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Harry Dean Stanton, one of America's most recognizable character actors, dies at 91

His storied career spanned more than a half-century and included Twin Peaks, Big Love, and Paris, Texas.

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Portrait Session With The Cast Of 'Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction'
Harry Dean Stanton in 2013
Photo by Michael Buckner/Getty Images
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Harry Dean Stanton, the iconic character actor with a distinctive face and hundreds of credits marking collaborations with many of America’s best filmmakers, has died at age 91.

Stanton was born and raised in Kentucky, the son of a tobacco farmer. He served in the Navy during World War II, where he was a ship’s cook during the Battle of Okinawa, then returned to Kentucky and began studying journalism before quitting to work with the Pasadena Playhouse in 1949.

Stanton’s acting career spanned more than a half-century, beginning with small and often uncredited parts in films and on television. His breakout role came three decades after he began working, in the 1984 movie Paris, Texas, directed by Wim Wenders and written by Sam Shepard, who died this July. Stanton had been playing mostly bit parts until that point, but Shepard spotted him in a Santa Fe bar while they were both in town for a film festival and offered him the role of the protagonist, Travis, a silent loner with an estranged family. It made Stanton a star.

Stanton went on to work steadily in both film and television, making him one of the most recognizable actors in the business: You might not know his name, but you definitely know his face. He appeared in many famous movies, including The Last Temptation of Christ, Alien, Cool Hand Luke, The Godfather Part II, Twister, Repo Man, and The Green Mile. And on TV, he had a recurring part as a fringe polygamist leader named Roman Grant in the first three seasons of the HBO drama Big Love.

In 2012, the documentary Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction was released in theaters and garnered strong reviews from critics.

AFI FEST 2006 presented by Audi Party For 'Inland Empire' - After Party
Stanton with David Lynch and Laura Dern following the release of Lynch’s film Inland Empire in 2006.
Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Stanton also frequently worked with filmmaker and Twin Peaks creator David Lynch, appearing in such Lynch movies as Wild at Heart and Inland Empire. But he’s particularly memorable as the Twin Peaks character Carl Rodd. Rodd first appeared as a character in the film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me in 1992 and returned for five episodes of the recent Showtime revival Twin Peaks: The Return, which concluded on September 3. The character of Rodd went to school in Twin Peaks with the “log lady,” Maggie Coulson, and owned the Fat Trout Trailer Park, where Stephen and Becky Burnett lived.

And Stanton’s filmography is not yet complete. In the upcoming John Carroll Lynch film Lucky, slated for theatrical release on September 29, the actor plays a 90-year-old atheist experiencing a sort of crisis of faith. He also completed filming on Frank and Ava, a film currently slated for late 2017 release.

Fans, friends, and collaborators paid tribute to Stanton on Twitter, testifying to how beloved he was to everyone who worked with him and watched him act throughout his long, varied career.

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