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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

The river flows, it flows to the sea
Wherever that river goes, that's where I want to be
Flow river flow, let your waters wash down
Take me from this road to some other town
All I wanted was to be free
And that's the way it turned out to be...

-- "Ballad of Easy Rider," by Roger McGuinn of The Byrds

 

My last thought was, 'Nobody lives through this.'"

There is no doubt that Dennis Hopper entertained that notion on more than a few occasions during his decades of excess.

But Hopper, seated in the loft office of his ultramodern home in Venice Beach, California, is recalling a day two years ago when he, his young son, Henry, and two buddies were in Jamaica, heading to a golf course to play a few holes. As they drove through a small village, a speeding truck barreled head-on into their car.

Hopper's friends were badly injured in the crash -- broken legs, head traumas -- but Hopper climbed out of the passenger seat without a scratch. He pulled Henry, now 10 years old, from the backseat, covered in splattered blood, also eerily unhurt.

"At that point, I really thought, maybe there is a force looking out for me, because I can't figure out how we survived," Hopper says, shaking his head in amazement as he puffs on a Punch cigar.

There are those who can't figure out how Hopper, 64, now a sober, successful actor, director and internationally acclaimed artist, managed to live through the wild and crazy sex, drugs and rock and roll era.

"And there are probably a lot more people who hoped I wouldn't," Hopper says, laughing a milder version of his infamous cackle.

Hopper has been reincarnated from a brash young actor in the '50s, to a rebel hippie filmmaker in the '60s, to a drug-addled industry pariah in the '70s. Hopper hit rock bottom in the mid-'80s, when, crazed from cocaine psychosis, he was found by police, naked and hiding in a Mexican jungle.

His love life has been equally chaotic. Hopper is now happily married to his fifth wife, Victoria Cane Duffy. One marriage to The Mamas and the Papas singer Michelle Phillips in 1970 lasted just eight days. Hopper calls those eight days "a great honeymoon."

On this clear-skied California morning, Hopper looks trim, toned and healthy. Nattily dressed in a well-cut gray suit, his swept-back silver hair and goatee giving him an air of European distinction, Hopper speaks honestly about his recovery. His blue eyes, chilling in his many villainous film roles, are friendly, intelligent and crystal clear.

"I've been sober now for 18 years," Hopper says. "With all the drugs, psychedelics and narcotics I did, I was [really] an alcoholic. Honestly, I only used to do cocaine so I could sober up and drink more. My last five years of drinking was a nightmare. I was drinking a half-gallon of rum with a fifth of rum on the side, in case I ran out, 28 beers a day, and three grams of cocaine just to keep me moving around. And I thought I was doing fine because I wasn't crawling around drunk on the floor."

Hopper has surprised everyone with the resilience of his spirit and the depth of his talent, not to mention the recuperative powers of his flesh.

Best known for writing, directing and acting in Easy Rider, the award-winning seminal '60s film, the actor has amassed an astonishing body of work (more than 120 films) in the past six decades, appearing in Rebel Without a Cause, Giant, Apocalypse Now and Blue Velvet, among others.

Since becoming sober in the '80s, Hopper has slowly carved out an impressive career playing award-winning quirky roles in small, offbeat pictures such as True Romance, River's Edge, Straight to Hell, Paris Trout, Red Rock West and Basquiat.

He's also starred in big-budget Hollywood fare, playing a mad bomber in Jan de Bont's worldwide hit Speed with Keanu Reeves and a demented one-eyed villain opposite Kevin Costner in Waterworld.

Yet, despite his hundreds of memorable roles, it's Hopper's Billy in Easy Rider, riding along life's lonely highway, his buckskin jacket flapping in the wind as he defiantly flips the bird at the establishment, that is forever etched into America's collective subconscious.

In the mid-'60s, Hopper, like many young people, was quickly swept up in the counterculture's revolution; taking part in political protests for free speech and integration. It was sex, and drugs and rock and roll. And more drugs. A lot more drugs.

"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.

"Terry never wrote a word and did not even want his name on the film," Lewis says. "Dennis wrote that script and I should know because I spent 18 days in a car with him. Much of it even came from things that happened to us. There may have been editing and it came from an idea that Dennis and Peter had. The picture made a lot of money and so people started saying, 'Why aren't I making money?' It was all about greed."

The wound is deep and old and has left an ugly scar.

"Peter and I will never patch anything up. He has made my life so miserable," Hopper says. "He tried to take away the one thing I created -- Easy Rider. The story is partly his, but I wrote the screenplay and Terry Southern didn't write any of it. He even gave me his percentage of it.

"Peter and I talked out the script on a tennis court, and he and Terry were supposed to go off and write the screenplay," Hopper adds. "I went out with Paul Lewis and scouted locations, and when I called and asked, 'How's the script?' they had three pages. I went to New York, kicked them out of the office, hired a woman, dictated the script in 10 days. It wasn't a masterpiece but it was something so we could go make the movie."

Needless to say, Hopper isn't a fan of Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, a controversial and critically lauded book by former Premiere magazine editor Peter Biskind. The book, which chronicles the cinematic lives of American male filmmakers of the 1970s, includes a chapter on the making of Easy Rider.

"I picked it up but when I read my ex-brother-in-law and Peter's [Fonda] partner say I was 'the worst editor he ever saw' and Peter [Fonda] called me 'a fascist punk,' I put it down. That's enough. It's fucking pathetic," Hopper says. "When someone asked Jack [Nicholson] if he'd read it, he said, 'I don't read fiction.'"

After the success of Easy Rider, Hopper was Hollywood's new golden bad boy. In 1971, Hopper wrote, directed and starred in The Last Movie, which, ironically, almost was his.

"That film was never supported and never understood," Lewis recalls. "But it was literally the height of craziness. We were shooting in Peru at an altitude of 17,000 feet in the cocaine capital of the world. I remember we were drunk at this press conference in Lima and a reporter asked Dennis if he had stopped doing drugs. He said, 'Why would I stop doing drugs just because I'm in Peru?'"

Movie was Hopper's dark, prophetic statement on the impact of media violence on society. When an actor is killed during a stunt in a movie shooting in Peru, villagers reenact the film's scenes, killing each other.

Reports of Hopper's nonstop wild parties on the set did not please the studio. "We had the premiere of Easy Rider happening in Lima and so we flew the whole production -- Kris Kristofferson, Dean Stockwell, Peter Fonda -- down in a Peruvian airline, and Dennis and I got a phone call saying they were going to arrest the whole plane because they were giving grass to the stewardesses," Lewis says.

When Hopper returned to Los Angeles, he had 37 hours of footage, which he took home to Taos, New Mexico, to edit, much to the studio's dismay. After 16 months, the gray suits from the studio arrived and demanded to see the film. Horrified by what they saw, the studio demanded a recut. Hopper refused. Movie won best film at the Venice Film Festival that year but was only briefly released in the United States and critically reviled. The once-lauded Hopper was now lambasted, unable to get phone calls returned much less get new work.

Hopper freely admits he's had difficulty with the Hollywood power structure but says he only bumped heads over artistic vision, not trailer size or corporate jets.

"I've had a lot of problems through the years on a creative level with people in positions that used their power to stop me from working for many years," he says.

After being run out of Hollywood, the already angry actor returned to Taos and dove into booze and cocaine with a renewed fury. He worked sporadically over the next few years until director and friend Henry Jaglom hired him to star in Tracks in 1976. Hopper gave an inspired performance as a venomous Vietnam vet.

"The only thing Hollywood wanted less than a Vietnam War movie was one with Dennis Hopper in it," Jaglom said in a recent E! Entertainment Television "True Hollywood Story" on Hopper.

A few years later, director Francis Ford Coppola hired him to star opposite Martin Sheen and Marlon Brando in his Vietnam War epic, Apocalypse Now. Pounds of cocaine and gallons of booze fueled Hopper's performance as the crazed manic photojournalist. After the film wrapped, Hopper, a mental and physical wreck, exhausted, with open infected wounds, showed up in Germany to shoot An American Friend under Wim Wenders. "He was lethal, suicidal," Wenders later told the press.

Hopper's behavior went from bad to bizarre. In 1983, a delusional Hopper crouched under a folding chair rigged with dynamite at a Houston racetrack and tried to blow himself up to promote his one-man art show. He was unhurt.

"I was convinced there was a hit out on me," Hopper says. "If they were going to kill me, they would have to do it out in the open."

Months later, during the shooting of a small film called Jungle Fever, Hopper was found crazed, naked and babbling, hiding in a Mexican jungle. He was sent back to Los Angeles and put in a hospital.

After a few visits to psychiatric wards and rehabilitation centers, Hopper finally started to sober up. Steely determination and pure white fear got him through detoxes, shakes and tremors that lasted for many months.

Even before his rehab stay, Hopper stunned critics when he took the reins of a troubled film he was starring in called Out of the Blue (1980). He rewrote and directed it, brought the film in on time and under budget, and was nominated for the Palm D'Or at Cannes.

His subsequent directorial efforts have included the highly acclaimed gritty police/gang drama Colors (1988) with Sean Penn and Robert Duvall, Catchfire (1989) with Jodie Foster and John Turturro, The Hot Spot (1990) with Don Johnson and Chasers (1994).

"In the early days, his films were raw and intuitive," says Lewis. "In his later films, it's more polished and planned. His style is a lot like John Ford but with a moving camera. He really styles a film, using backgrounds exceptionally well, and his images are impeccable."

In 1986, a newly sober Hopper was terrified that he would not be able to act without his booze and drugs. But he faced his demons for the memorably chilling portrayal of the nitrous-huffing schizophrenic Frank Booth in David Lynch's Blue Velvet.

"Dennis knows his crazies," Lewis explains. "Frank is someone he knows very well. There were many times through the years when Dennis's life imitated his art or his art imitated his life. He used to become the characters he played. In Easy Rider, he didn't change his clothes for six months."

Hopper makes use of his outcast status to play misbegotten misfits. For his Oscar-nominated role in 1986's Hoosiers, Hopper captured Wilbur "Shooter" Flatch, the down-and-out alcoholic coach who misses his shot at fame. And in 1999's Jesus' Son, critics lauded his back-from-the-brink, blathering ex-junkie.

He's still drawn to marginalized characters, even for the new film he plans to write and direct about the Venice Beach homeless.

Hopper realizes that having lived life on the edge has given him a good perspective on the dark side. And he admits that much of his dependence on drugs and alcohol was self-medicating deep insecurity.

"People wanted to meet the guy from Easy Rider or Apocalypse Now or Blue Velvet," Hopper says. "I'm not those guys. They were just parts. But if you have a few drinks you can become Billy or Frank, you know? Everyone's real happy until they turn into a monster. For me, alcohol was such a destroyer. It was real Jeckyl and Hyde stuff."

The roles he chooses now reveal a more thoughtful man, less afraid to expose his fragile human core. One of Hopper's favorite parts is Joseph, an emotionally and physically crippled teacher, rejuvenated by his passion for a young girl in Bruno Barreto's Carried Away (1996).

Hopper kicks off 2001 with Knockaround Guys, costarring John Malkovich and directed by Brian Koppelman and David Levien. In the movie, Hopper portrays Benny "Chains" Demaret, a cigar-smoking wise guy.

"Benny is a cold man, but we wanted him to have a hint of warmth," Levien says. "Dennis brings that. He plays a guy who is trapped in a life he hates and wants more for his kid."

As Benny, Hopper also wanted more cigars.

"We shot in Toronto, so we had access to real [Cuban] Montecristos," says Koppleman. "The prop guy was really nervous because he saw how much of an appetite Dennis had for the cigars and he thought, 'Oh, my God, if I have to keep clipping these cigars, we're gonna go through two boxes in a day!'"

Hopper's irrepressible spirit and zest for life surprised both directors.

"I think some of his past performances, like Frank in Blue Velvet, are so distinctive that Dennis still unnerves people 10 years later," Koppleman says.

"In real life, Dennis is much closer to the Keebler elf," adds Levien.

 

ennis Hopper was born on May 17, 1936. The first son of Marjorie and Jay M. Hopper spent his early years on a farm outside of Dodge City, Kansas, where films fueled his imagination.

"I grew up in the Dust Bowl and the first light I saw was in the movie theater," Hopper says. "My grandmother really used to fill her apron with eggs; we'd walk a few miles to Dodge City. She'd sell the eggs and we'd buy movie tickets."

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!'"

Hopper was so inspired by Dean's improvisational abilities that he later studied with Dean's acting coach, Lee Strasberg, whose method-acting techniques relied on sense of memory, a skill Hopper still uses both in acting and art.

"Dean had all these things going on internally but he expressed himself physically with strange movements. You can see it in Giant when he's marking off the land or when the oil starts coming down. It's like a dance. No one else has ever done that."

After Dean's death in a car crash, Hopper was devastated by the loss of his mentor. "His death was mind-boggling to me," Hopper says. "He was going to go on to write and direct."

Some Hollywood observers say that Hopper tried to fill Dean's shoes and carry on his rebellious image. Dean's demand for reality in film would be a cross Hopper would bear for decades.

Trouble began early with director Henry Hathaway, who finally broke down Hopper's improvisational spirit by making him do 80 takes in 15 hours in From Hell to Texas (1958).

Hopper was in tears when he finally gave in and said the lines the way Hathaway wanted him to. Hathaway warned Hopper he would never work in films again. And he almost didn't. Work was so scarce in Hollywood after that film that Hopper gave up and went to New York. Ironically, Hopper would later work with Hathaway in The Sons of Katie Elder in 1965. Hopper did the lines just the way Hathaway wanted saying, "See what a better actor I am now?" Hathaway growled back, "You're not better, you're just smarter."

Hopper worked on TV while living in New York but mostly he hung out with the new Bohemians, an arty crowd of Abstract Expressionists, Pop artists, writers and poets. This offbeat group included Andy Warhol, Allen Ginsberg and Marcel Duchamp.

Frustrated by films and the lack of good roles, Hopper turned to art for a creative outlet. In 1961, he began shooting full frame black-and-white photos -- frozen images of the social changes in the art and film world. He stopped shooting in 1967 but has recently begun again, now focusing on peeling paint and graffiti on walls in Tokyo, Venice, Paris, Prague and Morocco. His photography has been displayed in museums and galleries around the world.

"I was stopped so many times from acting and directing that if I had not had art as an outlet, I don't know what I would have done," he says. Hopper also started collecting modern art. Contemporary artist Ed Ruscha first met Hopper in 1964 at the Ferris Gallery in Los Angeles.

"He bought one of my first paintings, Standard Station," says Ruscha. "He was an early collector, one of the very few people in Hollywood who bought modern art.

"Like me, Dennis's art grows out of alienation and the theme of frustration in modern life. Dennis always responded to city anxiety, graffiti, etchings on walls expressing the frustration of urban life. That still turns him on and really rings his bell."

Hopper later lost his first Ruscha in a divorce. "I had one of the earliest Pop Art collections: Jasper Johns, Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Frank Stella. Today it would be worth $100 million but most of it has ended up in German museums."

A retrospective of Hopper's own art is headed for European museums. He's been working for more than a year on the retrospective of his life's work -- sculpture, painting, photography -- that will open on February 6 at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. The show moves to Vienna for the summer, then travels to Rome, Berlin, Paris, New York, Boston and San Francisco, perhaps ending at the Museum of Contemporary Art in L.A.

Hopper says the preparation for the exhibit is overwhelming. "It's more work than any movie I have ever directed."

He's even re-creating pieces burned in the 1961 Bel Air fires, others that were destroyed when another angry ex-wife (or two) turned the sprinklers on them.

Fire and floods? Sounds positively biblical.

"Yeah," Hopper says, grinning at the analogy. "I think there were locusts, too. But I can't remember!"

Hopper's sprawling Venice complex includes two loft studios and an enormous metal silo -- a kind of modern art bunker, which houses Hopper's paintings and photography as well as an impressive $8 million collection of works by Ruscha, Julian Schnabel, Kenny Scharf, Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Richard Serra, George Herms and Warhol.

Hopper's home, like his life, is a work in progress. This afternoon, armies of workmen are dismembering old Mexican tiles by the front door and laying down mountains of fresh green sod around the new pool.

"When I was still in rehab, the doctor suggested I leave Taos and come back to reality." Hopper laughs. "Reality? In L.A.? Anyway, Venice was the only place in L.A. I could remember enjoying because all my painter and poet friends lived here."

Hopper bought one of three loft studios designed by renowned architect and friend Frank Gehry and had architect Brian Murphy make it livable. A few years later, Hopper had Murphy build what Hopper calls "the Art Barn." He has since bought a second Gehry studio and Murphy linked the structures, knocking out walls and building connecting staircases.

"It's been described as a floodlit fortress," Murphy says. "It's an interior landscape bereft of windows with sliding walls that can showcase his enormous art collection on both sides. The entire structure keeps morphing to suit his changing lifestyle. Dennis is a very sophisticated person in terms of aesthetics and he's been very involved in aspects of the design."

Last year, Hopper purchased the small Craftsman house on the opposite side of the main house, transforming it into a modern guest cottage situated near his new combination lap pool/Jacuzzi. "I tried to buy that little house for years, but the old lady who lived there just wouldn't sell it to me," Hopper says. "She finally died and her daughter quickly sold it to me. I guess I outlived her," he says, with a grin.

"Now I finally have a yard," Hopper pronounces. Pointing to the freshly planted rose bushes, he explains, "Those are for Victoria."

Victoria Duffy, his wife of five years, is a striking, slender brunette. She heads out clad in gray jodhpurs and boots to train her thoroughbreds, Time Point, Samba and Red Night. Before she leaves, she gives him a kiss, calling him "Mr. Beautiful," her pet name for him taken from a character in a video game he played.

It was Victoria who chose to speak to Hopper nine years ago at Rebecca's, a restaurant Hopper frequented.

"I had been separated from my last wife for just a week and I was eating alone. She seated me and then came over and said, 'I don't want to bother you now but when you're finished, would you mind if I asked you about your art. I just saw your show at the James Corcoran Gallery and I'd like to discuss it with you.' We have been together ever since."

Hopper hasn't always been so lucky in love. His "ex" list includes Brooke Hayward (1961-'69), Phillips, Daria Halprin (1972-'76) and Katherine La Nasa (1989-'92). But it sure looks like five is his lucky number. Does Victoria's horse sense, her inherited talents at handling high-strung, skittish thoroughbreds, come in handy?

"Victoria just knows how to deal with me. If she sees me in a mood, she comes over, touches me and says, 'How are things going?' But if she needs to stay away, she stays away. She has an understanding. We just don't get into confrontations."

As well as joint custody of his son, Henry, Hopper has two grown daughters: Marin, 37, fashion director at Elle, and Ruthanna, 27, who has an art history degree and is studying acting with a coach Hopper recommended.

Hopper's latest reincarnation is unquestionably a new role for him: devoted husband and father. And with his expanded house and a backyard big enough for summer barbecues, the only thing missing from this snapshot of familial bliss is a dog.

Which, it turns out, is arriving this afternoon. Hopper, his wife and his anxious son will meet the 6:15 p.m. Delta flight from San Francisco to pick up their 8-week-old German Shepherd purebred pup. Hopper, who had one when he was young, located the breeders on the Web. As he drives Henry to school this morning, the wriggling lad clutches a photo of his pup-to-be, exclaiming, "He's so fluffy!"

Longtime friend Mark Canton, who recently produced Red Planet, describes Hopper as a devoted family man. He, Hopper and Nicholson, their significant others and children often vacation together in Mexico, Italy and Martha's Vineyard.

"Dennis has gone through many changes in his life," Canton says. "But of all of us at this point in life, he's the most steady, the rock. We like each other's company. We laugh, play golf and smoke cigars. With Dennis, there is never a dull moment, and I always learn from him."

Elizabeth Snead was an entertainment/pop culture writer at USA Today for 10 years. She resides in Los Angeles and freelances for US Weekly, TV Guide, Entertainment Weekly, E!Online and Inside.com.

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