Harry Dean Stanton biographer discusses late actor’s music
360°Sound spoke with veteran journalist and Ole Miss professor Joe Atkins, author of the new biography Harry Dean Stanton: Hollywood’s Zen Rebel (out now on University Press of Kentucky). The slender, craggy-faced character actor, who died in 2017 at age 91, acted in nearly 200 films and TV series over a 60-year career. Some of his most memorable films include Cool Hand Luke, Alien, Repo Man, The Green Mile and Paris, Texas (one of his few lead roles). Stanton was also a talented singer and musician. In this interview, Atkins discusses Stanton’s musical legacy.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
360°: Growing up in Kentucky, Stanton learned to play guitar and harmonica. Before his acting career took off, he crossed the country in a 24-piece male choral group. Tell us a little bit about his love of music and early influences.
Joe Atkins: Music was very important to Harry Dean Stanton. He comes from a musical family. His mother could play the guitar really well. He and his brothers had a barbershop quartet; they’d always bring a fourth person in. He started doing that in high school and kept it up through college. He saw an ad in a newspaper to travel in a choral group across the country. That was popular back in the early ‘50s. A lot of people left along the way, and he ended up being the bus driver. By the time he quit, the size had been cut to about half. But it was a great experience for him, and then he really got serious about his acting. He studied at the Pasadena Playhouse, a very prestigious school. He started getting a lot of parts in the supporting cast.
His big break was in the mid-’60s when he was in Cool Hand Luke. That was the movie where people started noticing him. Who is this guy with the long, thin, gaunt face and a guitar in his hand? It was a movie about prison life, and he was a guitarist in the group called Tramp. He sings four songs in that film. One of the most poignant scenes is when Paul Newman, Cool Hand Luke, is visiting with his mother outside the fence around the prison, and she’s dying. You can hear Harry Dean playing in the background “Just a Closer Walk With Thee.” I think that really got the Harry Dean story started. People didn’t know his name, but at least they knew his face after that.
Music was important in a lot of his key films. He finally got some lead roles in the ‘80s with Paris, Texas and Repo Man. Paris, Texas has Ry Cooder playing the background music, and it’s just absolutely hauntingly beautiful, one of the most important parts of that film. Repo Man is really a punk cult movie where punk music resonates throughout the entire film.
The ‘80s was when he really started performing in bands. He always had a band along with his acting career, The Harry Dean Orchestra, Harry Dean & the Repo Men, and solo performances. He played a lot of clubs out in L.A. like The Troubadour, which is a historic club just a block down from Harry Dean’s favorite bar, Dan Tana’s in West Hollywood. Harry Dean and Kris Kristofferson were like best friends. Harry Dean had performed with Kristofferson at The Troubadour. [Stanton] suggested he get in the movies and put in a good word for him and that started Kristofferson’s movie career. He was key in getting Kristofferson onto the big screen.
I was interested to learn that Stanton developed a friendship with Bob Dylan during the filming of 1973’s Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid.
One of Harry Dean’s great regrets was Bob Dylan invited him down to a recording studio so they could make a record together. Harry Dean was late showing up and everybody had already gone home beside Bob Dylan. They made a cut together, but he didn’t keep it, so it was kind of a lost opportunity.
Sam Peckinpah was directing Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid. Peckinpah was really burnt out at this point, bad on cocaine and booze. He was real short-tempered. They were filming this key scene in the film, and he’s got everything set up. You know it’s not cheap to get this thing filmed right. Harry Dean and Bob Dylan were not in this scene, so they decided to go jogging. In the distance they jog right across where the cameras are filming, so they ruined the scene. All of a sudden, you’ve got this Old West scene with Billy The Kid and there’s these two guys jogging in the background [laughs]. Sam Peckinpah blew his top and said, ‘I’m gonna kill you guys!’
The music from the 2013 documentary Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction was released as an album. I listened and enjoyed it. He had a nice voice, even in his 80s.
He had a very nice voice. They’re making another album of his music. I just found out the other day. He didn’t write songs, but he interpreted songs, “Everybody’s Talkin,” “Blue Bayou,” “He’ll Have To Go.” Probably the best of them is “Cancion Mixteca,” which is a Mexican tune about a person who’s homesick and may never see his home again. It’s a very poignant, sad song. Harry Dean sang that in Paris, Texas and in his last movie [2017’s] Lucky. He sang it on Late Night with David Letterman [in 1985]. It’s a beautiful song, as sad as it is.
You write in the book about a time he got high before a performance and did not perform well. However, he was able to win over the crowd with “Cancion Mixteca.”
They went to London, and this was a big deal, they had a huge crowd. Guys came over backstage and offered Harry Dean a joint. [Stanton’s friend and bandmate] Jamie James told me he could not perform well when he was high. He started to bomb, and then Jamie remembered he could always do well singing his Mexican songs, even when he’s high. He said, ‘Harry, let’s play Mexican.’ So, they transitioned over and all of a sudden, they saved the show.
Stanton had a hip, Buddhist-like persona. The subtitle of the book is Hollywood’s Zen Rebel. Tell us a little bit about Stanton’s philosophy.
It ties into everything else about him. He grew up in rural Kentucky, small town, Southern Baptist culture, very fundamentalist. His parents weren’t that religious, but that world surrounded him. He rebelled against that world. When he was a student at the Pasadena Playhouse, he saw a copy of a book by Ralph Waldo Emerson about transcendentalism, which has some Buddhist touches to it. He became increasingly interested in that. He really embraced that whole worldview where you don’t worry about yesterday and tomorrow, it’s just today, you make the most of every moment.
He became this kind of unofficial Zen philosopher. He was always dropping these bits of wisdom. He’d rag people a little bit, ‘You are nothing,’ ‘No one’s in charge,’ ‘There’s only gonna be nothingness after you die,’ ‘There is no self.’ Marlon Brandon was his neighbor on Mulholland Drive. Brando would call him on the phone, and they’d talk into the wee hours about philosophy. One evening Brando asked Harry Dean, ‘When you first met me, did my fame influence how you felt about me?’ Harry Dean said, ‘Yeah, I guess so at first.’ Brando said, ‘What about now?’ Harry said, ‘You are nothing’ [laughs].
Anything you’d like to add about the book?
Harry Dean is a fascinating character on a variety of fronts. It’s the story of a Southerner who left the South but never really could break all those roots and drew on those roots to make his music and even enrich his roles. He had a tortured relationship with his mother, even though he inherited her artistic sense and music abilities. That relationship with his mother is an important part of the story as well. He was very human, and people who got to know him really related to him in very special ways. He influenced their lives. He had some rotten luck, he got robbed, he got cheated by his financial director. He had a lot of setbacks, but he always came back. It’s just a very human story.
To order a copy of Harry Dean Stanton: Hollywood’s Zen Rebel, click here.