Veteran actor Harry Dean Stanton turns 90 this year. His wildly varied career contains a few starring roles (the haunting Paris, Texas is a must-watch), but the man’s true gift is portraying memorably offbeat characters that may only appear in a few scenes—but that still improve the entire movie.
That quality has elevated all kinds of films—what would Pretty in Pink have been like without Stanton as Molly Ringwald’s proud, rumpled father?—but we’re most fond of his work in genre movies. Many of these films are still classics in their own right, even without his presence... but having Stanton in them just makes them that much better.
Stanton and Yaphet Kotto play the Nostromo engineers who’re less concerned about the mission than making sure the ship is running smoothly. (Oh, and “the bonus situation,” because why shouldn’t they get a full share, too?) Once it’s clear there’s a deadly invader aboard, Stanton’s Brett does his best to help—until he encounters the hulking creature in a shadowy maintenance room while looking for Jonesy the cat, in one of Alien’s best, scariest moments. What’s Jonesy hissing at? Just that GIANT ANGRY THING BEHIND YOU!
Brett’s death is so terrible even the cat is horrified.
2) Death Watch
Bertrand Tavernier’s 1980 science fiction film predicted the rise of reality TV. A woman (Romy Schneider) with an incurable illness—an extreme rarity in the movie’s near-future setting—is offered the chance to have her imminent death broadcast to the world. Horrified, she declines. But Stanton’s hangdog yet totally ruthless producer will do anything to get those ratings (“Death is the new pornography,” after all), including outfitting a cameraman (Harvey Keitel) with devices that allow him to stealthily record everything through his eyeballs.
3) Escape From New York
When war hero turned notorious criminal Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) is sent to rescue the President of the United States (Donald Pleasence) from the island of Manhattan—a maximum security prison in far-off year 1997 —one of few acquaintances he has on the inside is Stanton’s Harold “Brain” Hellman, who lives in the old New York Public Library.
Snake’s none too pleased to see Brain, owing to an incident that went sour some years prior in Kansas City (involving “you, me, and Fresno Bob”), but Brain knows everything about the new New York City, including where island boss the Duke (Isaac Hayes) is keeping the POTUS. After some gun-slinging intimidation and bribery, Brain agrees to help, under one strict condition: “Don’t call me Harold.”
Prior to Escape from New York, Stanton appeared in this somewhat less-celebrated John Carpenter film. Here, he’s a state police detective named Junkins tasked with investigating a gruesome death that’s seemingly tied to high school student Arnie (Keith Gordon), who’s just acquired a particularly evil vintage car. The scene where they meet is a delicious bait-and-switch interrogation. First Junkins busts Arnie’s balls for leaving school early, then he eases into the car’s miraculous recovery from being totaled, then he brings up the apparent murder. “The kid was cut in half, Arnie. They had to scrape his legs up with a shovel.”
Later in the film, after Christine claims even more victims, Arnie tells the detective he has no idea what’s going on. With no evidence to hold him, the cop has to let him go... but Stanton’s withering gaze of disbelief says volumes about what he really thinks.
5) Repo Man
A classic scene, a classic performance, a classic movie: “An ordinary person spends his life avoiding tense situations. Repo man spends his life getting into tense situations.”
6) Red Dawn
In this 1984 Cold War dystopian thriller, Stanton plays a small-town Colorado resident who’s targeted as a troublemaker by invading communists and whisked away to a prison camp he knows he’ll never escape. His sons (Patrick Swayze and Charlie Sheen) manage to visit him at the fence line, and Stanton brings his trademark weary gravitas to what could have been an overly melodramatic exchange. He only appears in this one scene, but it’s hugely important moment, and a key motivator for his sons, emerging leaders in the guerrilla rebellion, to keep the fight alive.
7) Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me is a weird movie filled with strange moments and bizarre performances, but Stanton, as trailer park manager Carl, is one of the most normal-seeming people in the movie. He appears twice, first allowing a pair of inquisitive FBI agents to gain access to a recently murdered woman’s trailer. Though he’s gruff at first, he softens fast, even offering the agents stiff cups of “Good Morning America,” a.k.a. “the best goddamn coffee you’re gonna get anywhere.”
After another grimy resident pokes her head in the trailer and scuttles away, Carl has a moment of quiet reflection, pondering the dead girl: “You see, I’ve already gone places. I just want to stay where I am.” It’s a classic moment of enigmatic Lynch-ness that paves the way for his only other scene, which occurs when Agent Dale Cooper shows up looking for one of the agents from earlier. While on the case, it seems the man has “gone places” himself, and mysteriously vanished. As he watches Cooper work, Carl mutters “God damn, you people are confusing”—an adjective that could also be applied to Fire Walk With Me’s deliberately off-kilter universe.
8) The Avengers
Stanton cameos as a security guard who has a memorable encounter with a dazed Bruce Banner, who’s just crashed to Earth following his most recent Hulk rampage. Joss Whedon cast Stanton through Avengers DP Seamus McGarvey, who knew the actor from his work shooting Sophie Huber’s documentary Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction. According to a Whedon interview excerpted on Comic Book Movie, once the director dreamed up the casting, he knew he had to make it so:
I sort of got him stuck in my head and I was like who is more accepting than Harry Dean Stanton? And, so I got to write this weird little scene - which when I wrote it was not little, it was about 12 pages long. I was like oh, this is great, Banner falls into a Coen Brothers movie! The fact that they even let me keep that concept and that we actually landed Harry Dean to play it was very exciting.
But the idea was to put [Banner] in a slightly surreal situation with somebody who clearly had no problem with [The Hulk], just to make that little transition without milking it too much. And besides, to work with Harry Dean and to quiz him about Alien and The Missouri Breaks? What a privilege.
As suggested by that quote, the scene was trimmed from how it was originally written, but more of Mark Ruffalo’s encounter with Stanton was preserved as a special feature for the Avengers Blu-ray release—you can watch it above!