Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel once famously ruled that no movie featuring Harry Dean Stanton could be entirely bad. That spoke to both the veteran actor’s indelible, laconic presence as well as the kinds of offbeat movies that would even bother to cast him in the first place. For all that, Stanton, now 87, has been in nearly 200 very different films over the course of a career that began in the late fifties — including such diverse classics as Repo Man, Paris, Texas, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Cool Hand Luke, Alien, Pretty in Pink, and The Last Temptation of Christ. In the mesmerizing new documentary Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction, this man of few words opens up, offering little bits of wisdom, anecdotes about his career, and, true to form, long passages of quiet contemplation. He also sings, a lot — Stanton is an acclaimed musician, and his touching rendition of “Danny Boy” that closes out the film might just be one of the most unforgettable scenes of the year. He spoke to us about the documentary, and some of the films that he remembers best from his impressive career (as well as a couple that he doesn’t remember all too well).
You’re not a guy who likes to talk about himself too much. What was your response when you were first approached to do this documentary?
I didn’t want to get into it. I’ve been doing movies for so long. But I really liked Sophie Huber, the girl who did it. We were close years ago; we used to go out. So, then I just sort of went along with it.
Much is made in the film — and was made at the time — about your finally getting the lead in a film when you did Paris, Texas. And it’s a terrific performance in a widely acclaimed film. Did you get other offers to do lead roles after that?
Yeah, I was offered a series by John Carpenter after I did the movie Christine, and I would’ve been a leading man after that. I would have played a private investigator. And I was offered a great deal — I would be involved in the direction, casting, everything, and whatever. It was whatever an actor wants, and I didn’t take it.
Why didn’t you take it?
I don’t know, I just … I like to do nothing.
What about Paris, Texas? With a bigger and emotionally deep part like that, did you have to prepare differently for it at all?
Well, I related to the fact that he didn’t talk for a half an hour in the film. [Laughs.] The syndrome of being silent. Silence is a powerful statement.
Christine is one of the iconic films of the eighties. You’ve been in a number of those. Like Pretty in Pink.
That was a good one. Molly Ringwald, she’s a natural talent. Every girl in this country related to that girl.
The father-daughter relationship between you and her is one of the sweetest, most honest parent-child relationships I’ve ever seen on film. How did you guys get that kind of ease around one another?
It was already there.
Between you guys or in the script?
Between us. Off-camera, we bonded.
Do you still keep in touch with her?
No, I haven’t talked to her in years and years. I don’t know where she is, even.
Do people still come up to you and talk about that film?
Oh, yeah. They mention it a lot.
Which of your films do people come up to you and ask you about the most?
For some reason or other, it’s the first Alien I did. I get fan mail from all over the world for that even to this day, and that was done, God, how many years ago? Thirty-five years ago, and it’s still … I don’t know why. My favorite ones are Paris, Texas and Repo Man, those back to back.
Were you surprised by the cult success of Repo Man?
Surprised? I don’t know. It is just what it is. I don’t know … surprised, I don’t know what that means.
So what is it about Repo Man that you liked so much?
It’s a satire that satirizes everything: violence, religions. What was the name of the director?
Another film from this period that a lot of people remember you for, which I found odd to see you in, was Red Dawn, which is a pretty right-wing movie. Is the political content of a film ever a concern for you?
Oh, yeah. I can’t remember that one, though … Russians took over the country, was that the theme?
Yeah, that was the one where the teenagers fight back after the Russians invade the U.S. and put you in a prison camp.
Who directed that, by the way?
I think it was John Milius.
Yeah, that’s right. John Milius. No, I just liked John and his writing. I don’t know, I’ve done over 200 movies. I can’t remember all of them.
What parts do you remember the most? Are there ones that really stand out for you?
Oh, yeah. I did one with Marlon and Jack [Nicholson]: The Missouri Breaks.
Yeah, I hear that for your death scene in the Missouri Breaks that you wrestled Marlon Brando offscreen and made him take off the dress he was wearing.
I tore it off him! Him and Jack were just such big stars and everything … I don’t know why.
Was it because you didn’t want to be killed by a man in a dress?
Yeah, I guess so.
Were people shocked when you did that to a big star like Brando?
Oh, yeah. Arthur Penn [the director] was standing off-camera bug-eyed. “What’s he doing? What’re you doing?”
What’d Brando say?
He said, “What’re you doing? I’ve gotta gun here.” And I said, “Yeah, but you weren’t looking.” So I’m sure he loved it, because I’m sure that never happened to him in his whole career.
You were also in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. What was it like working with Sam Peckinpah?
He was a nut. [Laughs.] He was crazy, man.
What was the craziest thing he did on set when you were there?
One day, they’d said he was sick. So, Donnie Fritts, the keyboard player in Kristofferson’s band, and I went to see him. We opened the door, and he had a pistol in his hand. He had shot the television out, and I think he shot a picture off the wall.
Did you ever see him after you did the movie? Because I heard he went even crazier later.
No, I never saw him after that. I don’t recall.
What was it like working with Hitchcock?
He was awesome. I worked on his series Alfred Hitchcock Presents, remember that? Yeah, well I had a scene with a kid named Tom Pittman; we tied up E.G. Marshall in a basement, kidnapping him. It was a whole scene. Hitchcock said, “You fellas go down there and work it out.” We directed the whole scene, did the whole scene! He didn’t say anything. No director’s ever done that before. [Note: The episode recalled here is actually from Hitchcock’s short-lived 1957 series Suspicion, though Stanton did also appear in an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.]
The reputation of Hitchcock is as kind of a control freak, but he just let you guys do your own thing?
You’ve made your fair share of Westerns. Do you think the Western can ever come back as a genre?
Why do you think it fell out of favor?
There’s no answer to that. It’s just what it is. [Laughs.]