Memorable Roles of Harry Dean Stanton

September 22, 2017


When Harry Dean Stanton died this past Friday at 91 years of age, many fans on the internet and social media platforms called him the GOAT of character actors. Indeed, Roger Ebert once said, “No movie featuring either Harry Dean Stanton or M. Emmet Walsh in a supporting role can be altogether bad.” High praise from the seminal film critic himself. With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of Harry’s most memorable performances.


In John Carpenter’s Christine, the 1983 film based on Stephen King’s best-selling novel, Harry plays Detective Rudolph Junkins with such aplomb and insouciance, he lends an air of nobility to what would normally be an insignificant role. Lines like, “The kid was cut in half, Arnie; they had to scrape his legs up with a shovel,” tumble from his mouth like repugnant poetry. As the film unfolds, the discerning bloodhound tracks nerdy Arnie Cunningham and his 1958 killer Plymouth Fury with steady urgency and dead-eyed conviction. Even though you get the feeling the old detective knows there is no derailing this nightmare, he still does his job like a weary soldier on an ill-fated mission. Mr. Stanton had the knack of playing peripheral roles, and through the sheer force of his commitment and personality, taking those roles up to levels unknown. That’s certainly the case in this horror thrill ride.  

Repo Man

“The life of a Repo Man is always intense.” Truer words were never spoken when Bud, the ultimate repo man played by Harry Dean, and his punk rock apprentice Otto, expertly rendered by Emilio Esteves, barrel around the ghettos of Los Angeles in hot pursuit of a very valuable Chevy Malibu. Harry is absolutely mesmerizing as he teaches his young charge the odd and mysterious ways of the repo lifestyle–and the repo code! Stanton manages to meld dry humor with disenchanted drama as he pulls off a performance for the ages. Indeed, Repo Man is considered a cult classic in large part due to Stanton’s drug-addled, hard-driving, speed-snorting, grabbing life by the chest hairs performance. For his part, Harry Dean Stanton lived by a code–the code of a passionate and genuine actor. And as his character, Bud in Repo Man would attest, “Not many people have a code to live by anymore!”

Alpha Dog

It’s been said there are no small parts, just small actors. Well, Harry Dean Stanton was a big actor–huge! In 2006’s Alpha Dog, he played the doting godfather Cosmo to Emile Hirsch’s sociopathic, drug-dealing, wanna-be tough guy Johnny Truelove. Cosmo loves Johnny so much, he’s completely oblivious to Johnny’s dangerous lifestyle and out-of-control behavior. And when Johnny ends up killing a childhood friend’s brother, ole god-dad Cosmo is right there to facilitate Johnny’s escape. Harry Dean once again finds the humanity in an otherwise inhumane and disreputable character. And if you want a real treat, check out the bar scene where Cosmo boasts of his carnal prowess. Hilarious and sad; a bit like Harry Dean himself.

Straight Time

Harry Dean Stanton often played characters who were uncomfortable with “normal” life. Indeed, in Repo Man his character Bud famously says, “Ordinary people, I F’in hate ‘em!” In Straight Time, an independent 70’s gem, Dustin Hoffman plays Max Dembo, an ex-con trying to go straight, with little efficacy. Max seeks to recruit his old pal Jerry, played sublimely by Harry Dean; problem is, Jerry’s adopted a middle-class existence complete with a job, a wife, and a little house in the valley. Unfortunately, the boredom of suburbia is driving Jerry nuts and he signs on with his crime partner to do a bank job. The two go on a suicidal crime spree and, needless to say, things don’t turn out so well. Like many characters Harry Dean played throughout his career, Jerry could have very well been a tangential–or even forgettable–role, but he imbues the poor sap with such grit and verisimilitude, you really feel for the guy–even though he’s a hardened criminal and unapologetic creep.

Cool Hand Luke

This one’s a bit of an odd pick because Harry’s role is so small. But his part in Cool Hand Luke as the guitar-playing convict Tramp makes this list on the merit of his beautiful and heart-wrenching rendition of the old spiritual “Just a Closer Walk with Thee.” When Luke gets an unexpected visit from his mama, Tramp plays and sings “Walk with Thee” with such heartfelt feeling and genuine soul, it takes the scene to a place of sublime sadness and authentic evocation. Harry Dean played and sang throughout his life, and he had a truly resonant and captivating vocal quality. The folksy twang, as well as the Son Jarocho affectation of his voice, could bring you to tears or make you smile from ear to ear. That quality only added to his prodigious talent as an actor and a performer.

What are your favorite roles of Harry Dean Stanton? Please share.