In Appreciation of Harry Dean Stanton, the Coolest Guy in Any Room

In films like “Paris, Texas” and “Repo Man” and in his music, Stanton embodied a particular strain of American individualism, restlessness and heart

There’s no question which line from Harry Dean Stanton’s long movie career I’ve quoted most often over the last few decades. He said it in Alex Cox’s black comedy “Repo Man” in 1984, looking across a parking lot and pointing to a group of laughing young men. “Ordinary f—ing people,” he said. “I hate ‘em.”

But when I think of Stanton, who died this week at the age of 91, I’ll think first of another, longer speech. It started, “I knew these people. These two people,” and then it went on for more than 10 transfixing minutes in Wim Wenders’ wrenching masterpiece “Paris, Texas,” in which Stanton played a taciturn, wounded man struggling to pull himself out of personal wreckage of his own making.

Talking on a phone in a cheap peephouse, with his ex wife Jane (played by Nastassia Kinski) on the other side of one-way glass, he told her their story, as it slowly dawned on her just who the customer on the other end of the phone was. The tale was one of love turned to a ruinous obsession, of a guilt so bottomless that it had driven Stanton’s character to nullify his own existence – and the performance, most of which he delivered with his back to the window through which Kinski was visible, was profoundly quiet and utterly devastating.

“He ran until the sun came up and he couldn’t run any further,” he said, describing his own escape from a burning trailer. “And when the sun went down, he ran again. For five days he ran like this, until every sign of man had disappeared.”

“Paris, Texas” was written by Sam Shepard, another great artist who died recently, and another man who, like, Stanton, embodied a particular strain of American individualism, restlessness and heart. There are a handful of men like this, masters of offhand brilliance who seem most at home on the road and on the move: Stanton, Shepard, Dennis Hopper, Bob Dylan, Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson among them.

In fact, it was a song of Kristofferson’s, “The Pilgrim, Chapter 33,” that provided the title for Sophie Huber’s 2013 documentary, “Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction.” The film was casual and meandering, and I suppose it was maddening if you wanted answers — but it was completely true to its proudly elusive subject, who lived inside the lines from which Huber got her title:

“He’s a poet, he’s a picker, he’s a prophet, he’s a pusher
He’s a pilgrim and a preacher and a problem when he’s stoned
He’s a walkin’ contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction
Takin’ every wrong direction on his lonely way back home”

Stanton was a ragged poet onscreen in movies from “Cool Hand Luke” to “Alien,” “Pretty in Pink” to “Wild at Heart,” “The Straight Story” to “Straight Time” and yes, “Paris, Texas” to “Repo Man,” a 1984 one-two punch that turned a damn good character actor into something far more than that.

But he never seemed to be working on his career; instead, he went with the flow, did interesting work and then hung out in clubs and played the music he loved. There was nothing smooth or professional about his voice; it was fragile and ragged, a proudly broken instrument that made up in nerve what it lacked in polish, whether he was singing country laments like “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” or the Mexican songs he loved like “Volver, Volver.”

But like his acting, it was true. Any time Harry Dean Stanton walked into a room, he was the coolest guy in that room, but that coolness was never for show. It was who he was.

In one scene from “Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction,” Stanton sat with David Lynch, who peppered him with questions that were mostly deflected. At one point, Lynch asked, “How would you like to be remembered?” Stanton’s answer came quickly: “Doesn’t matter.”

So we’ll remember him for some movies, for some music, for his unassailable air of rough-hewn cool, for the modesty and fragility of a great American artist. I’ll remember that astounding “Paris, Texas” monologue. And then I’ll think of “Repo Man,” and I’ll know this: Harry Dean Stanton was no ordinary f—ing person.