Harry Dean Stanton

Active - 1950 - 2019  |   Born - Jul 14, 1926 in West Irvine, Kentucky, United States  |   Died - Sep 15, 2017   |   Genres - Drama, Comedy, Western, Thriller, Action

Share on

Biography by Jason Buchanan

A perpetually haggard character actor with hound-dog eyes and the rare ability to alternate between menace and earnest at a moment's notice, Harry Dean Stanton has proven one of the most enduring and endearing actors of his generation. From his early days riding the range in Gunsmoke and Rawhide to a poignant turn in David Lynch's uncharacteristically sentimental drama The Straight Story, Stanton can always be counted on to turn in a memorable performance no matter how small the role. A West Irvine, KY, native who served in World War II before returning stateside to attend the University of Kentucky, it was while appearing in a college production of Pygmalion that Stanton first began to realize his love for acting. Dropping out of school three years later to move to California and train at the Pasadena Playhouse, Stanton found himself in good company while training alongside such future greats as Gene Hackman and Robert Duvall. A stateside tour with the American Male Chorus and a stint in New York children's theater found Stanton continuing to hone his skills, and after packing his bags for Hollywood shortly thereafter, numerous television roles were quick to follow.

Billed Dean Stanton in his early years and often carrying the weight of the screen baddie, Stanton gunned down the best of them in numerous early Westerns before a soulful turn in Cool Hand Luke showed that he was capable of much more. Though a role in The Godfather Part II offered momentary cinematic redemption, it wasn't long before Stanton was back to his old antics in the 1976 Marlon Brando Western The Missouri Breaks. After once again utilizing his musical talents as a country & western singer in The Rose (1979) and meeting a gruesome demise in the sci-fi classic Alien, roles in such popular early '80s efforts as Private Benjamin, Escape From New York, and Christine began to gain Stanton growing recognition among mainstream film audiences; and then a trio of career-defining roles in the mid-'80s proved the windfall that would propel the rest of Stanton's career. Cast as a veteran repo man opposite Emilio Estevez in director Alex Cox's cult classic Repo Man (1984), Stanton's hilarious, invigorated performance perfectly gelled with the offbeat sensibilities of the truly original tale involving punk-rockers, aliens, and a mysteriously omnipresent plate o' shrimp.

After sending his sons off into the mountains to fight communists in the jingoistic actioner Red Dawn (also 1984) Stanton essayed what was perhaps his most dramatically demanding role to date in director Wim Wenders' Paris, Texas. Cast as a broken man whose brother attempts to help him remember why he walked out on his family years before, Stanton's devastating performance provided the emotional core to what was perhaps one of the essential films of the 1980s. A subsequent role as Molly Ringwald's character's perpetually unemployed father in 1986's Pretty in Pink, while perhaps not quite as emotionally draining, offered a tender characterization that would forever hold him a place in the hearts of those raised on 1980s cinema. In 1988 Stanton essayed the role of Paul the Apostle in director Martin Scorsese's controversial religious epic The Last Temptation of Christ.

By the 1990s Stanton was a widely recognized icon of American cinema, and following memorably quirky roles as an eccentric patriarch in Twister and a desperate private detective in David Lynch's Wild at Heart (both 1990), he settled into memorable roles in such efforts as Against the Wall (1994), Never Talk to Strangers (1995), and the sentimental drama The Mighty (1998). In 1996, Stanton made news when he was pistol whipped by thieves who broke into his home and stole his car (which was eventually returned thanks to a tracking device). Having previously teamed with director Lynch earlier in the decade, fans were delighted at Stanton's poignant performance in 1999's The Straight Story. Still going strong into the new millennium, Stanton could be spotted in such efforts as The Pledge (2001; starring longtime friend and former roommate Jack Nicholson), Sonny (2002), and The Big Bounce (2004). In addition to his acting career, Stanton can often be spotted around Hollywood performing with his band, The Harry Dean Stanton Band.

Movie Highlights

See Full Filmography


  • Served in the U.S. Navy during WWII.
  • Sang in a barbershop quartet while in high school and later toured the U.S. with a Baptist choir.
  • Studied theater at the Pasadena Playhouse.
  • An early acting job was on the first episode of the show Suspicion titled "Four O'Clock" directed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1957.
  • Roomed with Jack Nicholson for two and a half years in the Hollywood Hills during the 1960s.
  • Breakout role came in 1984 at age 58 as a mostly silent drifter in director Wim Wender's Paris, Texas.
  • An accomplished musician who led his own group, the Harry Dean Stanton Band, originally known as Harry Dean Stanton and the Repo Men.
  • To help maintain its secrecy, learned of the demise of his character Roman Grant on the HBO show Big Love shortly before filming.
  • Voiced the part of a prairie dog in Rango (2011).