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

Thanks to the conveniences of the wired world, Peter Winkler was able to write a book and find an agent and a publisher without ever having to leave his North Hollywood home.

Winkler raced to produce the first biography of Dennis Hopper to come out after the actor died in May 2010.

It was only when the book was on the shelves that his agent learned how he had done it.

“My God, I had no idea,” said Robert Diforio of Weston, Conn., who sold “Dennis Hopper: The Wild Ride of a Hollywood Rebel” to a small East Coast publisher, Barricade Books.

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In the virtual world, Winkler roams free. He blogs. He comments. He write articles about film.

In the physical world, he increasingly is trapped — dependent on his sister and a long, red plastic chopstick.

Rheumatoid arthritis has battered him for 46 of his 55 years.

His neck won’t turn. His head is pitched down, chin to chest. His elbow and wrist joints are so fixed in place, he cannot touch his face.

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Sitting up in bed, he can no longer extend his arms far enough to place his fingertips on the keyboard of the MacBook Pro propped on a lap desk across his thighs.

Instead, he braces the chopstick between several fingers on his right hand and uses it to tap, tap, tap one key after another.

It’s not so bad, he says. He’s gotten pretty fast, and anyway, “I was always a two-finger typist.”

::

Winkler never told his faraway agent about his stiff, bent fingers and locked joints, he says, because “frankly, it was not his business, it was not germane.”

What he did say to Diforio in his first email in February 2010 was that he had credentials — that he had written about film and had reviewed laserdiscs and that Val Holley, a biographer of James Dean, had described him as “a genuine Hollywood historian and that rarity, a James Dean fan with a triple-digit IQ.”

Winkler told Diforio he already knew a great deal about Hopper, who was dying of prostate cancer. He said he saw a well-timed opportunity for a very lively tale.

Hopper, he wrote, “has survived enough personal and professional catastrophes to become a one-man Hollywood Babylon” and his book would be “the first comprehensive, unfiltered, no-holds-barred look at Hopper’s tumultuous, talented and troubled life and 50-year career.”

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Diforio replied the same day, drawn by the energetic pitch.

Mental energy has never been among Winkler’s deficits.

“My mind can be racing so much sometimes, I have trouble falling asleep,” he says. “I’ll wake up after I’ve slept for a couple of hours because I’ve got so many things going through it.”

::

There was a point in Winkler’s life when doors seemed to be slamming shut.

For years, he had pushed himself as his physical problems piled up.

His parents were Holocaust survivors. They had lost their entire families in the camps. Who was he to be stopped by a few setbacks?

He was only 9 when the usually adult-onset disease hit him suddenly, in the family’s home in Blytheville, Ark. One night, he went to bed seemingly healthy. The next morning he awoke, his left “hip to toe nothing but horrible pain.”

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The progress was mercifully slow at first, giving him time to adjust.

“Gradually my other hip got involved. And then other joints in my body. And, of course, since then every joint in my body, including my spine, has been severely affected and damaged by the arthritis,” he says matter-of-factly.

Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic autoimmune disease in which the immune system attacks body tissue. Over the years, it wears away cartilage and joints cease to bend, as if frozen in place.

Inflamed tissue scooped out, a nerve cut — surgery eased Winkler’s first aches. Then, during his recovery, when he balked at the homework a teacher brought him, his mother set the bar firmly.

“She said, ‘You have to study and you have to do well in school because you can’t be a ditch digger anymore and you have to make something of yourself.’”

He returned to class on crutches and kept up. But eventually, negotiating stairs at school got more difficult.

It wasn’t his family’s way to fold. They moved to Southern California — where schools were known to accommodate those with disabilities. At 15, Winkler had bilateral hip joint replacement surgery — which made walking easier for a while.

He graduated from Grover Cleveland High School in Reseda and headed to UCLA to study history, with what he thought of at the time as “a minor disability.” He could drive himself to school and walk across campus with a cane.

It was only at his next stop, Loyola Law School, that the strain of keeping up caught up with him. Administrators did not make accommodations and he struggled academically. He did not graduate. He had a nervous breakdown.

“I started to have panic attacks and I don’t know why, but I would start crying for no reason,” he says.

::

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.

::

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.

::

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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