Tag Archives: Natalie Wood

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A Legal “Miracle” or How US Law Saved Kris Kringle

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20th Century Fox’s 1947 Academy Award-winning comedy Miracle on 34th Street (directed and written by George Seaton from an original story by Valentine Davies) is justifiably regarded by film connoisseurs as one of the two most beloved of Hollywood Christmas classics. (The other one is, of course, Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. In fact, Miracle on 34th Street is often referred to as “the best Capra picture Capra never made.”)

As just about everybody knows thanks to the numerous obligatory television presentations this time of year, Miracle on 34th Street tells the story of Kris Kringle (character actor Edmund Gwenn in the performance that won him the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor), a kindly old man who’s hired to play Santa Claus at Macy’s Department Store for the holiday season. Kris turns out to not only be an outstandingly convincing Santa, he also insists that he’s the real article. As a result, he eventually winds up in court for a hearing to determine if he’s mentally unsound and should be committed to the mental ward of New York’s Bellevue Hospital. Representing Kris is idealistic young lawyer, Fred Gailey, played by John Payne. (More about Fred and the other characters later.)

Over the years, Miracle on 34th Street has received much well-deserved praise for its colorful characters, iconic performances, witty script, and the heartwarming sentimentality that delicately avoids becoming maudlin or treacly. But there’s one unlikely aspect of Miracle on 34th Street that has yet to receive much attention: the accuracy of its depiction of the use and interpretation of law in legal proceedings. Fred, the romantic lead, is, after all, an attorney, but given Hollywood’s track record on courtroom movies, that in itself was hardly a guarantee of authenticity. Indeed, the laughable amount of inaccuracies in Hollywood’s depictions of lawyers and their work makes it seem as though screenwriters consider it a badge of honor to avoid any research on the subject whatsoever and just make up their own approaches to interpreting the law out of whole cloth. (And don’t even get me started on David Mamet’s courtroom scenes in The Verdict and The Untouchables!)

Miracle-On-34th-Street-1947-6John Payne, Edmund Gwenn

The climatic courtroom sequences of Miracle on 34th Street were undoubtedly inspired and patterned after the equivalent scenes in Frank Capra’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1935). In both films, a beloved saintly character winds up in a New York court proceeding in order to determine his mental competency. (Longfellow Deeds wants to give his vast fortune away to the poor, much to the dismay of his relatives, lawyers, financial advisors, and various other “moochers.”) But Capra and his screenwriter Robert Riskin eschewed the mechanics of the law in allowing their hero to avoid commitment and relied more on crowd-pleasing sentimentality. Deeds, who’s rejected legal advice and represents himself, simply makes a speech explaining his reasoning for wanting to give his riches away, which is convincing enough for the judge to declare him “the sanest man who ever walked into this courtroom.”

jamesseaymiracleon34ststJames Seay

Seaton, on the other hand, opted for a legally valid way for Fred to get a judgment in favor of his client. Interestingly, Fred initially attempts to make an argument on sentimental grounds that reflect Capra’s approach. He calls Dr. Pierce (James Seay), who works at the nursing home Kris resides at, to the stand to testify that Kris is no threat to himself or others, and that his insistence of being Santa Claus is a harmless delusion not unlike the case of a well-known Hollywood restaurateur. (For the edification of those less than half a century old, this was an obvious reference to “Prince” Michael Romanoff, celebrated owner of Romanoff’s in Los Angeles, who had a running joke with his friends and customers in which he claimed to be a member of the Royal Family of Russia.)

genelockhartmiracleon34thstGene Lockhart

This line of questioning is quickly shot down by District Attorney Thomas Mara (Jerome Cowan as a caricature of real-life New York DA Thomas Dewey) who points out that there’s a difference between pretending to be someone you’re not and pretending to be someone who’s an imaginary figure. He then asks Judge Henry X. Harper (Gene Lockhart) for an immediate ruling as to the existence of Santa Claus. Of course, the judge (who also has gubernatorial ambitions) can’t possibly rule there’s a Santa Claus without becoming a national laughing stock, but before he can even address the issue, he’s called into conference by his political advisor, NY Democratic Party boss Charlie Halloran (William Frawley). Halloran tells Harper with clear, unsentimental logic why he can’t rule against the existence of Santa Claus in a speech beautifully delivered with withering sarcasm by Frawley in his greatest pre-I Love Lucy moment of glory:

“All right, you go back and tell them that the New York State Supreme Court rules there’s no Santa Claus. It’s all over the papers. The kids read it and they don’t hang up their stockings. Now what happens to all the toys that are supposed to be in those stockings? Nobody buys them. The toy manufacturers are going to like that; so they have to lay off a lot of their employees, union employees. Now, you got the CIO and the AF of L against you and they’re going to adore you for it and they’re going to say it with votes. Oh, and the department stores are going to love you, too, and the Christmas card makers and the candy companies. Henry, you’re going to be an awful popular fella’. And what about the Salvation Army? Why, they got a Santa Claus on every corner, and they’re taking a fortune. But you go ahead, Henry, you do it your way. You go on back in there and tell them that you rule there is no Santy Claus. Go on. But if you do, remember this: you can count on getting just two votes, your own and that district attorney’s out there!”

williamfrawleymiracleon34stWilliam Frawley

As a punch line, the judge responds by meekly pointing out that the DA’s a Republican. Returning to the courtroom, Harper sidesteps the issue by declaring that whether Santa Claus actually exists is irrelevant; the defense’s obligation to affirm his client’s sanity is to prove that Kris is “the one and only Santa Claus.” This seemingly raises the bar to an impossible level for Fred, but Seaton has cleverly set the stage for a solution to Fred’s winning Kris’ case that adheres to legal procedure.

A slight digression now as we turn our attention to the two major characters I have yet to mention: the Macy’s employee who first hired Kris, single mother Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara), and her daughter Susan (wonderfully played by an eight-year-old Natalie Wood). Disillusioned by the failure of her marriage, Doris has forbidden Susan from believing in “fairy-tale” characters, including Santa Claus. Which is why, despite her considerable affection for Kris, Susan tells him that, to her, he’s “just a kind old man with whiskers.” After Judge Harper’s ruling, Susan comes to a crucial decision to cheer up Kris by writing him a letter stating that she’s changed her mind and now is willing to believe he’s Santa Claus, after all. (Unbeknownst to Susan, Doris adds a post-script telling Kris that she believes in him, too.) Then, Susan addresses the envelope to “Kris Kringle, New York County Courthouse.” Which brings us to…

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The “miracle” of the title. That night (past midnight, so it’s now officially Christmas Eve), a post office mail sorter on the graveyard shift (an unbilled Jack Albertson) notices the letter’s address and has an inspiration. If “Santa Claus” can be found at the courthouse, why not get rid of all those thousands of “Dear Santa” missives taking up space in the dead letter department by sending them to the courthouse as well? Management agrees and this unnamed postal worker’s practical joke unwittingly turns out to be the miracle that makes it possible for Fred to have Kris recognized as Santa Claus in a way that holds water legally.

jackalbertsonmiracleon34thstreetJack Albertson

Upon receiving notice that there are several bags of mail awaiting delivery to his client, Fred does some quick research on postal law. As Fred recites to the court when he returns, “United States postal laws and regulations make it a criminal offense to willfully misdirect mail or intentionally deliver it to the wrong party.” (Not surprisingly, the actual wording of the law around that time was much drier and more technical: “For a person employed under the Post Office. To steal, or for any purpose whatever embezzle, secrete, or destroy a post letter, is a felony, punishable by penal servitude not exceeding seven years, or imprisonment not exceeding two years.” However, I think some artistic license can be granted to Seaton for wording the law in terms that would be more accessible to general audiences. And you have to give him props for making the language sound like authentic legalese.)

johnpayneJohn Payne, Edmund Gwenn

After he finishes reciting the law, Fred produces three letters addressed only “to Santa Claus” that were directly delivered to Kris and asks that they be entered as evidence. When the DA objects that “three letters are hardly proof positive,” Fred responds, “I have further exhibits, but I hesitate to produce them.” At this point, the judge insists that all of the exhibits be produced and placed upon his desk, which is the set-up for the movie’s single most memorable sight gag as a seemingly unending line of court officers parade into the courtroom and dump the contents of several mail bags onto the bench, the enormous pile eventually hiding the judge completely from view. (This bit of visual comedy is perhaps the film’s most Capraesque touch of all.)

case-dismissed-miracle-on-34-st-2John Payne, Gene Lockhart

Having introduced his evidence, Fred delivers his legal coup de grâce: “Your Honor, every one of these letters is addressed to Santa Claus. The Post Office has delivered them. Therefore, the Post Office, a branch of the federal government, recognizes this man, Kris Kringle, to be the one and only Santa Claus!” The judge parts the sea of envelopes before him and, rather than sentimentally declaring Kris to be “the sanest man who ever walked into this courtroom,” simply dismisses the case with, “Since the United States government declares this man to be Santa Claus, this court will not dispute it.” Thus, the judge has been given a legally acceptable way of getting out of a case he never wanted to preside over in the first place without alienating the voters or his grandchildren (who have been snubbing him for being mean to Santa Claus).

1964_4-cropEdmund Gwenn

With the case dismissed and Kris granted his freedom, there are still some important (and poignant) plot threads to be tied up, but this finishes things as far as the subject of this article is concerned. The point here is not that Miracle on 34th Street is a precisely detailed examination of US law, but rather that the attention to legal detail is pleasantly unexpected for a comedy. (And the fact that it still remains an extraordinarily amusing and entertaining movie that ranks with the best films of Capra and Preston Sturges doesn’t hurt it, either.) Another comedy that shows unusual legal acumen on the part of the filmmaker is Billy Wilder’s 1966 satire on tort law The Fortune Cookie, but that’s gist for another article…

Doug Krentzlin used to be a legal assistant in another existence.

 

 

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Anyone for Dennis

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.

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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.”

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“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.”

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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