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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 7)

Hopper loved them all: swashbucklers, war epics, westerns. "We had five acres of trees which my grandfather grew and sold and I'd play cowboys and Indians, or if I'd seen a war picture, I'd dig a foxhole."

When his father returned from the Second World War, the family, with younger brother David, moved to Kansas City, Kansas, where Hopper took art classes. One of his teachers was legendary painter Thomas Hart Benton, who spoke prophetic words: "One day you'll learn to get tight and paint loose."

The family moved in 1950 to San Diego, where his father managed the post office and his mother worked as a lifeguard instructor. The teenage Hopper excelled at drama and debate in high school and earned a Shakespearean scholarship to the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego.

Not a dedicated student, Hopper was voted "most likely to succeed" by his classmates at the same time he was almost flunking out. After graduation, he went to Los Angeles, and landed a role as a young man with epilepsy on a TV show called "Medic." His fits were so realistic that several studios came calling. But when Columbia Pictures executive Harry Cohen told the actor to ditch his Shakespearean pretenses, Hopper told him off. Cohen banned Hopper and his agency from the lot.

"And that was my beginning," Hopper says with a smile.

Although he was banned by Columbia, Warner Bros. picked him up and gave him his first big break in a film. It was on 1955's Rebel Without a Cause and Giant where Hopper met his mentor.

"James Dean was a major influence on me," says Hopper. "We had a teacher/student relationship. He helped me with my acting and I watched him get old in Giant. That was our relationship. We didn't hang out together or go out together.

"He was five years older than me and back then, that was a lot. Besides, he was going through two tumultuous love affairs, one with Pier Angeli, who married Vic Damone [in 1954], and Ursula Andress, who [later] married John Derek. I was with him almost every day for the last eight months of his life and then he died."

Hopper calls Dean "the best actor I ever saw. He was so much more advanced. I was doing line readings and gestures and he was living in a moment-to-moment reality."

During Rebel's knife fight, Dean's hand was accidentally cut and director Nicholas Ray yelled, "Cut!" Dean went berserk, Hopper says. "Dean said, 'Don't ever say 'Cut!' when something real happens in a scene!'"

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