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Dennis Hopper: Rennaissance Rebel

Once spurned by Hollywood and nearly destroyed by drugs, Dennis Hopper has resurrected his life and his art.
Elizabeth Snead
From the Print Edition:
Dennis Hopper, Jan/Feb 01

(continued from page 2)

"Back in those days, we were all like guinea pigs," Hopper recalls. "We were always waiting for the next new drug. It was like, 'Hey, gimme some of that!'"

Pot was prevalent and Hopper began experimenting with LSD while acting in and working as an assistant director on a low-budget film called The Trip (1967), written by a young unknown screenwriter named Jack Nicholson and starring a newcomer named Peter Fonda.

Hopper, Fonda and Nicholson quickly became friends. When Fonda and Hopper hatched an idea for a film about the spirit of the '60s, Easy Rider was born. The movie would become the Peace and Love Generation's version of Homer's The Odyssey.

Hopper wrote, directed and starred in the mythic movie about two longhaired small-time drug dealers' road trip to self-discovery as they rode their Harleys across a country splintered by prejudice and paranoia.

Making the $340,000 film was far from a lovefest. By all reports, it was a troubled set with taut tempers and arguments often sparked by an excessive intake of drink and drugs.

"I was introduced to Dennis by Nicholson, who told me, 'You'll finally have someone to drink with you,'" remembers Paul Lewis, Easy Rider's production manager. "Of course, Dennis did everything else as well. He was a total maniac but he never stopped the creative process, no matter what craziness went on."

Easy Rider opened in 1969 to lines around the block. "The '60s were almost over when Easy Rider came out," Hopper recalls. "But Hollywood had never addressed the '60s, drugs, free love, acid, communes. They were still making movies like Pillow Talk. Young people had stopped going to the movies. They went to love-ins in Golden Gate Park with 80,000 people dropping acid. Finally, in Easy Rider, they saw themselves.

"It was an incredible moment," Hopper says, softly. "But that is all it was. A moment."

Easy Rider made cult heroes of its three stars, Nicholson, Hopper and Fonda. Hopper, Fonda and Terry Southern were nominated for an Academy Award for best original screenplay and Hopper won an award at the Cannes International Film Festival for best film by a new director.

While it received critical accolades and commercial success, the film created a rift that has never been healed. Bad blood still boils between Hopper and Fonda over authorship of the Easy Rider script, and Southern's widow claims that her deceased husband was the true scribe.

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