Finding Harry Dean Stanton is a bit of a trick, for he literally lives off the beaten path. To get to his bachelor cabin on Los Angeles’ famous Mulholland Drive, one must first find the hidden driveway, wind down a steep hill, and climb up a flight of rickety wooden steps. The door to his lair, nestled in a rustling thicket of trees overlooking the San Fernando Valley, is ajar; his doormat bears a smiling green alien announcing ”Welcome UFO’s and Crews.”
Stanton is standing inside in bare feet and a black bathrobe, and his ragged wolf face looks weary. He didn’t make it to bed the night before, too busy drinking and playing the guitar, and he missed a lunch earlier with his old friend and former roommate Jack Nicholson. When he passes a mirror, he grabs at his wild mane in disgust. ”My hair looks like s—!” he roars, without losing the American Spirit clenched between his papery lips.
He is perhaps the greatest character actor alive. Weeks from his 80th birthday, Stanton has been in over 150 films and TV series. A short list of the directors he’s worked with includes Alfred Hitchcock, Sam Peckinpah, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, John Carpenter, John Huston, Ridley Scott, David Lynch, and Terry Gilliam. He played a romantic leading man just once, to stoic, heartbreaking effect, in Wim Wenders’ 1984 Palme d’Or winner Paris, Texas. However, he usually shows up as the dignified but doomed criminal, or, conversely, the dignified but doomed lawman. In Pretty in Pink, as Molly Ringwald’s crumpled, tender father, he hooked the girls in the audience, and in Repo Man, playing the antiestablishment buddy with the best lines, he got the guys. Something about that bony face, and those vulnerable sunken eyes that have seen it all and then some, elevates whatever movie he’s in, no matter how small his role.
”Harry Dean exudes a spiritual awareness that’s steeped in deep sadness, and it’s so compelling to watch on film,” says Nicolas Cage, who starred with him in Wild at Heart and later directed him in 2003’s Sonny. ”He’s a compelling man to be around as well because he defies a lot of laws. It’s remarkable to me that he’s into his 70s and is still up all night. He came over to my house once and we had some drinks. I had a motorcycle in my living room, and he got on and straddled it like he was all of 18 years old. I remember just thinking, ‘How is he doing this? Why is he doing this? How is it possible?”’
How is it possible that the old man sitting there on his old sofa, hairless little calves propped up on a coffee table covered in ash and harmonicas and Mardi Gras beads, has both the critically acclaimed HBO series Big Love and four upcoming movies — bit parts in David Lynch’s Inland Empire, Nick Cassavetes’ Alpha Dog, the Wilson brothers’ comedy The Wendell Baker Story, and another Owen Wilson comedy, You, Me and Dupree — in the can? He lights another cigarette and exhales slowly. How is Harry Dean Stanton still alive?