Man of Character: John Carroll Lynch’s 'Lucky' gives Harry Dean Stanton a fitting farewell role

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Long-running, much-loved character actor Harry Dean Stanton, 91, left this mortal coil two weeks before his last starring role went into release. This is called Lucky.

It’s also called a labor of love, and it’s executed full-out by another equally prolific character actor braving his directorial debut to do it. John Carroll Lynch and Harry Dean Stanton never crossed professional paths—save for TV’s “Big Love,” where they had no scenes together—and how that happened, given how busy both of them were, Lynch is not sure. “Just circumstances, I guess. It could easily have been possible, but we ended up being on opposite sets. We were always either/or. If you hired Harry, you wouldn’t hire me.” But, as Lucky would have it, they finally made the connection.

Lynch was originally contacted to take part in the movie—by literally taking a part as an actor. “This offer came through my friend, Drago Sumonja, who, with Logan Sparks, had written the script for Lucky,” the newbie director remembers. “They asked me to act in it. Then, a couple of months later, they came back and asked if I would consider directing it because Drago knew I had that particular ambition.”

The notion of directing had been nagging, and gnawing on, Lynch for a dozen or so years. “It’s been a long time in the process of coming from me,” he admits. “There were stories I wanted to tell that I wasn’t being offered, and there were also stories that I wanted to tell that I couldn’t be in because there just wasn’t a part for me.”

When the offer was at last verbalized and made, he didn’t hesitate: He cast himself as the director and took on all the responsibilities that went with that role. Making his job a tad easier was the fact that he was thoroughly familiar with the subject.

So, too, were the two screenwriters. “Logan was Harry’s personal assistant, and Drago had met him in 2004 doing a documentary on the Neighborhood Playhouse called Cha*ac*ter. They pooled their knowledge and their observations about the actor and cloned themselves a cinematic Harry Dean Stanton—one who has exactly the same philosophies and mannerisms and idiosyncrasies as the genuine article.

Lucky was very much inspired by Harry,” allows Lynch, “but I think the interesting acting problem was to take a work inspired by someone and cast that someone—who’s one of the great actors of his generation—to play him. For Harry and me to work on a character built from the blood and bone of his own life was quite tricky.”

The pace of the picture—and the actor’s own personal cadence—got established in one of the film’s first shots, which follows an ancient tortoise moving across a screen full of sun-bleached desert rocks. This would be “President Roosevelt,” making his break from home and hearth. By the time he wearily returns in one of the closing shots, not much in between in the way of a narrative has, at length, happened.

This, essentially, is what’s left of life for a cranky old reprobate going through the motions of his daily routine—waking, sponge-bathing, yoga-exercising, visiting the local coffee shop, returning home for game shows and crossword puzzles, running afternoon errands and winding down with a Bloody Mary with his decrepit cronies.

One break from the norm: a birthday party for a ten-year-old Mexican boy, replete with piñata and an opportunity for Stanton, unexpectedly, to lift his voice in Spanish song. Not the least of the actor’s assets was a compelling voice you don’t forget. In Cool Hand Luke, his “Just a Closer Walk With Thee” underscored Jo Van Fleet’s exit.

He was also an accomplished musician. The painfully plaintive “Red River Valley” harmonica solos that fill in the film’s many silent stretches are likewise his doing.

For most of his career, Stanton was the scrawny and silent type, very skimpy on big speeches and large roles, something of an eloquent specialist at saying everything when he was saying nothing. In 1984’s Paris, Texas, directed by Wim Wenders and written by L.M. Kit Carson and Sam Shepard, the actor does not speak for the first 26 minutes of film. It was Stanton’s favorite and his only other starring role.

Lynch has his own favorite Stanton performance, and it too has silent aspects: “The thing I can never not watch when it comes on TV is the last five minutes of The Straight Story. Richard Farnsworth decides to reconcile with his brother who, he finds out, is ill. He travels by a riding lawnmower across several states—it was based on a true story—to visit this brother who he hasn’t spoken to and who he had had a vendetta with for most of their adult lives. So, when he stops his lawnmower and gets off and walks up to the porch, he knocks on the door and Harry opens the door, recognizes him, doesn’t want him there, then looks over his shoulder and sees the lawnmower and walks out onto the porch and basically replays the entire journey that his brother has taken to see him. In that replaying, he experiences shock, surprise, awe, humility, forgiveness and love—without saying one word.”

Lucky’s big “production number”—that birthday party—was technically the most difficult to do because of the singing, the crowd and the 18-day shooting schedule.

“We had to move on,” Lynch says, “plus, we had the added factor of making sure that Harry had enough energy to do the part day-to-day because the role was so demanding. But he wasn’t ill at all during filming. He was just 89. That’s all he was.”

Just prior to lensing Lucky, Stanton did five episodes of “Twin Peaks”for David Lynch (no relation to John Carroll Lynch beyond being a director), and it was Stanton who suggested Lynch to Lynch to play the guy who has “President Roosevelt” for a pet.

Other golden oldies in the cast include Stanton’s Alien co-star, Tom Skerritt, and Gidget’s Moondoggie, an octogenarian James Darren. Also: Ed Begley Jr., Ron Livingston, Beth Grant, Barry Shabaka Henley, Yvonne Huff and Hugo Armstrong.

“As movies of this size are, Lucky is relying on film festivals to get the word out,” says Lynch. (The film is just out in select theatres from Magnolia Pictures.) “We won the Audience Award at the Chicago Critics Film Festival and the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury at Locarno. The intention of that second award is to highlight films exploring the human experience. It’s the same prize as the Palme d’Or, which Paris, Texas won in 1984 at the Cannes Film Festival. I guess if you want to explore the human condition, hire Harry.”