Dennis Hopper, who died today at the age of 74, made well over 100 films, including some of the most interesting and most horrible in Hollywood history. Long before he became a counterculture superstar by directing and starring in the iconic “Easy Rider,” Hopper was a clean-cut kid (with an edge) who made a name for himself during the golden age of live TV dramas.
It was Kendall’s favorite, Dorothy McGuire, who “discovered” Hopper at the La Jolla Theater, according to this Hedda Hopper (no relation) report from 1955. Dennis got a small role in the classic “Rebel Without a Cause” and was devastated when star James Dean died in a crash just before the film was released. That same year he guest-starred as a boy with epilepsy in an episode of the TV show “Medic.” The show was more realistic than most hospital dramas today but had the misfortune to be on opposite “I Love Lucy.” Take a look at a few minutes from Hopper’s TV debut. He was 19 when he shot this episode:
Hopper appeared in a bunch of other TV dramas, including “The Last Summer” written by Frank Gilroy (who would later win the Pulitzer for “The Subject Was Roses”). Dennis starred opposite Claire Griswold who would soon retire to become Mrs. Sydney Pollack. The drama was directed by John Frankenheimer. Writing in the L.A. Times, Cecil Smith began his odd review this way:
There have been almost no occasions this summer when you could face your television set on a Monday (or any other day) without feeling in the neighborhood of disgust. But today, look kindly on the little monster. Give it a bit of a smile. Even pat its little shiny fat face. For last night it brought an exceptional experience. I am climbing out onto this rather precarious limb on the strenth of a script for a television play by a man named Frank Gilroy, whom I don’t know. I believe it is his first original play, and it is one of the finest TV plays I’ve ever read. It’s called “The Last Summer” and it’s a gentle story, really, quite, even rather placid. But there’s a hunger and a passion beneath the placidity; there’s a burning in it that flares back to all the hurts and sorrows of youth.
Why don’t critics write like that anymore? A few years later, Hopper was profiled in an article called “A Search for Love.”
There are many reasons people turn to acting, but Dennis Hopper is probably one of the few who did so because he was lonely. “I was a very sensitive young boy,” Dennis said. “When you don’t receive the type of love you want from the world, you look someplace else for it. For me, acting was a way to get the other things. I guess that sounds pretty sick, but it’s true.”
Hopper’s acting career budded in high school and began to flower in summer stock. It really took hold after a TV appearance on “Medic” and roles in “Rebel Without a Cause” and “Giant” where he played Rock Hudson’s son, plus a few others. But, as Dennis said, “I started out fast but didn’t get the breaks I wanted. I was hurt and disillusioned. I didn’t understand why and got the reputation for being difficult. As a result, I went to New York to study.”
He studied for two years with Lee Strasberg of “method” school fame, in the meantime appearing in numerous TV roles. “I think one of my main troubles was just that I was immature,” Dennis said. “Before, I always wanted to have everything my own way. Now I realize other people are trying for things, too. It all boils down to being able to communicate your ideas.”
Hopper, who bears a striking personality resemblance to the late teenage hero, James Dean, seems reluctant to discuss his friendship with Dean and has rejected the type of roles Dean might have played. But on other subjects he is outspoken. “I think it’s about time films stopped having so many killings and deaths,” he said. “Simple things are so much more appealing to me. I’d like to direct. I’d like to make a surrealistic movie.”
And so he did, a few years later with the wildly successful “Easy Rider” and then with his hugely unsuccessful film, “The Last Movie.” By 1971, Hopper himself was a counterculture icon. Charles Champlin reviewed a documentary called “The American Dreamer” that was released that year about the iconoclast:
Hopper, who was of course the costar and co-maker of “Easy Rider” and who is one of the freer spirits of Hollywood (but also particularly sensitive and socially-concerned), is shown primarily at his ranch near Taos, NM, where he is editing “The Last Movie,” which he shot in South America last year but has been unable to finish. We also see him taking target practice with an automatic rifle and holding court with his commune-sized entourage.
Even more vividly, we watch him strip jaybird-naked and walk down a residential street as, I guess, a gesture of protest against a conforming dullness. He is also shown sharing a bathtub with a pair of ladies, a sequence which grew out of Hopper’s discussion of some of his sexual fantasies.
We’ve come to the other extreme from the documentaries which pasteurized events and laundered flawed men into shining heroes. The curious effect of “The American Dreamer” is to demean Hopper and make him seem a self-indulgent and thin-witted poseur.
I never saw that documentary, but I certainly can’t think of Hopper as a poseur. I was always fascinated by his performances, and what I know about his personal life makes me assume that he didn’t give a damn what most people thought. His five wives included Brooke Hayward, Michelle Phillips (for one week!), and Victoria Duffy, 30 years his junior against whom he currently had a restraining order. Surprisingly a Republican, Hopper voted for both Bush Presidents but he came out in support of Obama in 2008.
Although Hopper denied using drugs for years, he came clean later in life: “Even with all the drugs, psychedelics, and narcotics I did, I was really an alcoholic. Honestly, I only used to do cocaine so I could sober up and drink more. My last five years of drinking was a nightmare. I was drinking a half-gallon of rum with a fifth of rum on the side, in case I ran out, 28 beers a day, and three grams of cocaine just to keep me moving around. And I thought I was doing fine because I wasn’t crawling around drunk on the floor. I should have been dead ten times over. It’s an absolute miracle that I’m still around.”
A few years ago, Hopper told an interviewer, “Like all artists I want to cheat death a little and contribute something to the next generation.” And that he most definitely did.