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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Easy Rider (1936-2010)

When we lose someone famous, especially someone who has been around for years, it feels kind of like it was someone we actually knew. Even though we didn’t. But every once in a while, I actually have my own personal with-my-own-eyes, in-the-flesh memory to draw on. And so it is with Dennis Hopper. The man may be gone, but I will always have one night at the end of May in 1987.

That year the Seattle International Film Festival mounted a tribute to Hopper, and the highlight was a live interview onstage in front of the festival audience. That event was preceded by a screening of his legendary/notorious little-seen follow-up to Easy Rider, The Last Movie. After the curtain rose and lowered on that quite interesting experience, those of us attending the live interview dutifully filed out of the Egyptian Theater and queued up to be let in again. To our surprise and delight, there was Hopper himself walking up and down the sidewalk chatting with people who were standing in the line, puffing on a huge cigar and smiling broadly. He seemed to be having the time of his life. Everyone was thrilled to see him and to exchange words with him, and he seemed to be enjoying it as much as anybody. As strange as it seems, all the way back then it seemed a miracle that Hopper was even still alive. The stories of his substance abuse issues were legendary and he just had the feel of someone you expected to hear had met a sad end. Even though in hindsight it is now clear that he never actually stopped working as an actor, it seemed as though he had fallen off the map after the career and commercial disaster of The Last Movie. But at that moment in 1987 Hopper was riding high. He had had three high-profile movies the year before. He had played one of his trademark drugged-out whack jobs (Feck) in Tim Hunter’s darkly haunting River’s Edge, which also featured the very young Keanu Reeves and Crispin Glover. He had made a chilling impression as the psychopath Frank in David Lynch’s compellingly creepy Blue Velvet. And he had gotten his only acting Oscar nomination ever for playing an alcoholic father (Shooter) in David Anspaugh’s based-on-actual-events basketball flick Hoosiers.

It was a pleasure to see how much Hopper enjoyed himself before, during and after his tribute. While reportedly clean after years of drug use, he had lost none of his must-flaunt-authority charm, pointedly smoking onstage in flagrant violation of a city ban. Fielding questions submitted by audience members and asked by Bellevue film critic Brent Northup, he spoke with refreshing candor about drugs, Hollywood in-fighting and how surprised he was to get letters from women who were really turned on by his turn as the psychotic Frank in Blue Velvet. He also amused us by dismissing the odd query by saying, “That’s a really stupid question.” The Q&A was followed by a screening of his most prominent screen role between Easy Rider and his mid-1980s resurgence: the title character in Wim Wenders’s 1977 adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel Ripley’s Game, The American Friend. A few days later, Hopper was seen in yet another film, Alex Cox’s quirky and in-jokey caffeine western Straight to Hell.

Even though it seemed as though Hopper burst on the scene and then went away and then came back, a review of his work reveals that he was actually always around. It is stunning to be reminded of just how many major movies he was a part of down the years. It might help to divide his work into arbitrary categories:

  • Teen hoodlum/young cowboy Dennis Hopper: He was a contemporary and friend of James Dean and actually played one of Dean’s tormentors (called Goon) in Rebel Without a Cause. He also co-starred with Dean in George Stevens’s Giant, playing the son of Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor. During those days Hopper appeared in quite a few TV westerns (Cheyenne, Zane Grey Theater, The Rifleman, Wagon Train, Gunsmoke, Bonanza) as well as such big screen oaters as Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (as Billy Clanton to Burt Lancaster’s Wyatt Earp), From Hell to Texas, The Sons of Katie Elder and Hang ‘Em High. And who remembers that Hopper was in Cool Hand Luke (as Babalugats)?

  • Indo king/counter-culture icon Dennis Hopper: Picking fights with directors and studios, Hopper could have vanished into obscurity except for marrying the daughter of producer Leland Hayward and actor Margaret Sullavan—and for more or less inventing the independent film. Co-starring and co-writing with friend Peter Fonda (Terry Southern collaborated on the script as well), Hopper directed Easy Rider, and the rest is history. As they say, it caught the Zeitgeist, coming as it did in 1969. The three writers got nominated for an Oscar, and the film picked up a prize in Cannes. Frankly, I wasn’t overly impressed with it, but my childhood best friend Eric came home from seeing it virtually traumatized. He went on about it as if it had happened to someone he knew and was completely outraged. Eric was driving a truck in those days and wore his hair a bit long and was now convinced that he was going to wind up being pulled from his cab and lynched by rednecks. On the strength of the film’s performance, Hopper got a budget to go to Peru to make The Last Movie. From the looks of that movie, they spent it all on drugs, and Hopper’s career was back in a trough. And who remembers that the same year as Easy Rider Hopper also had a role in True Grit?

  • Art-house darling/cinematic icon Dennis Hopper: From then on, it seemed as if reputable directors were casting Hopper just because he was Dennis Hopper. Wenders put him in The American Friend, Francis Ford Coppola put him in Apocalypse Now and he got that string of good roles in the mid-1980s. And who remembers that Hopper appeared with Molly Ringwald and Robert Downey Jr. in James Toback’s 1987 romcom The Pick-up Artist?

  • Evil villain/commercial property Dennis Hopper: In the 1990s, Hopper was in lots of movies, including John Dahl’s neo-noir Red Rock West (as “Lyle from Dallas”), the commercial hit Speed (as another psychopath and reunited with Keanu Reeves), Tony Scott’s crime/romance/thriller True Romance (penned by Quentin Tarantino) and the Ron Howard media satire EDtv. He even played the art dealer Bruno Bischofberger in the biopic Basquiat, directed by his friend Julian Schnabel, whom Hopper knew as a fellow painter. And who remembers that Hopper was yet another villain in the Kevin Costner punch line Waterworld?

  • TV star/workaholic Dennis Hopper: He made an amazing number of movies right up to the end of his life. At one point Hopper boasted that he never turned down any role, and his c.v. looks like it. The titles include everything from Firestarter 2: Rekindled to The Night We Called it a Day (playing Frank Sinatra). And in the last decade of his life, he was featured in a few television shows, including a sci-fi series called Flatland, five episodes of 24, a military drama called E-Ring and Crash, based on Paul Haggis’s 2004 Oscar-winning movie. And who would have thought that one of the last movies to feature the icon of youth revolt would be as a judge in David Zucker’s politically conservative satire of a Michael Moore-like filmmaker, An American Carol? Or, for that matter, that a blog on the website of the late William F. Buckley’s National Review would pay tribute to him as “an occasional GOP donor”?

    The tagline for Easy Rider was: “A man went looking for America. And he couldn’t find it anywhere.” Well, I went looking through the past six decades of film and found Dennis Hopper everywhere. Farewell, Billy, and get your motor runnin’, head out on the highway, fire all of your guns at once and explode into space. (Oh yeah, and who remembers that for a few days in 1970 you were married to Michelle Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas?)

    -S.L., 3 June 2010

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