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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

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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.


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