An uneasy ride with Dennis Hopper

Share via

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.”

Doubleday pulled the plug on our initial effort to collaborate and Hopper went on to direct “Colors.”

After “Colors” opened, without preamble Hopper phoned. “The money they’re offering me is unbelievable,” he said about another biography offer. “Could you make time to work around my film schedule and do the book? Mostly on your own? Using the interviews we’ve already done?”

For the next year, I researched Hopper while he became known as the “hardest-working man in show business.” On my own dime, I ranged far and wide in New Mexico, tracking down contacts from his drug- and alcohol-fueled lost years of the 1970s, when he lived on legendary art patron Mabel Dodge Luhan’s Taos estate.

I reported back on my progress. As I described interviewing an eccentric Taos Square hotel owner, Hopper’s face changed complexion, acquired a ghastly hue. Obviously, the Hollywood star didn’t want to go back into that dark decade.

And so another book deal perished.

Over the last decade, I’ve realized that he’d always felt a specific fear about going into the true roots of his personal myth. It’s not that he wouldn’t; it’s that he couldn’t sign any book contract. He deathly feared opening a Pandora’s past that might include deeds he’d literally forgotten. Was he holding on to his sobriety? Or afraid of facts I’d dug up?

For example, was it true he was a close friend of James Dean’s? As far as I could discover, that was a great deal of fiction based on a fragment of fact. Hopper repeatedly mentioned a knife fight with Rip Torn on the “Easy Rider” location, but that never happened either. Years later, Hopper told Jay Leno on “The Tonight Show” that he’d fired Torn from “Easy Rider” after the actor pulled a knife. Torn won a defamation suit against Hopper when a judge ruled Hopper lied.

But Hopper also was a man who could charm while seeing the truth beneath the masks of Hollywood. His eye for modern art was uncanny, resulting in a multimillion-dollar collection. He was committed to a variety of social causes, including African American and Native American rights. In Taos, I met many people who loathed Hopper, and many who remembered him as their hero and champion and friend.

The media is focusing on the psychopathic roles and his 1960s iconic status. But I prefer to ignore the gossip blog rumors of mental incapacity that leaked out from Hopper’s Venice compound during his long good night. I’d rather remember the secretive, serious, focused artist who never fully revealed himself to me… and maybe never to anyone.

Actress Barbara Hershey, who portrayed Hopper’s abused wife in “Paris Trout,” said after filming: “I love to just look back and watch Dennis watch us.”

Dennis watched us watching him. He’d been to hell and back and somehow translated that journey into his work. He was tormented and deceitful, funny and knowledgeable, tolerant and tough, intoxicating and toxic. His off-camera personality will remain in my memory long after his personas fade from the screen.