Soon after the start of “Paris, Texas,” Harry Dean Stanton appears in an astonishing gorge called the Devil’s Graveyard. He’s playing a lost soul, Travis, who will spend the rest of the film getting found. Right now, though, surrounded by rock formations that evoke the westerns of John Ford, Travis is an enigma. On foot and wholly alone save for a watchful eagle, wearing a red cap and an inexplicable double-breasted suit, Travis looks like a former cowboy or maybe a businessman who took a wrong turn. He looks like someone Dorothea Lange might have photographed during the Great Depression. He looks like the American West, all sinew, dust and resolve.
Mr. Stanton, who died Friday at 91, had a rare starring role in “Paris, Texas,” the 1984 Wim Wenders film that, along with Ridley Scott’s original “Alien” (1979), will probably be the titles for which he’s best remembered. His role as Travis, who’s on a redemptive journey, certainly elevated Mr. Stanton’s profile and helped make him an emblem of cool. Of course, he was already cool, at least to those who knew him from “Cockfighter” and other under-sung touchstones of the 1970s American cinema. Yet even as “Paris, Texas” brought Mr. Stanton a measure of fame, he remained a quintessential character actor, a performer who ranged wide and far (“Laverne & Shirley”!), imparting something real and true called Harry Dean Stanton.
Looks tend to be destiny for character actors, who are often cast for what their physicality, including their faces, suggests: the jutting brow that, however unfairly, telegraphs menace or the plump, roundness that conveys joviality but sometimes something sinister. With a long face and a lean frame that in later years turned gaunt, Mr. Stanton could look hapless, but also vaguely sinister, deflated or as wily as a hungry coyote. He knew what he looked like and that he could play menacing, but after appearing in “Paris, Texas,” he said he didn’t want to do “anything else that’s life negative.” You could feel for him, even if he made an exceptional villain.
Alex Cox, who gave Mr. Stanton a meaty co-starring role in “Repo Man” (1984), once wrote that the actor “had the perpetually sad face of someone who had been yelled at by successions of tough-guy directors and actors who were bigger and more brawling than him.” That registers as colorful projection, even if it speaks to how certain character actors, given the right roles and directors, develop a mythic aura of their own. Mr. Cox admired Mr. Stanton. But he also wanted a performer who came “with a bit of iconography,” which Mr. Stanton had, having worked with actors like Warren Oates and directors like Monte Hellman, Arthur Penn and Sam Peckinpah.
Mr. Hellman gave Mr. Stanton some of his most important earlier roles, including in “Ride in the Whirlwind” (1966), about three cowboys (one played by Mr. Stanton’s longtime friend, Jack Nicholson) who, after meeting some outlaws, are themselves mistaken for desperados. Mr. Stanton plays one of the outlaws, Blind Dick, and he fits the role as comfortably as his character’s grimy, sweat-stained clothes. As serves Mr. Hellman’s purposes, the performance is restrained, built with minimal dialogue and lived-in moments, which makes the expression of open emotion – like the smile Blind Dick flashes at the cowboys – more disturbingly ominous.