Dennis Hopper: Rennaissance Rebel
Once spurned by Hollywood and nearly destroyed by drugs, Dennis Hopper has resurrected his life and his art.
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-- "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.'"