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WAITING FOR DENNIS : He Thought He had It All Wrapped Up as Ghostwriter for Dennis Hopper's Autobiography. But It All Ended in a Very Familar Place: Another Busted Hollywood Deal.

May 14, 1995|Richard Stayton | Richard Stayton's last article for the magazine was about playwright David Mamet.

It happens to all of us. At a party, across a crowded room, stands your former life. The woman who betrayed you. The man who broke every promise he ever made. You, the co-dependent in recovery, see the Significant Other who tormented and manipulated and consigned you to hell. In a single glance, countless therapy sessions vanish--nothing since has approached that relationship's intensity or promise.

It happened to me today. Only my self-destructive object of desire is Dennis Hopper. Yes, the actor notorious for playing psychopaths. That deranged fan in the Nike commercials who inexplicably stalks athletes and who unknowingly stalks me.

If it was simply just another self-destructive love affair, maybe it would be over. Certainly I believed it was. Until this afternoon. At the corner bookstore. There he is and he walks straight to me. "Hello, Richard. What have you been up to, man?"

I shake Hopper's hand, warning myself to beware the killer smile. Don't get hooked. Do look back. Do remember . . . It is May 15, 1985.

"Dennis Hopper? The guy from 'Easy Rider'? Is he still alive?"

Yes, I assure the Los Angeles Herald Examiner newspaper's incredulous entertainment editor, Dennis Hopper is alive and not so well, a ghostly figure at Westside art openings.

"Stayton loves losers," he sighs by way of answering my story pitch. "Go on, get it out of your system." Then he imagines the headline. "Dennis Hopper: Dead or Alive?"

The next day I'm in a graffiti-scarred, weed-lined alley, shouting to a second-story window.

A sallow face squints down.

"You from the newspaper?" he asks.

I nod.

Hopper glances warily down the alley. This part of Venice is gang territory.

"Where's your car?"

"I walked."

"You walked? "

"We're neighbors."

"You live in Venice ? We're neighbors ?"

The head vanishes. A rattle of chains accompanies the slow raising of a corrugated door. Hopper materializes in the narrow cave of a garage, looking like Hip Van Winkle emerging from a drugged sleep.

"Uh, like, man, sorry, you gotta come in through the garage," he apologizes. His grip is limp, his flesh clammy. He's only 5 feet 8 1/2 inches, and seems to shrink even more in daylight.

A washer and dryer stand at the foot of the stairs. He pokes a finger into a mound of clothes stuffed in the dryer. "Know anything about these things?"

"Not much."

"Me neither." Hopper ponders the dryer.

I crouch beside it and touch his clothes--wet as rain. "Check the lint trap?"

"Lint trap?" Hopper stares at me with fugitive eyes. "What's a lint trap?"

"It allows hot air to circulate."

I try to remove it but the lint trap won't budge. I pry at its edge with my keys. I push, tug, dig until the trap cracks loose. I scrape the encrusted lint out in chunks.

"Wow, man," Hopper observes, amazed, as if my keys are magic wands. "Thanks so much, man," he mumbles, so grateful it breaks my heart.

Hopper guides me up the stairs into his cramped studio. I look out over Venice. From his kitchen window, I can see my apartment.

"A lot of windows for a paranoiac," he jokes anxiously.

Everything about him is anxious. Every word appears to make him flinch. He picks up a hat with a logo: Alcoholism Renewal Unit. "This is where I was when the year began," he says, referring to a detox ward, and bravely laughs again.

This isn't just a has-been movie star, I realize, this is a man who has been institutionalized.

I vow to give this interview all day if necessary.

"Dennis Hopper in Conversation With Richard Stayton."

Above the newspaper's photograph of a suspicious-looking Hopper floats this quote: "It wasn't my liver, my kidneys and all that stuff that went. It was my mind." On the jump page is another: "I didn't consider myself an alcoholic, I just drank all day long."

The interview is reprinted globally.

My phone rings incessantly. Hollywood has rediscovered an improved, rehabilitated and provocative Dennis Hopper. Then 48, he was the rebellious contemporary of James Dean, Jack Kerouac, Jim Morrison. But there is a difference. "I survived. Most didn't."

"Great piece," say television execs, who then ask: "How can we contact Dennis?" Hopper appears on news broadcasts, confessing his mental breakdowns, his straitjacket tours of psychiatric institutions, his drug addictions, his alcoholism and sobriety's salvation. He is back from the dead to testify. He's a born-again madman for the 1980s.

One week later, Hopper phones me at the Herald. "Hey, man, I can't tell you how happy I am with your article. Would you be interested in doing my book?"

Hopper claims that a writer from Rolling Stone has been selected to help him write his story. "But I don't trust this writer," he confides. "He doesn't know, you know? You caught my voice. You know art and artists. You're out of the '60s."

I tell Hopper the truth: I've always wanted to write books.

"Cool, man," he gushes, "I'll have my manager call you."

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