Harry Dean Stanton's Unmistakable Humanity Grounded Some of Film's Best Moments

By Julie Muncy on at

Carl Rodd, the owner of the Fat Trout Trailer Park in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, has a sign on his door. It reads: Do not wake before 9am under any circumstances. When two FBI agents defy those instructions, he’s understandably dazed and angry. In a movie full of surreal terror, it’s a perfect moment precisely because it’s so mundane.

Image: Lynch/Frost Productions

Rodd, who also appears in this year’s Twin Peaks: The Return, was played by Harry Dean Stanton. The 91-year-old actor died yesterday after a career as a character actor spanning more than 50 years. For most people, being a character actor means injecting supporting roles with larger-than-life personalities full of quirks and surprises. For Stanton, it often meant the opposite. It often meant precisely what it meant in Fire Walk With Me. Stanton’s power was his ability to be normal in even the most heightened circumstances.

One of Harry Dean Stanton’s most iconic roles is his turn in Alien. In Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi horror film, he plays a mechanic, an engineering technician named Brett. Brett, perennially wearing a baseball cap and a scowl, services the Nostromo with the same grounded attitude as if he were repairing a broken-down family car. Here’s Stanton, in the far future, playing an utterly normal sort of person. He’s a regular, blue-collar worker, interested in his bonus and in getting his damn job done. In a ship that’s almost as alien as the xenomorph itself, with its claustrophobic industrial terror, Stanton’s Brett is a grounding presence.

This is one of Stanton’s great talents. He was a varied actor, and he took on an incredible range of roles, but in genre films, he often played this sort of regular Joe. He was there to connect films like Alien to a vision of a regular world outside the events of the film. He takes what happens with a weary honesty and a willingness, despite everything, to just roll with it. Like his cameo in The Avengers, where he greets a post-Hulk Bruce Banner with bemused acceptance. Even in his most exaggerated appearances, this element never fully disappears from Stanton’s performance. He had this quiet frailty about him, a sense of connection that made him feel like an instantly familiar and understandable presence every time he took to the screen.

Like, again, in Fire Walk With Me, when he’s talking to the FBI agents. He brings them coffee, then he stands there, sipping it, trying to wake up. Trying to make sense of a world that’s just a bit too off-kilter for him.

As Carl Rodd watches a murder investigation unfold in front of him, his eyes grow hazy. He stares at something only he can see. The evidence of a dead woman’s life all around him.

“You see,” he says, “I’ve already gone places. I just want to stay where I am.”

Stanton delivers the line with an earnest sorrow. He makes you believe that if you were in his shoes you’d feel precisely the same way. And in that moment, the entire world around him feels all the more real.

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