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An uneasy ride with Dennis Hopper

A writer's tortured 10-year relationship with the actor never produced the biography originally sought by Hopper, who feared opening a Pandora's box of the past. What was revealed was a serious careerist who tenaciously managed his sobriety.

May 29, 2010|By Richard Stayton

What went down behind those corrugated steel walls of Dennis Hopper's Venice fortress as he lay dying at age 74?

He was divorcing his fifth wife after 18 years together, obtaining an "emergency restraining order" to keep her at a 10-foot distance. They battled over his valuable artworks. She also filed complaints about him keeping marijuana joints throughout his compound, ready to provide quick relief from pain, and loaded guns in strategic locations, ready to provide quick resolutions.

If a person's manner of dying is a distillation of his life, then Hopper's death seemed a revisit of the same stories about a man once called the "patron saint of the deranged." Never an easy rider.

But the private Dennis I spent a decade alongside, working on his biography, had a different persona. The artist I came to know was a serious careerist calculating his return from illegality and literal madness, tenaciously managing his sobriety.

I wonder if Hopper saw his exit as a last movie? Or a final chance to play the lead in a Shakespeare tragedy? Or, perhaps, while dying he looked up at a teddy bear on a shelf — the one handmade by his mother. The mother he had violent sex fantasies about, "though I never acted on them," he told me back in 1985.

That was the year I began to notice a ghostly figure nervously hovering at Westside art openings. It was difficult to recognize the manic performer I'd admired in Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now" and Wim Wenders' "The American Friend." That outrageous hipster of "Easy Rider"? Nowhere to be found in this anxious loser.

I soon discovered that the gallery crasher was Hopper, that he'd fled his Taos, N.M., home of more than a decade, attended a minimum of three Alcoholics Anonymous or Cocaine Anonymous meetings a day, and narrowly escaped being institutionalized while straitjacketed in a psychiatric ward. And he was broke — at that time, Hollywood considered him unemployable.

Seemed like a potential story for my then-employer, the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner daily newspaper.

Upon visiting Hopper for that story: "Uh, like, man, sorry, you gotta come in through the garage." His limp handshake trembled. His paranoid eyes avoided mine. A washer and dryer stood at the foot of the stairs to his Venice studio. Hopper stooped to ponder the dryer's crammed contents. "Know anything about these things?"

"Not much." I felt his laundry: wet. "Check the lint trap?"

"Lint trap? What's a lint trap?"

"It allows hot air to circulate." The lint trap wouldn't budge. I pried at its edge with my keys until the trap cracked loose. I scraped out the crusted lint.

"Wow, man," Hopper gasped. "Thanks so much, man."

Thus began a tortured, 10-year relationship. My resulting Herald story about a rehabilitated Dennis Hopper was reprinted globally, perhaps because of the wild and crazy quotes: "I didn't consider myself an alcoholic, I just drank all day long.... It wasn't my liver, my kidneys and all that stuff that went. It was my mind."

In gratitude for resurrecting his career and because, he said, I knew the art world, Hopper asked me to collaborate on his biography. We hung out together while my tape recorder consumed cassette after cassette of Dennis Hopper stories. He wanted the opening chapter to re-create his defiant confrontation with Columbia Pictures studio head Harry Cohn, who'd dared to mock Hopper's Shakespeare background.

And sex. He wanted a lot of sex. "Sex is something that has to be in the book," he insisted. "I used women all my life, just as I used alcohol and drugs. The idea was to break through inhibitions in order to become a better artist."

He remembered his mother: "She was wild, very emotional, a screamer and a yeller. My mother had an incredible body." During his childhood in the 1940s, the military notified the Hoppers that Dennis' father had been killed in the Pacific; after V-J Day, his father returned from the dead — the death notice had been a cover as he served as a spy. "Now wouldn't that make you a paranoiac?" Dennis asked rhetorically.

While we worked on the biography, Hollywood rediscovered a born-again actor. One profoundly grateful to be welcomed back. Although he would act crazier and astutely risk more than just about any performer — his managers warned that "Blue Velvet" was "irredeemable," called "River's Edge" "a career killer" — he no longer could risk excessive behavior. He rarely laughed, and cautiously measured every move. He worried that one false step might plunge him back into the hell of his 1970s decade.

Hopper sought career counseling from Warren Beatty, who advised him not to write a tell-all book. "He's the only actor in Hollywood who's had as many women as me," Hopper rationalized. "He says people in this town never forget. He's smart about these things." When I pressed, he explained: "There's a chance, if I play things right, I'll finally direct a studio picture. That's gotta be my focus."

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