Harry Dean Stanton, Eve Brandstein, & me, Cafe Largo, L.A. c. 1990
I knew Harry Dean Stanton and considered him a friend. Even though I didn't see him that often. But when I did run into him, in my Hollywood years, he always acted like he considered me a friend too.
I gotta lot of stories about him, but most of them are "you had to be there" stories. But this one, I think anyone could understand and helps explain his success and appeal.
Whether coincidentally or somehow prescient, the Dalai Lama and his people organized a weeklong series of panels and cultural events that ended on the day before he was awarded The Nobel Peace Prize in 1989. The week long conference was held at a convention center in Irvine, California, and was called Harmonium Mundi, an attempt to bring "the world" together.
During the day, there were panels that included Catholic priests, Buddhist monks, Hindu monks, Muslim imams, Protestant ministers, etc, along with psychologists and psychiatrists, focusing on one or another topic, like environmentalism, and trying to bring some sort of consensus to it. Speakers and participants stayed at a hotel/motel complex where there were also conference rooms for the panels.
At night, there were cultural presentations on a big stage in a giant auditorium used for sports events as well as conventions. The idea, as in the panels, was to mix things up, present distinctly different national arts, like one night might have a Japanese Noh orchestra performance with a Russian peasant choir, etc. And most nights included poetry juxtapositions as well, like Robert Bly reading Rumi or Allen Ginsberg reading Blake.
I was asked to be the Master of Ceremonies, and in turn was allowed to turn the last night into an evening of poetry with a selection of mostly young Hollywood actors reading poems by various mostly dead poets. I asked Harry Dean to end that evening with what was his famous parlor trick, as they used to call it, his reciting of Chief Seattle's letter to the President (it's authenticity has been since sometimes disputed).
The night of the event, the other performers and I were in the locker room being used as a green room. The building it was in was like a giant airplane hanger. When it was time to head for the stage, Harry hadn't shown up yet. There were no cell phones then, so there was no way to get in touch with him. As we left the locker room and headed down this cold cement hallway with huge metal doors at the end, I heard a faint sound that we eventually realized was someone knocking on the big metal doors.
We managed to figure out how to open one, and there was Harry Dean, who somehow missed the front door but found these backs ones, unsteady on his feet due to some overindulgence, but upright. We got him in and managed to close and lock the door and helped him into the auditorium and up the stairs to the extra high and extra large stage and onto one of the folding chairs the performers sat on.
In my oversized red sport coat and tight jeans and Beatle boots (in 1989! feeling I was representing the one faction not represented by anyone else, Jersey urban cowboy mod hipster (in the old sense of that word) etc.), I introduced each performer, and they read the poems assigned them. And then it was Harry's turn to end the evening.
I had to help him to the microphone, fearing he might not be able to do it. But as soon as he was standing in front of it, he stopped wobbling and in a deep and resonant voice recited the letter, word perfect, not missing a beat or dramatic nuance, bringing the huge audience to their feet as he finished and turned and reached out to me to help him make it back to his chair.
A total professional, a passionate activist for causes he cared about like the environment, and a compassionate friend and supporter of those he knew and worked with, as well as a very very witty and profoundly smart man. Condolences to all who loved him, knew him, knew of him, or followed his work as an actor, writer, and singer/musician. Rest In Poetry Harry.