With a rebel yell . . .
Some last words from the late great Dennis Hopper
By Ivor Davis 06/10/2010
Dennis Hopper was a Hollywood original and a true survivor. He died on May 29, with his family and friends around him in his Venice, Calif., home after a grueling battle with prostate cancer. He got his start in movies more than 50 years ago as a callow teenager opposite James Dean and Natalie Wood in Rebel Without a Cause, and with Dean again a year later in Giant. His movie record was a formidable one. He shared the screen with Jack Nicholson and Peter Fonda in the classic Easy Rider in l969, a movie he also wrote and directed. With nearly 200 film and TV roles in films that include Apocalypse Now, Blue Velvet, Speed, True Romance and Hoosiers, Hopper is a true legend of the silver screen.
Most recently he was seen as Ben Cendars, a maniacal music producer who has had long battles with booze and drugs but is trying to get his act together in Crash, the TV series based on the 2004 Oscar-winning film now airing on the Starz network. Series co-star Eric Roberts was a huge fan. “He’s a survivor and an icon in the business. But it’s also his amazing body of work. He’s come through life as a wonderful, sweet, patient, wise and good actor. I’ve known him for 24 years and I love him as a guy, actor and friend,” said Roberts.
Ben in Crash is not unlike the Hopper of old, although Hopper regarded him “a bit like Phil Spector” (the record producer who was convicted of second degree murder). Hopper spent the last months of his life trying to divorce Victoria Duffy-Hopper, his fifth wife, as well as trying to organize his art collection for a special exhibit. He had a brief marriage to singer Michelle Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas in l970. In l996 he married actress Duffy, the mother of his 7-year-old daughter, Galen. In March, a frail-looking Hopper showed up on Hollywood Boulevard, flanked by his long time pal and movie co-star Jack Nicholson for the unveiling of his Hollywood Walk of Fame star.
Shortly before his death, Hopper sat down with me to talk about his career and his TV series. A lean 138 pounds on a bony frame, he was dressed all in black with silver hair and a short beard to match.
VCReporter: Do you really think your character in Crash is like Phil Spector?
Dennis Hopper: I knew Phil well because we shared an office together for years. We were berserk. An accident could have happened any time because it was such a crazy time.
VCR: Are you the ultimate Hollywood survivor?
I still think of myself as a 13-year-old, and fortunately, I haven’t started to think about my age. I feel terrific, I’m having a great time, and I’m going to create till they cart me away.
VCR: But you’ve had your ups and downs?
I think of myself as a working actor and a survivor. I’ve had a sort of love-hate relationship with Hollywood. Independent movies saved me through the years when I was blacklisted after getting in trouble with the director Henry Hathaway.
VCR: What happened to you?
Oh, I did 80 takes on a scene that had 10 lines. So I went to New York, studied with Lee Strasberg for five years and then did a lot of TV. But at the time I was pig-headed and thought I was the greatest actor in the world.
VCR: But you got over it?
Yeah, I stayed afloat. When I made Easy Rider, Steve McQueen told me, “Watch yourself — 98 percent of all actors only have three years of stardom. Then everything caves in. Watch your money.
VCR: Did you watch your money?
I didn’t because no one thinks you’re going to have three years. (Laughs.) Even when McQueen tells you.
VCR: What do you remember most about working in Rebel and Giant?
I was l8 at Rebel and a year older for Giant. Years later, I found out, Rock [Hudson] and Elizabeth [Taylor] were a year younger than James Dean. It surprised me. They were 24 and he was 25. I always thought of them as much older. It was very bizarre to think he was a year older.
VCR: How did you restart your Hollywood career?
I didn’t work again until Hathaway, who fired me on From Hell to Texas, rehired me eight years later to play opposite John Wayne in Sons of Katie Elder.
VCR: Were you a different Dennis Hopper then?
It was a very different time. I was an alcoholic, and using drugs. We had some great times and some really down times. I’ve been 25 years without hard narcotics and alcohol. That helps clear things up a little bit.
VCR: How is family life with a young daughter?
I spend more time with her than I did with my other four children. I have a 50-year-old and a 40-year-old daughter, a l9-year-old son and my 6-year-old. I have a 7-year-old granddaughter from my oldest daughter, who lives in Beverly Hills. The rest of us all live together in a compound in Venice.
VCR: What career would you have pursued if you hadn’t been an actor?
I don’t sing or play an instrument, but I used to hang out at art galleries. And I paint. I had a huge retrospective of my work in Amsterdam and Vienna, and I’m the first living American to show at the Hermitage in St. Petersberg. In Moscow, the head of the Guggenheim said, “How does it feel to be the most successful artist in Russia — but no one knows you in the United States?” Photography has also been another career.
VCR: You’re an old liberal, but didn’t you become a political conservative?
On the day of the election, I announced I couldn’t take Palin, and I was going to vote for Obama. I’m happy I did.
VCR: Do you still hang out with Jack Nicholson?
All the time. I love him. He’s an amazing guy and has a real great gift for the gab. We play a lot of golf together and we talk.
VCR: What do you talk about?
About how old we’re getting and that we’re both still alive.
VCR: What’s the biggest misconception that people have about you?
I’ve played so many bad guys that people expect to meet an extroverted bad guy. But I’m an introvert.
VCR: You abused yourself mercilessly with drugs, drink, everything known to man?
I should have been dead 25 years ago. Ten times over. I took cocaine to sober up from booze. But I quit all that stuff 20 years ago. What you see in front of you is a walking miracle.