The film "Lucky" opens with a tortoise making its way across a patch of desert. Not long after that the actor Harry Dean Stanton walks into frame, announced by a pair of title cards that declare "Harry Dean Stanton is Lucky."
Slow and steady may very well be a description of Stanton's career. The actor died at age 91 on Sept. 15, just a few weeks before "Lucky" was scheduled to open.
Mostly known as a character actor and supporting player, he first appeared on television in 1954 and made his feature film debut in 1957, going on to more than 200 screen credits. The title role in "Lucky," as a small-town man who lives alone and is facing the end of his days with a philosophical stoicism, was written expressly as a rare star turn for Stanton.
"There's nobody like him," said Stanton's frequent collaborator, filmmaker David Lynch. "I think about who could play the roles that Harry plays? And I never come up with anybody."
The long list of films in which Stanton appeared is staggering, including "Paris, Texas," "Repo Man," "Alien," "Wise Blood," "Ride in the Whirlwind," "Cool Hand Luke," "Cisco Pike," "Two Lane Blacktop," "The Godfather: Part II," "The Rose," "Private Benjamin," "Escape From New York," "Pretty In Pink," "The Last Temptation of Christ" and "Wild at Heart."
He also worked frequently in television, perhaps most notably on the series "Big Love" and Lynch's recent "Twin Peaks: The Return."
It's difficult to imagine many other actors able to appear in such an astonishing breadth of films and in such a wide array of roles, all the while making each and every performance feel lived-in and authentic.
"He was so natural. You believe," said Dustin Hoffman when asked recently for a recollection of their working together as a pair of criminals on the 1978 film "Straight Time," directed by Ulu Grosbard. "You just believe that was him. He was like the real thing."
"Lucky" is the feature directing debut for actor John Carroll Lynch, himself a longtime character actor recognizable from roles in movies such as "Fargo," "Zodiac" and "Shutter Island." Though Lynch had never worked with Stanton, the two met in passing a few times. Having wanted to direct for some time, rather than act in the film, Lynch jumped at the chance to take on "Lucky."
"Why actors hold him in such high regard is because he can give you everything you need to know by being and not by doing," said Lynch. "That is, to me, what acting is about. It really is. The doing is important obviously because that's the point of it. But he can do it without you ever seeing any of the stitches, without you ever seeing any effort at all."
It was on a car trip together from Arizona back to Los Angeles that the idea for the movie was first born between its screenwriters, Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja. Sparks had been Stanton's longtime assistant and Sumonja first met Stanton in 2001 at the actor's frequent haunt, Dan Tana's restaurant in West Hollywood.
Sharing their own recollections of Stanton and stories he had told them, Sparks and Sumonja pieced together the rough idea for the movie that would become a tribute to their friend and mentor.
Stanton was 89 when the film eventually began shooting in the summer of 2016. He seemed at the time to be in good health and so the idea that he would not live to see the release of the movie was not top of mind for anyone involved.
"I personally knew that time wasn't on our side and that's kind of what the movie is about," added John Carroll Lynch. "I had a conception that it might be possible, but what has happened you can't really prepare for. You can conceive of it but you can't be certain."
Stanton's death so close to the release of the film has made talking about the movie a form of grief therapy for those who were close to him. In a recent phone call, Sparks became choked up at the memory of Stanton's frequent goodbye — a raised fist and saying simply, "love" — and after getting tripped up by referring to Stanton in the present and not the past, he added, "I'm still working on my tenses."
Sparks noted that Stanton's death has only added to the importance of the "Lucky" project, saying "I'm really glad that we did it. I think we gave each other mutual gifts. I'd like to think that we gave him one last rodeo, to be the guy that his whole career was. And he gave us this amazing gift of being so … good."
Many of the anecdotes and moments in the film are drawn from Stanton's life. For example, Sparks said a doctor actually did reluctantly tell Stanton with regard to his prodigious smoking, "If it was going to kill you, it probably would have [already]."
"It was inspired by him and it was written for him," Sparks said of the character. "It's not purely Harry. It's not a biography. It's not a summarized version of his life at all. Lucky is a character that Drago and I created, but we used a lot of the traits and some of what we learned and reflected from Harry, and we used Lucky as a vehicle to tell that story."
Some of the moments that were drawn most directly from Stanton's own life proved some of the biggest challenges for him as a performer. A story he told many times of accidentally shooting a mockingbird as a boy was one he was unexpectedly reluctant to recite on-camera.
"I'd say 75% of it is all Harry. It's all of these philosophies that Harry has lived by," said Sumonja. "They are his mottoes and mantras and a lot of it is these stories that he has told us over time. It all really stuck with us."
David Lynch first worked with Stanton when the filmmaker cast the actor in his 1988 short film "The Cowboy and the Frenchman," made for French television. They would work together on eight projects, including "Lucky," in which Lynch plays a supporting role as a friend of Lucky's who has lost his pet tortoise.
In an interview that by circumstances out of a David Lynch movie occurred just a few hours before the news broke of Stanton's death, David Lynch called Stanton "the most natural actor going," before adding, "He's like a fine Stradivarius instrument."
At the film's Los Angeles premiere earlier this week — attended by many of Stanton's longtime friends such as Ed Begley Jr. and Rebecca De Mornay — John Carroll Lynch introduced the movie by saying "Obviously, Harry can't be with us in person. … But he's in our hearts and he's in this movie."
Sparks added that while Stanton in his last few weeks had initially been reluctant to do so, eventually "He wrote some stuff down and let me know to tell you some things."
He conveyed that Stanton said the crew and cast was the best he ever worked with, something the late actor "said at the end of every shoot. And he meant it, he absolutely meant it every time."
With a touch of the existential clarity and dark humor that Stanton held dear in life and that is likewise laced through "Lucky," Sparks added, "And then to his friends and family and fans that are here and get to share this with him, he wanted me to say from the bottom of his heart that you are nothing."
With the unexpected timing of the movie's release just after his death, "Lucky" now stands as a tribute and testament to Harry Dean Stanton as a person, as an artist, and refashions him into something of a national monument.
"You keep seeing these articles written, beautiful, wonderful things, you know, 'great character actor,'" said Sumonja. "And I don't think of him as a character actor, he was a great actor. An actor's actor."
"He makes it look really easy," said David Lynch. "But it's not that easy to be looking like it's easy."