If Dennis Hopper had never directed a film, you’d still know who he was — before he was 20 he’d played a key role opposite James Dean in “Rebel Without a Cause.” Later, he also provided color and humor to such famous, important films as “Apocalypse Now,” “Blue Velvet” and “Hoosiers.” And, of course, if you were a drug dealer or hooker on the Westside of L.A. for many of those years, he was, by his own admission, a key customer.
I know a little bit about this—not just anecdotally or as a journalist, but because my then-wife spent several years working for Dennis as his personal assistant and production coordinator on several movies.
Dennis Hopper was a classic child of the Depression. Born in 1936 in the hard-hit Midwest, he was young enough to know the hardship of living without, without being old enough to serve in the WWII military and benefit from the GI Bill.
But like many Depression kids, he developed survival instincts. Interested in acting (hey, what ‘30s urchin didn’t want to be in the movies?), he was smart enough to hook himself to rising stars. He went to New York, where he landed at the up-and-coming Actors’ Studio (founded by Elia Kazan, home of Jane Fonda, Ellen Burstyn, Al Pacino and numerous others). When his acting career devolved into guest spots on TV following “Rebel,” he was smart enough to marry acclaimed agent and “Sound of Music” producer Leland Hayward’s daughter Brooke (always a good move in clannish Tinsel Town.)
But his biggest celebrity “hit” came in 1967, when he starred in micro-budget filmmaker Roger Corman’s trendy “The Trip” —which happened to costar Peter Fonda and was written by an aging actor (by ‘60’s youth standards), Jack Nicholson.
Two years later, he reteamed with them in a movie that he co-wrote and directed, “Easy Rider.” Made for a reported $350,000 and grossing more than $60 million in the U.S. alone, it, as I once wrote in Los Angeles Magazine, “changed everything.”
And it really did — the year before, the biggest movies were all musical losers: “Star!,” starring Julie Andrews and “Paint Your Wagon,” featuring (gasp!) Clint Eastwood singing!!! After “Easy Rider,” the studio owners collectively realized that their executives were old and out-of-touch with the baby boom. A new broom swept most of them out and brought in the era of what was called “the baby moguls” (sort of like watching “Entourage” with the sound off.)
They weren’t always right–for every “M*A*S*H” they also greenlit “Harry and Walter Go to New York.” But it was a severe changing of the guard, with new directors like Billy Friedkin (“The French Connection”), Francis Coppola (“The Godfather”) and Marty Scorcese (“Mean Streets”) getting their first major pictures off the ground.
Unfortunately, Hopper blew it. Always the rebel (without a cause) he fled to South America, home of a native drug culture, and pissed away all his good will smoking dope (if not more) and shooting an overbudget movie that others had to finish called “The Last Movie.” And it very nearly was. After his breakout with “Rider,” he’d traded in Hollywood royalty (Brooke Hayward) for rock royalty, the Mommas and Papas’ singer Michelle Phillips—a marriage that could be measured in days, not years.
When “The Last Movie” tanked, he seemed to have lost his green (for maryjane!) thumb and, truly, disappeared for nearly a decade. (Rolling Stone even did a story wondering whatever happened to him?) “Apocalypse Now” brought him out of semi-retirement, but he was still damaged goods, basically playing himself—a drugged-out photographer.
But it lead to more acting roles and, by the mid-‘80s, a wildcat studio like Orion was willing to give him one last chance at directing. Producer Robert Solo (an important studio exec in the ‘60s—see my blog about the book “Pictures at a Revolution”) clearly felt he could tame Dennis’ wildest instincts and he got the job directing “Colors,” an L.A. gang movie about the Bloods and Crips that had begun as a Mafia movie set in Chicago.
This is when I first met him. While a student of his work in college I’d written about him extensively. Then, out of the blue, my wife came home one day and told me she was going to work for this “new” director, Dennis Hopper. (My wife had been a photo editor at Newsweek, but this film stuff was new to her.) I was bowled over — my wife, working for my idol!
The reality was that — at that time at least, before he got reasonably sober — he basically had to be wheeled into meetings and reminded where he was. I remember one time when I went to pick my wife up from work at Lion’s Gate studios in Santa Monica and he came out to say “hi.” He walked like an 80-year-old man (older than he is now) and could barely mumble out words—though clearly his heart was in the right place. But for many years after that, I remained convinced that Solo had actually directed the movie through him. Oh, well.
And Solo deserves a lot of credit — it was his idea to cast real L.A. gang members as the gangsters (a process that ended up having the LAPD positioning a squad car outside my home, since gang members who didn’t get jobs were threatening Hopper and my wife!) On the other hand, it was clearly the chance to work with a legend like Hopper that attracted the “A”-list stars Sean Penn and Robert Duvall, along with up-and-comers like Don Cheadle and Damon Wayans.
I didn’t spend a lot of time on the set — those threats were no joke; two gang members were shot during filming — but I did get to know most of the crew. In fact, my wife had gotten the job because she had worked on another movie, the original “Hitcher” starring Rutger Hauer, which was “line” produced by Paul Lewis. Paul loved my wife but, more importantly, he had been Dennis’ line producer on “Easy Rider” two decades before, so Dennis trusted him as a friend; it was Lewis who brought my wife in, figuring she could control Dennis.
The film was a hit and suddenly Dennis was back on the map as a director. His next movie was “Catchfire,” starring Jodie Foster as an artist resembling his friend, L.A. conceptual artist Jenny Holzer (who, among other things, was selected to design the iconic 2003 Cannes Film Festival tribute to Fellini, “Viva il Cinema.”) The movie didn’t work — which my wife put to the fact that by that time Dennis had physically revived and was acting in a bigger film called “Flashback,” which took up his time.
Dennis and I nearly hooked up a year later when he was scheduled to direct “Hot Spot,” a highly sexual movie starring two newcomers who would go on to win Academy Awards, Virginia Madsen and a young Harvard student, and Jennifer Connelly. It didn’t work out, however, and the film ended up with another company.
As for the rest, well, by 1996 his photography and artwork was being recognized around the world. The last time I saw him was in a restaurant in Beverly Hills with fiance, Victoria Duffy, who would bring him a daughter. The only lesson I can take from it all (I hope I make it to 73!) is that there are second acts in American life — as long as you have talent and marry well. God speed, Dennis, wherever you are headed next.