Success in Hollywood came remarkably easy for Dennis Hopper — but vanished just as quickly. It began on the day the teenage actor auditioned for the role of an epileptic in a television series called Medic. After a little small talk, he suddenly fell to the floor in a seizure. The casting director was reaching for the phone to call an ambulance when the 18-year-old jumped up and smiled broadly. The 32 other actors waiting in the corridor were sent home. Hopper had the role.
His screen performance — his body becomes rigid, he falls down and he even foams at the mouth — may not be authentic, but it reminded his grandmother of the day when as a little boy he discovered the intoxicating effects of mood-altering substances.
Hopper was born in 1936 in the Kansas dust bowl. His father went off to war — Hopper was told he was dead — and until he was 10 he spent most of his time on his grandparents’ small farm. There were “wheat fields all around, as far as you could see. No neighbors, no other kids.”
His grandfather owned an old tractor with a gas tank at the front where the radiator is usually found. The boy’s curiosity led him to remove the cap and sniff. Breathing more deeply, he reeled from the petrol fumes. But he enjoyed it.
Nearly every day, he stretched out on the hood of the tractor, inhaled and lay on his back. The sky became animated; the clouds changed into clowns and goblins. One afternoon he overdid it. The tractor’s grille and lights turned into the face of a terrifying monster attacking him. His grandfather pulled him away as he smashed at it with his baseball bat. The boy was so high he wasn’t even aware of what he was doing until his grandparents explained it to him afterwards.
It set the scene for a turbulent life. Four decades later, after a chaotic acting career disrupted by too many rages and bad trips, Hopper was in a rehabilitation clinic, where a counselor wrote that “no character he had ever portrayed on screen, including the frenetic photographer in Apocalypse Now, came close to projecting the dazed, lunatic quality” of the man himself. Hopper once said he became an actor “because I hate my parents . . . I hated my home life, the rules.”
His father was “a hard, totally secret man with no words,” whose “death” had been a ruse to cover secret work with the OSS (the forerunner of the CIA) in China. His reappearance after the war confounded the boy. “Now wouldn’t that make you a paranoiac?” Hopper later said.
He claimed that his mother had been a swimming champion, whose Olympic ambitions collapsed when she became pregnant with him at 17. She took out her resentments on him. “She was wild, very emotional, a screamer and a yeller,” he said. “My mother had an incredible body, and I had a sexual fascination for her.”
His gateway to Hollywood was the southern California city of San Diego, to which the family moved when he was 13. At school he was the class clown, but he took acting lessons (to his mother’s horror). He tried to escape his parents’ disapproval by running away.
“I was a crazy kid, mixed up with a wild bunch — delinquents, I guess — but I got away from that in acting. I was into the general gang stuff. Petty theft and a lot of misdemeanors.”
Stage work at the La Jolla Playhouse brought contact with Hollywood stars like Vincent Price, an art collector who introduced Hopper to the new Abstract Expressionist painters.
Hopper’s role in Medic led to a rancorous audition with “King” Harry Cohn, the infamously coarse boss of Columbia Pictures.
Hopper claimed to have told the mogul to “go fuck” himself for criticizing Shakespeare.
But he promptly landed work in 1955 with Hollywood’s hottest new actors, James Dean and Natalie Wood, on a film that became a cultural icon, Rebel without a Cause. Both stars changed Hopper’s life. Dean dazzled him. Wood drew him into a world of debauchery (with painful consequences for her when she tried to start an orgy in a bath of champagne).
Wood’s parents, Nick and Maria Gurdin, were Russian émigrés. He was an alcoholic carpenter.
Maria yearned for wealth and fame — and found it when a film crew visited their home town in northern California. She pushed four-year-old Natalie onto director Irving Pichel’s lap. She charmed him by singing a Russian folk song and was rewarded with a brief walk-on role — prompting Maria to move the family to Hollywood, where she maneuvered her daughter into her first speaking role and a career as a child actress.
By the time Rebel Without a Cause was on the horizon, Wood was 16 — too mature to play children, yet too young to play leading roles against older male stars. Her home life was tough. Her father periodically erupted in drunken rages and chased his wife around the house with a butcher knife. Her mother banned anything that threatened her earning power as an actress — including relationships with boys her own age.
“I was a rather dutiful child,” Wood said later in life, “and when my parents read the script of Rebel, they said, ‘Oh no, not this one,’ because it showed parents in a rather unsympathetic light, and yet I read it, and for the first time in my life I said, ‘Oh, wait a minute. I have to do this!’” She identified with Judy, one of the teenagers from dysfunctional families around whom the film revolves.
Rebel’s director, Nicholas Ray, then 43, was a bisexual, misogynistic womanizer addicted to alcohol, drugs and gambling. Wood showed up at his office looking how she thought a sexy, mature woman should look. Heavily made up, wearing the slinkiest dress she could find and perched on high heels, she threw herself at him.
It did little to change his impressions of her as a child actress, but she ended up in his bed at the Chateau Marmont hotel on the Sunset Strip. Ray had a poolside bungalow where he enjoyed afternoon trysts with pliable young actresses, most notably Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield, another candidate for the role of Judy.
He agreed to give Wood a screen test with Hopper. It took place on a rainy evening and “by the time we were finished, Natalie and I both felt like wet, unhappy animals,” he recalled.
Next day the phone rang in his apartment. A young girl’s voice said, “This is Natalie Wood. I tested with you the other night on Rebel. Remember? It was raining?”
Hopper barely remembered the skinny little girl “because I tested with about 10 women that day. But she was really funny. She told me I was great looking, and she really liked me, and she wanted to have sex with me . . .
“In the Fifties to be aggressive like that as a woman was really amazing. It was an amazing turn-on to me, for one thing. But it was certainly contrary to any kind of movement, or idea, at the time.”
Hopper picked Wood up at Ray’s hotel, where she had spent the afternoon with the director, and drove up to a lover’s lane to make out. He was about to go down on Natalie when she exclaimed, “Oh, you can’t do that.” Hopper said, “Why?” She said, “Because Nick just fucked me.”
“I thought it was weird, okay?” Hopper recalled. “At the time I was 18 years old! I thought it was strange, I thought it was weird of her to be doing it . . . he was having an affair with a minor. It was illegal for me, too, but at least I was only a couple of years older.”
Wood became Hopper’s Hollywood tour guide, tooling around town in her pink Ford Thunderbird with him and Rebel cast member Nick Adams. They placed their hands and shoes in the imprints of the screen immortals at the entrance to Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. Hopper became her surrogate for James Dean, who hadn’t responded to her interest. The two young men looked similar and were both dedicated to the Method school of acting.
Wood and Hopper alternated between a search for seriousness and frivolity. Hopper said they watched foreign films, “trying to find another way of, like, working. We were very ambitious to change things.” But they also thought of themselves as the logical successors to the great names of show business and began emulating what Hopper called “wild, crazed Hollywood icons.”
Hopper said: “It was almost as if we were naive to the point: ‘If people did drugs and alcohol and were nymphomaniacs, then that must be the way to creativity, and creativity’s where we wanna be. We wanna be the best.’ She [Wood] always wanted to be the best.
“We were always envious of the generations before us,” he continued. “In the Fifties, when me and Natalie and Dean suddenly arrived, we all sort of felt like an earlier group of people who thumbed their noses at Hollywood tradition, people like John Barrymore and Errol Flynn, both of whom died as alcoholics.
“It seemed a romantic, a colorful way to go. I mean, we heard of the orgies that John Garfield used to have, the Hollywood roulette. It seemed wilder. So we tried to emulate that lifestyle. In a strange way we were trying to emulate some sort of past glory.”
Hopper and Nick Adams rented a house in the Hollywood Hills, where, with Wood, they tried to be wilder than their notorious predecessors. “For instance,” Hopper said, “once Natalie and I decided we’d have an orgy.”
Among the guests was Hopper’s high school friend Bob Turnbull, who recalled: “It was kind of a big event. She just wanted all kinds of guys doin’ her.”
Wood wanted a champagne bath, Hopper said, because, “I think she had heard that Jean Harlow or somebody had had a champagne bath. So Nick and I went and got all this champagne, and we filled the bathtub full of champagne, and we said, ‘Okay, Natalie, we’re ready for the orgy.’ Natalie takes off her clothes, sits down in the champagne, starts screaming.”
Why did she scream? “Well,” Hopper said, “because it burned her pussy. Set her on fucking fire, you know.” Hopper and the others raced the agonized Wood to the nearest emergency room, where she was treated for a “very expensive burn.”
“Of course, she had other times, too, when Dennis, Nick and I would be enjoying her company as well,” Turnbull said. “She was just a wild and crazy gal. She was just very friendly but oversexed. She was a very classy girl. She just had a whole different outlook on the morality of one’s life. She was a nice person, very polite, just a very free-flowing spirit.”
There was sexual jealousy between Hopper and Rebel’s director. Hopper told Steffi Sidney, another friend, that he went looking for Wood at Ray’s bungalow one evening and caught them having sex. “He told me about being in love with Natalie and what he was going to do, because Nick hated him,” Sidney said.
Hopper said he visited the Chateau Marmont with a gun to confront Ray, who, fortunately, wasn’t at home that night.
The anger extended to the film set: Ray tried to fire him and removed much of the dialogue from his part, a gang member called Goon. But it was on set that Rebel had its lasting effect on Hopper, as a result of his watching Dean at work. “I thought,” Hopper said, “I was the best actor in the world — I mean the best young actor. Until I saw James Dean. He fascinated me. Dean completely disregarded any direction in the script. He would do a scene differently every time. It came straight out of his imagination, his improvisation.”
Hopper tried to talk to him about his technique, but Dean preferred to stay in his dressing room, smoking marijuana and playing classical music. “I tried to get to know him. I started by saying, ‘Hello.’ No answer.”
Hopper said he finally got Dean’s attention by throwing him into the back seat of one of the cars used in the “chickie run” scene. Hopper enjoyed a student-teacher relationship with Dean, sharing peyote and marijuana. “He started watching my takes,” he recalled. “I wouldn’t even know he was there. He’d come up and mumble, ‘Why don’t you try it this way?’ And he was always right.”
The 24-year-old Dean was killed when he crashed his Porsche 550 Spyder on September 30, 1955, a month before Rebel was released. It is difficult to overstate the impact of his death on Hopper, who once spoke about him as if he were the love of his life: “I was with him almost every day for the last eight months of his life and then he died. I was haunted by the death of Dean, which had been the greatest emotional shock of my young life. He taught me so much. When he died, I felt cheated. I had dreams tied up in him, and suddenly that was shattered. The alcohol and drugs brought me temporary escape. That was the first major thing that really affected me . . . My life was confused and disoriented for years.”
Dean’s immediate legacy was a delusion that Hopper could wield the same power on set as his idol had done. To Hopper, it appeared that Dean dominated Nick Ray and called the creative shots on Rebel. Hopper, however, was not in Dean’s league.
In 1957, he engaged in an epic battle with veteran director Henry Hathaway while filming From Hell to Texas. Following in Dean’s footsteps, Hopper refused to do things the director’s way. Hathaway finally broke his will when they spent all day shooting 87 takes of a 10-line scene. Hopper was effectively banished from Hollywood studio films.
Hopper married Brooke Hayward and worked sporadically in episodic television and low-budget films. He channeled his creative energy into photography and collecting Pop Art. He directed second unit footage of Peter Fonda on The Trip and the two collaborated on Easy Rider, which became the surprise hit of 1969.
Hopper, regarded by the Hollywood establishment as “a maniac and an idiot and a fool and a drunkard” before Easy Rider, suddenly became their hot ticket to the youth market. He had creative carte blanche to direct his next film, The Last Movie. He later recalled that making The Last Movie, a disastrous project filmed in Peru in 1970, was one long sex-and-drugs orgy.
“Wherever you looked,” he said, “there were naked people out of their minds. There was a mountain of coke down there, and we went through it all. But I wouldn’t say it got in the way of the movie. I’d say it helped us get the movie done. We might have been drug addicts, but we were drug addicts with a point of view and a work ethic. It was all about the movie. If we were going to take coke and fuck beautiful women, we’d do it on camera. The drugs and the drink and the insane sex, they all fueled our creativity. At least, that’s my excuse. If you’re gonna be that debauched, it’s better to have a good reason.”
Hopper spent over a year partying with a hippie entourage while editing The Last Movie at his new home in Taos, New Mexico. He married singer Michelle Phillips on Halloween in 1970. She ran away from him days later, accusing him of handcuffing her, calling her a witch, and firing guns inside his house. The Last Movie, an incoherent, pretentious mess, alienated audiences and critics and bombed, taking Hopper’s career with it.
Hopper exiled himself to Taos, working occasionally outside the U. S. in films like Mad Dog Morgan, The American Friend, and Apocalypse Now.
The nadir came in 1982.
“I was doing half a gallon of rum with a fifth of rum on the side, 28 beers and three grams of cocaine a day — and that wasn’t getting high, that was just to keep going, man,” he said. “It was like a nightmare roller-coaster paranoid schizophrenic journey that was totally crazy.”
Delusional, and convinced that the mob put out a contract on his life, Hopper performed an old rodeo stunt called the Russian Suicide Death Chair at a speedway in Houston to promote a retrospective of his art at Rice University. He sat on a chair wired with dynamite sticks and lit the fuse. He emerged from the explosion miraculously unscathed.
A German producer wanted Hopper for a film about a group of models captured by a South American drug lord. The money was more than he’d ever been offered. So he headed down to Cuernavaca, Mexico, where it was going to be made. The job became Hopper’s entry to madness.
“What happened was my manager had called and said ‘don’t give him any booze,’ so I couldn’t get a drink and I started having hallucinations,” he said. The three complimentary shots of tequila left for him in his hotel room sent Hopper over the edge. He later said they were spiked with LSD.
“I became convinced that there were people in the bowels of this place who were being tortured and cremated,” he recalled. “The people had come to save me, and they were being killed and tortured, and it was my fault.”
He escaped into the warm Mexican night but the hallucinations kept coming. He masturbated to a tree and thought he was creating a galaxy. Insects and snakes broke through his skin. He tore off his clothes and walked into the countryside. He saw mysterious lights and thought they were alien spaceships.
As dawn broke, Hopper wandered naked back to town, hurling rocks at oncoming cars. “When the police tried to get me dressed, I refused,” he said. “I said, ‘No, kill me like this! I want to die naked.’”
Some of the film crew managed to get him on a flight back to Los Angeles. “On the plane I was hallucinating, and I crawled out on the wing in midair,” he recalled. “I decided that Francis Ford Coppola was on the plane, filming me. I had seen him, I had seen the cameras, so I knew that they were there. The crew started the wing on fire, so I crawled out on it, knowing that they were filming me. I was out there, and a bunch of stuntmen grabbed me and pulled me in.”
Hopper woke up in a straightjacket in a psychiatric ward, surrounded by celebrities in straightjackets who were screaming. “I better stop drinking,” he told himself. An antipsychotic drug gave him the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. It took him agonizing minutes to get food or a cigarette into his mouth.
He forswore alcohol but secretly continued using large amounts of cocaine — “half an ounce every two days, 2 days, three days at the most” — and then went totally crazy: “It’s really amazing when the telephone wires start talking to you.”
Hopper finally questioned his behavior. “I had built in such a strong endorsement for drinking and using drugs, because, after all, I was an artist, and it was okay for artists to do that,” he said. “The reality was that I was just a drunk and a drug addict. It wasn’t helping me create. In fact, it hindered me. It stopped me getting jobs. I dealt with the rejection by taking more drink and drugs. All alcohol and drugs got me was a lot of misery.”
A year after Hopper sobered up, David Lynch, a master of the grotesque with a gift for infusing banal situations with the dread of imminent horror, cast him as gas-huffing psychotic drug dealer Frank Booth in his new film, Blue Velvet, without even meeting the actor.
Hopper called Lynch to assure him that he understood the role. “I am Frank,” he told Lynch, which gave the director some pause. Hopper viewed the film as a love story, explaining: “I understood his [Booth’s] sexual obsession. But I saw him as a man who would go to any lengths to keep his lady.”
His inimitable performance became his signature role, eclipsing everything he had done before. It would prove to be both a blessing and a curse. Though he worked constantly afterwards, he became trapped playing endless variations of Frank Booth for the rest of his life.
Before his death at 74 from prostate cancer, he summed up: “Let’s see, I guess, Easy Rider, Blue Velvet, a couple of photographs here, a couple of paintings . . . those are the things that I would be proud of, and yet they’re so minimal in this vast body of crap — most of the 150 films I’ve been in — this river of shit that I’ve tried to make gold out of. Very honestly.”
© Peter L Winkler 2014 Excerpted from Dennis Hopper: The Wild Ride of a Hollywood Rebel, published by Barricade Books. Available in hardcover, paperback, Kindle e-book, and audiobook editions from Amazon.com. Be sure to visit Peter’s website: dennishopperbook.com