Dennis Hopper: The Hopper Agenda

After decades of legendary self-destructiveness, actor-director Dennis Hopper is six years into his campaign to make up for lost time. "I must leave a body of work," he says, and a slate of upcoming films testifies to his new brand of willfulness.


Three a.m., Dennis Hopper time, and the signs say he may not be in a talking mood. The actor-director has just debarked a plane from Tokyo, where film festival acolytes lionized him at screenings of Rebel Without a Cause, Easy Rider, The American Friend, Blue Velvet, Hoosiers, and Colors--in part, for having once been nearer my God, James Dean, to thee. Looking in fighting trim at 54, particularly after a 12-hour flight, Hopper ambles across the Brian Murphy-decorated living room of his Frank Gehry-designed Venice, California, home and punches his sound system's control panel. He chooses well. Miles Davis blows cool and hot 'round the cool, white planes of what has been called "the Prado of pop," hung with works by Keith Haring, Andy Warhol, and Laddie John Dill.

Called by some who know him "a control freak," Hopper insisted that Brian Murphy orchestrate the interiors of his fortress-like home to accommodate a surveillance system that beams visitors' faces onto TV screens throughout. Hopper arranges himself on a low-slung couch, suggests where I might sit, and worries aloud whether he should scoot closer to my tape recorder. Shooting the cuffs of his sports coat, he screws his eyes to size me up. Not unfriendly, mind you, but reserved.

As if on cue, his new wife, Katherine--a petite, porcelain-skinned, 23-year-old dancer/choreographer--glides into their meticulously maintained kitchen and calls out an offer of drinks. Bringing mineral water in pale green stemware, she rarely takes her eyes off Hopper, who stares broodingly into his fireplace-as-work-of-art, the outer hearth of which is strewn with marbles. For an instant, they suggest a mysteriously sexy May-December pairing out of an old gothic. Jane Eyre bedeviled by Mr. Rochester, or that nameless young thing who marries poor Max de Winter, only with a postmodern spin. But the fourth Mrs. Hopper is no put-upon heroine from Bronte or du Maurier, and her husband is battling no demons--at least not these days.

Dennis Hopper has spent five decades in the public eye, every few years shedding his skin for a new persona, or, at least, playing variations and themes on the Ornery Motherf*cker. Take, for instance, several seasons ago, Hopper's Armed and Dangerous period, when multiple addictions and personality kinks landed him in a straitjacket in the psycho ward of Cedars Sinai Hospital. To hell and back, he cleaned up, and performed widely-reported acts of contrition for a town he had alienated. Back to work as a Model Citizen, Hopper won respect, affection, even an Oscar nomination to certify his status as Hollywood's hipster Lazarus. The abiding fascination of Hopper-watching comes from the tug-of-war between this man's irresistible urge to rule the world and his equally irresistible urge to screw up.

Going into his sixth year of sobriety, Hopper would seem almost on the brink of a new incarnation: The Hardest-Working Guy in Movies. Most recently, he's played an accessory to rape who escapes Bedlam in Florida with Gary Oldman in Chatta-hoochee. For balance, there is Flashback, a road comedy pitting hippie Hopper against straight-arrow FBI man Kiefer Sutherland. Upcoming are Backtrack (a long delayed thriller-cum-love story in which Hopper directed himself and Jodie Foster), and, later this year, The Hot Spot (nineties-style noir with Don Johnson, Virginia Madsen, and Jennifer Connelly, also under Hopper's direction).

I ask Hopper whether he might be spreading himself too thin on projects that matter too little. "At this point," he says, in that raspy, crazy coot drawl, "I'm going to do things that I know I can do. Work is all I want to do and I'm just going to keep doing that. I don't feel I've left a body of work." After a moment, he adds, "I must leave a body of work," like a man who feels the weight, and waste, of his past.

And Hopper is most certainly a man with a past. His remembrances of childhood and adolescence--his Rebel Without a Pause phase--play like a collaboration of Mark Twain, L. Frank Baum, Steinbeck, and Kerouac co-directed by John Ford and Elia Kazan. He was born in Dodge City, then moved with his mother, while his father was in the military, to his grandparents' twelve-acre farm. "I got my first sheepdog from the brother of the Clutters, the family killed in In Cold Blood. There were breadlines. The sky was obliterated by dust storms a lot of the time. There was nothing much to do but look at the horizon line or wonder about where the trains were going."

Hopper and his mother, a strapping girl whose hunger for material success warred with her fundamentalist remorse, "had constant screaming contests. She was 17 when she had me, very young." Hopper's father, who "went to war when I was a child," was a shadow, "a hard, totally secret man with no words," who, Hopper believes, "was probably involved in the formation of the CIA in China."

With parents like these, Hopper sought release in moviehouses and in "the fantastic things" he saw by way of makeshift hallucinogens. The actor recalls his grandmother gathering up in her apron freshly-laid eggs that she traded for tickets to the Dodge City Theater. "Right away it hit me in the face that the places I was seeing in the movies were the places the train came from and went to. I didn't have other children to play with, so I'd go back to the farm and play out whatever I saw. If I saw a war movie, I was digging foxholes. If I saw a sword-fighting picture, I was fighting a cow with a broom. I saw Errol Flynn come to town on a train [to publicize] Dodge City when I was five years old."

When hero worship and role-playing paled, Hopper snorted ethyl from the gas tank of his grandfather's truck. On one particular high, Hopper "just went berserk" and took a baseball bat to the truck, smashing everything breakable. When he turned 13, his younger brother's asthma forced the family to relocate to San Diego, California. There, when he wasn't running away from home ("I probably did that more than any kid I knew", he acted in high school plays, and vented his rage in boxing. His chops were good enough to make him a finalist in the Golden Gloves welterweight division but he was not fast enough to duck the punches that realigned his nose.

After spending summers playing bits and roles at San Diego's estimable Old Globe Theater, he won a National Shakespeare Scholarship. At La folia Playhouse, Hopper came under the tutelage of actress Dorothy McGuire. Her encouragement and a few turns on TV won Hopper a Warner Bros, contract. "I left home at 18," he says, "and never went back."

By his own admission, Hopper hit Hollywood "with no worldly experience. I was a good actor, but that's about it." His first film for Warners was I Died A Thousand Times, in 1955. Next, Nicholas Ray cast Hopper, as Goon, in Rebel Without a Cause, and during the shooting, he and fellow Warner contractee James Dean struck sparks. "I watched him do work that I didn't understand," says Hopper, who, until then, had considered himself "potentially the best actor in the world." In Dorothy McGuire, the Virgin Mary of The Greatest Story Ever Told, Hopper had already chosen the perfect surrogate mother. Dean, 23, provided the father figure, both devil and angel.

Hopper recalls, "Jimmy asked me, 'What's your drive? What makes you want to be an actor?' I said: 'I hate my parents.' He said, 'I hate mine, too.' So, the thing was, to do something, to be something, to show them. Jimmy was a kid when his mother died and he told me about going off in the middle of the night, crying and pounding on her headstone: 'Why did you leave me? I hate you, I hate you.' I told him how much I hated my home life, the rules, the regimentation. I felt the same kind of anger, that lack of communication that propels you to do something. My mother thought that if I didn't turn out a lawyer or a doctor I'd be a bum." In Giant, Hopper's next movie, in which Dean also starred, he played the son of Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson: a doctor.

Dean was the symbol," Hopper says. "I was just a follower." So, in the fifties, when mumbling, anguished silences and rebellion made stars, Hopper watched and imitated. "When I came to Los Angeles, Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando were getting their way and changing things. I adapted their ways because they worked. I wasn't [any of those three], but I was very conscious of a way of life that was evoked through their behavior. I didn't feel that 'the life' separated from 'the work' and I thought that by emulating that lifestyle, I'd probably be able to work in the same way. I still maintained my own personality, but I was suddenly driving a sports car, wearing Levis and t-shirts, riding motorcycles, playing bongo drums, hanging out in coffeehouses and listening to jazz. And drinking. Because Montgomery Clift did. I justified all my drinking and drug-taking by what my favorite actors, directors, musicians, and writers did."

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