In his unfinished final novel The Love of the Last Tycoon, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote “there are no second acts in American lives.” Tellingly, Fitzgerald died fifteen years before Harry Dean Stanton first stepped in front of a film camera. While Stanton maintained a respectable profile as a journeyman actor, erstwhile balladeer, and wingman to every Hollywood bad boy of the Easy Riders Raging Bulls era, his career got a surprise boost in an array of films throughout the ‘80s.
When REPO MAN was released, Stanton had thirty years of TV and film credits on his resume. Fans of blockbusters would recognize him for his cameos in Francis Ford Coppola’s pictures, while the arthouse cognoscenti would have found him terrifying as a fraudulent preacher in WISE BLOOD. While he had his adherents among hey-it’s-that-guy completists, he wasn’t the first person you’d call to play the second lead in an early ‘80s studio picture.
Though the fiercely independent, highly principled, and profoundly ornery Bud would become one of Stanton’s signature roles, he was the producers’ fourth choice. In the book Film Anarchist, director Alex Cox revealed that he had first pursued Dennis Hopper to play Bud, and the Criterion website mentions that Lee Ving of the LA punk band Fear was also under consideration. Meanwhile, Cox observed in the audio commentary for REPO MAN that the studio tried to get him to cast Mick Jagger as Bud.
Neither Cox nor Universal initially saw Stanton as their ideal, but the role fit him like a bespoke version of the cheap suits Bud wore. In the 2013 documentary PARTLY FICTION, Stanton described his approach to acting thusly: “Usually, I just play myself. Whatever psychological traumas or conflicts I’m going through at the time I try to put into the role. Sometimes it’s quite a feat to pull off, but sometimes it works.” Aspects of Bud’s character were consistent with Stanton’s persona, such as his plainspoken manner and his dry sense of humor. The disarmingly straightforward quality that Stanton brings to his characters served some of Bud’s more highfalutin moments well. Imagine Hopper or Jagger peeling off the rapid-fire Repo Code speech, then gracefully imbuing its coda – “not many people got a code to live by anymore” – with a shrug and a wistful sigh.
Bud’s first scene in the film – presenting himself as an expectant father trying to get his wife’s car “out of this bad area” – kicks off REPO MAN’s plot. At times he appears as the ringleader of the Helping Hand Acceptance Corporation’s ragtag employees, since he brings the protagonist Otto into the fold and talks back to the formidable secretary Marlene in the infamous scene about John Wayne. While he carries himself authoritatively throughout the film, he also has moments of mouthy rebellion, as in a moment where Bud tells his associate, Lite (Sy Richardson), about his plans to leave the Helping Hand and start his own yard. While Stanton never disappears into the role, the agility with which he shifts between bravado and small moments of hangdog vulnerability give Bud a more human dimension, and help to make the film a little more real.
The more, shall we say, iconoclastic elements of Stanton’s persona came through offscreen. Rumors had circulated for years that Cox wanted to fire Stanton towards the end of production and give his material to the other cast members. In the audio commentary, Cox confirms that there was tension between himself and the veteran actor. Much of the cast and crew, including Cox himself, were working on their first feature film, and were up against a deeply eccentric veteran actor. The “psychological traumas or conflicts” of the production further informed the more unhinged aspects of his performance.
After a screening at the Berlin Film Festival in early 1984, REPO MAN barely got an American release, and seemed like it was heading to an afterlife of being ignored on basic cable. A funny thing happened on the way to VHS oblivion, though: the soundtrack sold impressively, and its resonance with punk-starved youth in far-flung parts of the country allowed the film to get a wider release. (The author of this article saw it at the old Orson Welles in late 1985.) While REPO MAN wouldn’t knock BEVERLY HILLS COP out of the top ten films of the year, it would eventually reach an avid cult audience who attended midnight screenings and traded tapes of the even more bizarre network edit of the film.
The film’s modest success also opened doors for Harry Dean Stanton. He would later take on the lead role in Wim Wenders’ heartbreaking road movie PARIS, TEXAS, and he’d appear as Molly Ringwald’s dad in the classic teen movie PRETTY IN PINK. While Stanton never quite parlayed these performances into a career as a leading man, he’s picked up steady work in the years since, and has even released an album of his plaintive country songs.
More importantly, Stanton’s fans have never let him forget REPO MAN. In a profile for Entertainment Weekly, he speaks of the film’s following: “”Still a cult classic that people quote back to me. ‘Ordinary fucking people, I hate ’em!’ [Stanton giggles.] That’s a funny line.”