The thing to remember, in conversation with Harry Dean Stanton, is to try to avoid the words "sleazeball creeps." Even if he does admit, in so many words, to spending three decades portraying more than his share of them. Even if, when you look at his 50 film credits and the television roles he loathed too much to keep track of, you find drifters and loners and outcasts and psychos, the kinds of fellows who are not fated, generally, to get the girl. The army recruiter in "Private Benjamin" who, when he calls Goldie Hawn in the middle of the night, makes you fear for her future health. The blind preacher man in "Wise Blood" who is not blind at all. The automobile repossession man in "Repo Man" who has the seedy gestalt of one of those old stand-up ashtrays you'd find in a cheap hotel in a run-down downtown neighborhood.
The thing of it is, though he's played those fellows, Stanton says, they weren't all he played.
The thing of it is, under those gaunt eyes and a chin that recedes into the cheeks, Harry Dean Stanton is a sensitive guy.
"I've played a lot of characters with more dimensions than sleazeball creeps," he says. "It hasn't been all sleazeball creeps. Nobody on the planet wants to be called a sleazeball creep."
There seems to be some confusion here about where the actor stops and the character begins.
"How would you like to be called a sleazeball creep?"
He's had sort of mixed reviews, Stanton, not as an actor but as a prickly, erratic sort with the press, evasive about his private life, mercurial, "not terribly articulate." In fact, when the mood hits him, he is extremely articulate, even eloquent, and one would think, his career having finally undergone an extreme turnabout, that he would be in a wonderful mood now, when, after 30 years of bit-playing and rowdy living, at the fine old age of 58, he's at last got a leading role, not in one picture but two.
"Repo Man," a low-budget blackly comic movie, which indeed features him in a sleazeball part, has been playing at one Greenwich Village theater here for some months, and Stanton has become a cult star.
"Paris, Texas" (to open in Washington Feb. 1), directed by Wim Wenders, winner of the Best Picture Award at Cannes, features Stanton at last as a romantic hero, a man capable of tenderness and sacrifice and love. Do not expect to see his face on a Hallmark card, though. In the role of Travis, a middle-aged man trying to make contact with the wife and child he lost, Stanton once again seems to be playing a burnt-out case. As the film opens, he walks across the desert like a man who has lost his senses; in the first 15 or 20 minutes of the movie -- it is, by the way, a 2 1/2-hour movie -- when he is rescued by his brother, he refuses to speak. Stanton has been praised. The movie has received mixed reviews.
This is not the slant to take, however, if you want to see Stanton at his best.
Tell him, on first meeting, when he demands to know up front what you thought of the movie, that it was "long," and no matter, subsequently, that you praise his work -- you've lost him for the hour. His head will collapse on the back of the sofa. The shipwrecked sailor, lost on the harsh seas of Hollywood for 30 years, has been cast upon what has proven to be, not unexpectedly,yet another unfriendly shore.
"Long," he'll intone, to the ceiling. "Kind of like an art movie, huh?"
He'll answer questions with five-word sentences. He'll say that he was playing himself in "Paris, Texas" -- yeah, like the hero, he once tried to find his woman and kids -- only to backtrack in terror from specifics. He'll break out of the pattern only for long outbursts on the outrages of the world, including the tyranny of an angry God, of being surrounded by "authorities," of something he keeps calling "the negative life force," man born in sin and pitted against nature, killing the American eagle and raping the Earth. Conversation will be scant.
Is your face a blessing or a curse, Harry? you ask him.
"Both, I s'pose," he says.
How a blessing, how a curse, Harry?
"How a blessing, how a curse?" he repeats, as if it is a riddle. "I don't know. You've lost me there . . . Depends on the whole situation, on the point of view."
From his point of view, how would he describe his face?
"Oh, bony," he says.
"Bony and tired," he says in a nasty voice, mimicking his press, "a bony and tired face . . . Ravaged."
Catch him a second time, assurance of honor made, and you find a more open man, though still wary, still raging at the universe.
"You want to know what it's like playing supporting roles your whole life? It's frustrating," he says. "All the supporting parts and character parts I've played, I've hated it, it's awful doing the same kind of emotion over and over again and I don't see why people are not more aware of it. Acting is very personal, you use your own psyche -- if you have to deal with negative emotions, it becomes a drain after a while."
Your face, again, Harry, how would you describe it?
"Vulnerable, sensitive, reflective of whatever is going on at the moment," he says, upright now on the sofa.
"I don't have a pretty face. But I don't think I have an ugly face. I don't think you have to have a pretty face to be a leading man . . . name an actor who's a leading man . . ."
"I'm as good-looking as Dustin Hoffman."
Here is a listing of some of Harry Dean Stanton's roles:
"Revolt at Fort Laramie," "Tomahawk Trail," 1957.
"A Dog's Best Friend," 1961.
"Cool Hand Luke," 1967.
"Cisco Pike," 1972.
"The Godfather," 1974.
"Death Watch," "Private Benjamin," 1980.
"Escape From New York," 1981.
Here is Stanton on some of his first films and on his television work:
" 'Tomahawk Trail.' That was a joke. They shot that in four days, or 4 1/2, and edited itin about a week. That was my second film, 'Revolt at Fort Laramie' was the first. I played a Union soldier in both of them. I was acting all over the place, doing things with my hands. It was embarrassing . . .
"TV, I was a classic cop killer. That's what started me off, I was totally believable as a violent cop killer . . . I was a hired killer for years -- put that baby in, put that little gem in -- I was a hired killer for years, and now I want to hang up my guns. I want to hang up my guns and play lovers for the rest of my life."
Not that he doesn't want to take responsibility. He was typecast for a while, it was his fault, he says. You are responsible for what happens, you know, it was his responsibility, there are no accidents.
So why'd you let them do it, Harry?
"It was better than working at Lockheed."
You said once you did a lot of angry parts because you were an angry guy. Why were you angry?
"I don't know. I think everybody in this society is angry. You're angry, I'm angry, everybody in the street is angry . . . I don't know."
"I wasn't born into a happy family," says Stanton. "I don't want to get into it. I don't want to have to deal with my family, my sister calling up saying, 'How could you be so disrespectful about Daddy?' I love my father, I love my mother, please put that down so I don't have to deal with that."
This is the second go-round. At the first he's more abstract, laying his anger on the rigid gods. His gods were those of Bible Belt Baptist country, so they might have, in fact, been tough. In the second interview, the gods come down to Dad. Dad could be tough.
"He expected you to be decent, to be respectable," says Stanton, who was born in Lexington, Ky., the oldest child. "He was a hard person. But he had a hard time when he was a kid. I really loved my father, but because of those hard times it made it difficult to have a good relationship. He had a hard time and he passed it on to me. My father's father also split when he was very young and his mother was very angry at the whole thing and that anger rubbed off on him . . ."
His parents divorced?
"When I was in high school," he says. "My mother remarried. But they never got along from the time I was born."
Sons imitate fathers, art imitates life. The photos of the hero's parents in "Paris, Texas" really are Stanton's mother and father. More important, like the character he plays, Harry Dean Stanton was the black sheep of his family and had trouble staying put.
"I played myself in that movie," he says.
Does that mean, like the hero, he had an ex-wife he tried to catch up with?
"We weren't married," he says.
He have kids?
"Yeah, I had a couple of boys. I haven't seen them in a long time. I'm getting together with them pretty soon . . ."
How old are they?
"I don't know, 14, one of them, maybe. The other one, 18."
More than that on the family life of Stanton, you will not know. He will say, professionally, that he studied theater after the Navy, stopping short of the degree because who needs a degree, and that after college he bounced, always restless, from the Pasadena Playhouse, to a job with a greeting card company, to a tour with a children's theater group, to New York, to California. Then came the movies and television and the same deadening roles. The more of those roles he did, says Stanton, the more angry he became.
What did he do with his anger?
"Drinking, having affairs, doing drugs," he says. "I've grown up since then. The drinking just became a habit -- I was never a drunk, I could never drink alone -- but it became a heavy habit. Drugs, I tried everything, cocaine for a while, LSD . . . Affairs? It was sad. One-nighters, you name it. That was about 10 years ago, into my fifties, I was still making a lot of bad pictures."
In 1969 some of the bad work, the television work, simply stopped.
"I was just sick of it," says Stanton.
Try a second time.
"My father died in 1969. That death meant no authority figures. My father and I were never close enough, really, and I wanted to be close to him . . . When he died I was totally on my own."
He had high expectations for Harry?
"Yeah, real high."
Harry Dean Stanton on the actor and the work: "My pictures represent a biography of my life, including the changes. As I changed, as I got more together, I got better parts, more human parts."
Stanton on what he would like to do next: "I want to do a love story."