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A disabled writer's book unfolds a tap at a time

Peter Winkler, his body trapped by rheumatoid arthritis, wrote the first biography of Dennis Hopper to come out after the actor's death. Little did his agent know that he had to punch out the manuscript one letter at a time, using a red plastic chopstick.

December 03, 2011|By Nita Lelyveld, Los Angeles Times

Winkler faced a bleak future — his body fighting him, his independence gone. For a long time, he admits, he did very little. He was deeply depressed, especially as the pace of the arthritis picked up.

"And then I thought, well, my academic writing was always good. My grades were excellent. Maybe I had what it took to be a writer."

He got himself a laptop. He pitched a story to a computer magazine, and it was accepted. The wired world welcomed him, without any sidelong stares.

"It wasn't unalloyed luck after that," he says. But it worked. Soon he branched out into writing about film, which had always been a passion.

He could make contacts by email. He could write in bed. He could seek out online publications that let him take his time.

Soon after he sold his first article, he started thinking books. "It's like the guy who gets elected dog catcher and says, 'I'm going to run for president,'" he says.

The Hopper biography was his fifth book proposal — and the first to get more than a slight nibble.

His fingers and the keyboard had parted ways by then, but so be it.

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It's hard to research and write a biography. It's harder still when you're more or less housebound.

Winkler and his sister, Erica Marlowe, live in the little house their late parents bought in the 1960s, when the family moved west. There, he can move around with a cane. Anywhere else, he's in a wheelchair. His left leg stays stiff and straight. A few years ago, he fell down and broke a hip, which required a six-hour surgery. Falling is always a worry.

Marlowe, 56, works as a special education teacher at North Hollywood High School. She devotes much of her free time to her brother.

She shops for him. She fills his prescriptions: for methotrexate, an immune suppressant, which exhausts him when he takes it once a week; for insulin, because he now has type 2 diabetes and has to inject himself several times a day. A while ago, he developed Sjogren's syndrome, which keeps his tear ducts from producing protective, lubricating tears. Marlowe rubs sterilized petroleum jelly around her brother's eyes to keep them moist.

She brings him food. She helps him dress. She buys him supplies so he can make contraptions, attaching toothbrushes and sponges to PVC pipe to reach where his own limbs now can't.

She's also his driver. When he started on the book, she took him to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Margaret Herrick Library and helped him print out microfiche and copy thick files of clippings collected over Hopper's long career.

At home, he read through it all — and scoured the Internet for more. He read just about every printed word available about Hopper. He read every word of Hopper's that made it into print. He read everything that everyone who knew Hopper ever said about him for publication. And though he never got a response from Hopper to his request for an interview, he reached people who had known him and interviewed them on speakerphone so he could record and then use the chopstick to painstakingly transcribe their words.

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The book won't make Winkler rich. He was paid very little. A modest 3,000 copies were printed, and though it's on sale on Amazon and at Barnes & Noble, there isn't money for marketing. Another Hopper bio is coming out soon, from a major publisher. It's likely to make more of a splash.

Still, money and fame were never the point.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, about a dozen people showed up at a book signing at the Larry Edmunds Bookshop on Hollywood Boulevard.

At first, some stared at the man behind the table up front — sitting stiffly in a wheelchair, head unmoving. Then he started taking questions, and rapidly rattling off names, dates and one story after another.

At the back of the room, a man with an Australian accent introduced himself as a longtime friend of Hopper's who had directed the actor in a 1976 movie, "Mad Dog Morgan."

Philippe Mora said he loved the book and couldn't get over how "incredibly researched" it was, and that neither could Hopper's longtime assistant, who had called him to tell him about it.

"So well done, thank you," Mora said.

"Oh, thank you, delighted you came," Winkler said.

nita.lelyveld@latimes.com

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