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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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"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.

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