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Like most Hollywood veterans--those who arrived in the '50s, lived it up during the '60s and '70s, then toned it down come the '80s and '90s--Stanton's affiliation with the rock culture goes back decades. He dropped Owsley acid at the Monterey Pop Festival with the Beatles' and Byrds' press agent, Derek Taylor; he had a bit part in the 1972 film Cisco Pike, in which he played Kris Kristofferson's manic, drug-crazed former bandmate, and he and Kristofferson also made Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid together the next year. Stanton can also be seen with Bette Midler in 1979's The Rose, with James Taylor in 1971's Two-Lane Blacktop, and in 1978's tripped-up and tripped-out Renaldo and Clara making out with Joan Baez, for whom he traded Bob Dylan a horse. Stanton was on the fringes so long, it was inevitable he'd leap into the fray himself.
Stanton was born July 14, 1926, in West Irvine, Kentucky; he recalls a childhood spent listening to Jimmie Rodgers, the most famous of country music's yodelers. "His songs were black blues, actually, which he picked up working on the railroad," Stanton says, providing his variation on history. "He was really the first recording artist--I mean, the first one who really sold. It just occurred to me a lot of his lyrics and his whole approach--aside from the yodeling--was very strongly black and a mixture of black and white styles. I wasn't aware of that as a kid, and neither were the country people who listened to it." He laughs. "They probably would have been pissed off, especially the Southern racists, when they realized he was singing black music."
Stanton himself didn't much care for country as a kid. He was a self-proclaimed snob, he admits, especially after he became "educated" (he attended the University of Kentucky); he wanted nothing more than to wash the hometown dust from his clothes. He sang in his high school barbershop quartet, performed in the glee club, and when he joined the Navy to serve in World War II, he also sang in the military choir. He sang Brahms and disavowed the rural music of his youth. He didn't even pick up a guitar until the 1960s--after he moved to Hollywood, appeared in episodes of Gunsmoke and Combat, and started showing up in such films as The Proud Rebel, How the West Was Won, and Michael Curtiz's version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. And even now, he doesn't know why he bought a guitar--only that he did.
He considered pursuing a career in music. But he wound up at the Pasadena Playhouse in the years after the war, hot after a career in Hollywood. He figured if he wanted to sing somewhere down the road, it wouldn't be so hard to do--as an actor.
"I figured if I was an actor, I could do it all," he explains, lighting up another smoke. "It was a pretty obvious choice. I wanted to be in films. I was never addicted to or married to the stage--the theater--although I started out on stage and can do theater. But it takes too much time, and also you get a bigger audience as an actor. I did a Gunsmoke and a bunch of those things in the '60s, and when you do one Gunsmoke, well, at that time 60 million people saw it. You do plays for two or three lifetimes, you don't get that many people....
"These days, I've got people interested in me makin' records--I just haven't done anything about it. I'd like to do a couple of songs instead of going for an album. Just two songs as a single or something. Do they still do that?"
Stanton, who prefers performing his favorite old songs to writing his own new ones, hasn't often been asked to sing in films; he can be heard briefly in Cool Hand Luke, and he explains that he and James wrote a song they performed during a party sequence from last year's pitiable Down Periscope, but the scene was excised from the movie. He says he does have a singing role in the new Steven Seagal film, and he'll be joined by the likes of country singer Mark Collie, Delta Dawn author Alex Harvey, and his old buddy Kristofferson. "Seagal's made a departure," Stanton says with a knowing smile, "mixing his action genre films with a bunch of old musicians."
Stanton's film resume now reads like that of any hard-working actor who has spent most of a lifetime on Hollywood soil. It's pockmarked with its share of undeniable masterworks (Alien; Straight Time; Repo Man; Paris, Texas; and a bit part in The Godfather, Part II), noble misfires (The Missouri Breaks, The Last Temptation of Christ, and Fool for Love), and regrettable detritus (Young Doctors in Love, Dream a Little Dream, Down Periscope, and many more). This year alone, he will appear not only in Seagal's film, but alongside Sean Penn and John Travolta in Nick Cassavetes' She's De Lovely. Yet Stanton has always been overpowering even when walking through the shit; he remains, as Roger Ebert once wrote of his performance in Paris, Texas, "the most forlorn and angry of all great American character actors."