and one of my fellow 25YL staffers about the film and various other credits. Now, the films I’ve picked to be discussed are not necessarily each actor’s most famous role, or most critically acclaimed performance, or biggest box office success. Instead, I’ll be focussing on those hidden gems, overlooked treasures and underrated masterpieces. And, to make things more interesting, each article will feature a range of different perspectives between myself and my guest. Some films will be familiar to the two of us, others might be first-time watches, and some movies will be a completely new experience for us both.
So, once again, join Ashley Harris and I as we discuss Harry Dean Stanton, his career, Twin Peaks, Christine and more!
Jon Sheasby: When you think about Harry Dean Stanton, Christine is probably not on anyone’s list of go-to films, but I simply had to pick it for one reason: John Carpenter. And even though I’m more than familiar with the film, I believe this was your first viewing of this particular Stephen King adaptation, Ashley, so does it get a thumbs up or thumbs down from you?
Ashley Harris: It was my first time viewing and I thought it was great! I’m a Buddy Holly devotee, so any movie that has a song of his so near the beginning is going to hook me quick. I was disappointed by how late in the movie HDS appeared and I kept impatiently waiting for him to show up. He doesn’t have a whole lot of screen time, but he makes the most of each scene he’s in. For instance, that scene in which he’s questioning Arnie after he’s gone into full jerk mode was solid gold! His ability to walk the line between congenial but serious good cop and “Is he going to kill this kid?” bad cop was riveting. That’s for sure my favourite scene of the movie. What I love about the Carpenter movies I’ve seen is that he’s so good at blending the horror elements with the human elements of the story. You can really invest in his characters and understand them better than the characters in some horror films. Everyone in Christine was fully-formed, which made what was happening to them more engaging, for me.
JS: Personally, I don’t think Christine stands up to Carpenter’s greatest works like Halloween and The Thing, but the film could have easily been mangled by a lesser filmmaker whose genre instincts aren’t on par with Carpenter’s masterful abilities. He knows how to craft the perfect blend of horror and suspense and sleaze, which are often paired with his quite brilliant musical compositions. It is my opinion that Carpenter is just as good a composer as he is a director, so I’ll have to split this question into two parts. First, what is your favourite Carpenter film out of the ones you’ve seen? And second, what is your favourite Carpenter score?
AH: You’re right to point out Carpenter’s masterful genre instincts/abilities. To me, that’s what made Christine special when it could have been a paint-by-numbers forgettable film. I’ve never read the source material, but I was worried going in, “How is Carpenter going to keep a killer car interesting for two hours?” I shouldn’t have doubted him. My favourite Carpenter film that I’ve seen is In the Mouth of Madness. Definitely a great blend of horror, suspense and sleaze in that one! I’m sorry for the most absolutely basic answer, but my favourite score of his is Halloween. I listen to that record practically on repeat every October.
JS: And of course, Christine is not only a John Carpenter film, as it’s also a Stephen King film too. I know there are millions of King purists out there who are very critical of the adaptations of his work, but you rarely hear anyone bashing Christine and its deviations from the novel. For me, some stories just work better on the page and others work better on-screen. We all know about the much-debated history of The Shining novel, film and TV show (Stanley Kubrick’s film is superior in my opinion), but what other King adaptations do you consider to be among your favourites?
AH: The last thing I am is a King purist. I’m not an anything purist, really. I’m a big “film and literature are two different mediums” person, so I don’t care what filmmakers do to any novel or source material. I want to see their take on it, I want their perspective. The Shining film is worlds better, for me. Other King adaptations I really enjoy are Misery, Cujo, and The Dead Zone. I recently watched Cat’s Eye for the first time and thought those stories were filmed really well, too.
JS: While Christine doesn’t have a Jamie Lee Curtis or a Kurt Russell working in its favour, it does have one man who brought something special to each and every project: Harry Dean Stanton. I know he doesn’t appear in the film for very long, but his presence adds a real sense of credibility to Christine, which was otherwise lacking in terms of genuinely recognisable faces. Did you expect to see more of HDS or was his presence alone enough to make you appreciate the screen time he was given?
AH: You’re definitely right that it doesn’t have a big star working in its favour in a lead role. I had to look up each of the main characters on IMDb after the film ended because I was so unfamiliar with each of them. I love Harry Dean Stanton, and I think I handicapped myself by watching Christine just a day after I watched Lucky where there are only a few scenes HDS wasn’t in. I expected to see more of him, and I wanted to, but looking back on the film there’s nowhere I’d rather put him except the role he was in. He really commanded the scenes he was in, though, so that always helps soften the blow of not seeing an actor in a film as often as you would like.
JS: HDS has a filmography that would make any actor jealous, yet he was rarely the leading man over the course of his career, which is a shame as he had so much to give as a performer and could’ve really shone in the right leading role under the right circumstances. The great Roger Ebert even created the Stanton-Walsh Rule, which states, “No movie featuring either Harry Dean Stanton or M. Emmet Walsh in a supporting role can be altogether bad.” High praise indeed. When you look over the course of his career, why is it do you think HDS stood apart from the rest of the great character actors of his time? Was it his anti-Hollywood demeanour? Or maybe his completely natural acting style, which always made him engaging on-screen? Or maybe something else that works for you personally?
AH: You are so right! The sheer volume of his work is impressive enough, but it’s incredible when you look at the projects he was a part of and his acting in them. I love that Stanton-Walsh Rule, and it’s so true! I think it was a mixture of his anti-Hollywood demeanour and his natural acting style. He’s comfortable to watch (if that makes sense), and his believability is high because he comes off as such an everyman. He’s kind of like the Jimmy Stewart of character actors, for me. Plus, because of his anti-Hollywood stance, I always feel like if he picked a role, he did it because he wanted to and thought he could bring something special to the performance, rather than picking roles for a paycheck. There’s nothing wrong with that — actors have to make a living — but for HDS, I always felt like this was his craft, his art, rather than his job or career.
JS: It’s kinda crazy to look through Harry Dean Stanton’s filmography and not only see the number of credits he amassed, but also the people with whom he worked — names like Francis Ford Coppola, Ridley Scott, John Carpenter, Martin Scorsese and David Lynch among many others. His work with David Lynch, in particular, is a collaboration that lasted right up until his death at the age of 91 in September 2017, as last year saw him appear in Twin Peaks: The Return and also star alongside the auteur in the John Carroll Lynch-directed film, Lucky. You mentioned earlier that you’ve seen the film, so what are your thoughts on Lucky and Harry Dean Stanton’s final leading role?
AH: He’s definitely worked with some heavy-hitters! One part of The Return that I thought was so special was that HDS was in what I don’t think is controversial to call the most heart-breaking scene of the series. Is there anyone else that makes as much sense to put next to a grieving mother who just saw her son die than HDS? I can’t imagine it. This speaks to his warmth and how trusted he is as an actor. Lucky should be required viewing for anyone that’s living, and I don’t mean that hyperbolically. It is such a powerful film about life and regret and dealing with one’s mortality. To know that was the final leading role for HDS is like a movie in itself — there isn’t a more perfect way for him to go out. His scenes with David Lynch are just candy being a fan of both. He delivered some lines in Lucky that really knocked me out! It’s the perfect film that shows infallible people doing the best they can to figure out questions that are beyond human understanding. I love it also because the film itself doesn’t try to give any answers — it gives you the tools to devise answers that fit your own life. I love Lucky so much.
JS: Do you have a favourite collaboration between HDS and David Lynch? Honestly, even though his role is tiny, I’d have to go for The Straight Story. It’s my second favourite Lynch movie (after Wild at Heart), and that reconciliation between Alvin and Lyle is just a wonderfully pure ending to such a gentle and lovely movie.
AH: The Straight Story is another one where, even though his screen time is brief, I can’t imagine anyone else in his place! Such a beautiful film. My favourite HDS/Lynch collaboration is Wild at Heart. I love how expressive he was in that role. Sam Shepard once remarked, “He’s [HDS] one of those actors who knows his face tells a story.” I completely agree with this and don’t think that he has to do as much expressive acting as some others do, because he seems so in-tuned to each character he’s playing. I think this is why it was so fun for me to see him growling/barking at the TV in Wild at Heart, while still giving his typically controlled performance throughout the film, as well.
JS: One of the great things about The Return was seeing those characters we know and love 25 years later, and it was nothing but a joy to see Carl Rodd once again. In Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, Harry Dean Stanton’s Carl Rodd is for a lack of a better term, a very “Harry Dean Stanton-like” character. Though, in The Return, he appeared to have softened and mellowed in his later years, helping those who needed it the most. I guess what I’m trying to say is, which HDS do you prefer? The curmudgeon from so many memorable performances or his later years as the kind, well-intentioned good guy?
AH: Yes! For me, that’s what made The Return so special. The age-positive way it focussed primarily on the cast 25 years later, rather than trading everyone in for young blood with no wrinkles. There were new characters, of course, and they were great, but it was so special to see everyone we know and love from the series’ initial run. You can’t replace the magic they bring. I think I cried in just about every scene in The Return that featured HDS, so I’ve got to go with the well-intentioned, help everyone version of HDS as my favourite.
JS: What are some of the other performances you have loved from HDS over the years? It’s a very easy choice for me, as Alien is my joint all-time favourite film (along with Blade Runner), and I love his role as the difficult Brett. The entire cast is great, but it’s the interplay between HDS and Yaphet Kotto that’s a real highlight for me. They feel so authentically realistic in their roles that they don’t seem like they’re acting at all. Like, this is how they’d react if they were in space. It’s no big deal, it’s just a job and they want to get paid. I love that.
AH: He’s great in Alien! My all-time favourite HDS performance is Paris, Texas. I love that he doesn’t speak for the first 30 or so minutes, so you have no choice but to get in his head and try to figure out what he’s thinking and feeling and why. Then, as the film goes on, you see a devastated man who left his family and wants so badly to make peace within himself — with the world — and learn to reconnect with people and himself in a meaningful way. Such a powerfully human performance.
JS: And finally, Ashley, I think you know what I’m going to ask. If you could recast any role from the history of film and TV with Harry Dean Stanton in their place, which character would you choose and why?
AH: This is my favourite question! I want HDS in Michael Caine’s role in Harry Brown. I think this character would have seen the perfect mix of his most prevalent personality traits. It’s a quietly controlled role that still presents an opportunity for his take-no-nonsense attitude to emerge. It’s a sweet and heartfelt role, but still, a badass role too — perfect for HDS!
Once again, I want to thank Ashley for taking the time to join me for this latest edition of “As Seen on Twin Peaks.” So, you’ve read ours, but what are your thoughts on Harry Dean Stanton? Favourite roles, performances, works? Please leave a comment and let us know by following the information about our social media accounts, which can be found below. Alternatively, you can follow me on Twitter (@JonSheasby), and we’ll continue the conversation over there.