• John McGary, Woodford Sun Staff

‘Harry was above and beyond,’ local Stanton friend says

LUCY JONES went to Los Angeles to meet the namesake of the Harry Dean Stanton Fest in 2012, where she videotaped an interview with the Kentucky-born actor. The two became friends, and after his Sept. 15 death, Jones said, “It’s impossible to meet Harry and not feel like you were a friend, because he’s just that kind of a person.” (Photo submitted)

When film lovers from Central Kentucky and elsewhere gather in Lexington this weekend for the seventh annual Harry Dean Stanton Fest, the festival’s namesake will only appear on the screen – and in their hearts. Then again, the Kentucky native, who died Sept. 15 at the age of 91, was never a joiner – he also didn’t attend his own tribute for the first three years. Midway native and Stanton Fest founder and director Lucy Jones said the festival itself came about “largely as an accident.” She’d recently returned to the commonwealth from Los Angeles when friends from the Lexington Film League asked her if she’d like to be involved – and what she’d bring to the table. “And it just popped out of my mouth,” Jones said. Looking back, she decided the idea of a festival honoring Harry Dean Stanton had been incubating since she’d attended a James Dean tribute in Fairmount, Ind., as a child. The lifelong film lover said she’d always felt a great sense of pride in the fact that the critically acclaimed actor Harry Dean Stanton had attended high school and college in Lexington. “And I thought, ‘Heck, if they can have a festival for James Dean, and he’s been in three movies, we can certainly have a festival for Harry, who’s been in almost 200,” Jones said. On the screen, in movies large and small, Stanton was easy to find – in real life, less so. Jones attributes her successful search for him to “the magic of Harry Dean, which I believe is a real thing.” She figured at the least, she should seek his permission before naming a festival for him, so she cold-called Lexington documentary film-maker Tom Thurman. Thurman told her he just happened to have been working on a documentary about Stanton for 25 years and it was about to debut on KET. Jones asked if she could piggyback off the documentary and allow it to serve as the opening of the festival. He said yes. She still had to find Stanton, though. She did track down Hunter Carson, Stanton’s child actor costar of the 1984 film, “Paris, Texas,” who happened to be at the top of the list of Hunter Carsons on Facebook. The grown-up Carson’s college roommate was married to Jones’s boarding school roommate, who got her in touch with him. Carson agreed to come to Lexington for the first festival and gave Jones advice for the second. She still had to find Stanton, though. “We had a movie, we had a guest, but we still needed Harry’s permission, and Hunter said, ‘You know, just send him a letter,’ and I said, ‘Okay, I’ll do that,’ of course, not having Harry’s address and not really knowing how to access that at all,” Jones said. One night, she and a friend were in a Lexington watering hole, and while Jones talked about her search for Stanton, a stranger walked in, sat down at the end of the bar, overheard their discussion, and asked what Jones needed. A minute later, the man, a touring musician in town to play a show that evening, was writing Stanton’s address on a cocktail napkin. Jones wrote Stanton a letter and included her phone number, not knowing whether he’d ever open it or, if he did, whether he’d respond. Not long after, sick in bed, she received a call from an unknown number and let it go to voicemail. Then she checked the message. “I had a bit of a fever, so I wasn’t sure if I was hallucinating, but it was a very long, very lovely message from Harry Dean Stanton, saying that he probably couldn’t make it to the festival that year, but that I should give him a call and we could talk about it,” Jones said. They exchanged calls, and the next year, Jones flew to Los Angeles to videotape a lengthy interview with Stanton, a portion of which was shown at the third annual Harry Dean Stanton fest. “He was so kind and so interested in the festival and … I think he was a little nervous that I was sort of this Kentucky girl out in the big bad city and he wanted to look out for me. So we wound up spending most of the weekend together …,” Jones said. The friendship grew between the elderly actor and the governor’s daughter (Jones is the daughter of former Gov. Brereton Jones and first lady Libby Jones) less than half his age grew. In the festival’s fourth year, Jones persuaded him to attend his own festival – with a little boost from actress Michelle Phillips. Stanton didn’t like traveling, especially through the air, in part because he couldn’t smoke during the flight, Jones said. “The last thing I wanted to do was drag him to Kentucky against his will for a festival that was supposed to honor him, so I had sort of stopped inviting him after the second year. I always said, ‘Harry, it’s here, if you want to come, you’re welcome to come, and every year,’ he’d be like, ‘Yeah, yeah, maybe next year,’” Jones said. After Phillips, his costar in 1973’s “Dillinger,” agreed to attend the festival, she told Stanton to get his butt on a plane to Lexington. He agreed, “Because men don’t say ‘No’ to Michelle Phillips,” Jones said. This year’s festival was moved to the fall to coincide with the release of one of Stanton’s last films, “Lucky,” which will kick off the weekend’s events Thursday at 7 p.m.with a showing at the Kentucky Theatre. Jones didn’t expect Stanton to attend, because his family had kept her up to date on his health, but the death of her friend, while not entirely unexpected, was still very sad, she said. Nearly two weeks after his passing, Jones still speaks of Stanton using present tense. “It’s impossible to meet Harry and not feel like you were a friend, because he’s just that kind of a person,” she said. Jones said the red-carpet premiere of “Lucky” is a perfect way to begin a weekend that will also serve as something of a memorial to Stanton and writer and actor Sam Shepard, a Midway resident who died July 27. Shepherd wrote the script for what many critics consider Stanton’s finest film, “Paris, Texas.” Friday events include screenings of “Paris, Texas” (1 p.m. at the Kentucky) and “The Green Mile” (6 p.m. at the Lyric Theater) and a 10 p.m. show by musician/actor John Doe at the Green Lantern. Saturday at 1 p.m., “Fool For Love,” written by Shephard, who co-starred with Stanton in the film, will show at the Farish Theater, which will also host the 3 p.m.showing of “Slam Dance,” which featured Doe and Stanton. Afterwards, Doe will hold a question-and-answer session. All Saturday events are free, including an outdoor showing of “The Straight Story” at dusk at the Kentucky Fun Mall. Critics called Stanton one of the finest actors of his time, among them the late Roger Ebert, who once wrote that Stanton’s involvement in a film guaranteed its quality. Jones said such praise didn’t seem to affect Stanton, whom she called a very, very modest man. “If you have seen Sophie Huber’s beautiful documentary, ‘Partly Fiction,’ you know that Harry is actually devoid of ego. So he’s very Eastern and very Zen, and he didn’t necessarily understand what the fuss was, but at the same time, at some point, one of his cousins had said that Harry told him, ‘You know what they’re doing in Lexington? They’re making me immortal.’ So I think that he appreciated it, even if he didn’t necessarily want to buy into the hype,” Jones said. Stanton’s death will not mean the end of his festival, Jones said. “It’s sort of a dangerous enterprise to create a festival for somebody you don’t know, because they might not wind up being the person you want them to be. But Harry was above and beyond. He was so kind and so generous with his time,” Jones said. “He was just very open and very giving, and you can understand why so many directors and actors loved working with him, because he’s just a genuine, kind person.”

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