Dennis Hopper, R.I.P.

I met Dennis Hopper a couple of times. It was probably inevitable. In fact, I’m surprised our paths didn’t cross more. We inhabited a lot of the same worlds.

I first noticed him as a child actor on an episode of the TV show Dragnet. His performance, voice and face stuck in my mind, so much so that I was well aware of him for almost two decades before he became internationally famous with the success of Easy Rider.

We both worked making small indy films as well as large studio projects. Roger Corman gave the two of us (and many others) breaks in the film biz; Roger bought my first screenplay and kept Dennis employed as an actor after he was blackballed by most of the major studios. We both ended up working with David Lynch. I worked on Dune; Dennis made a huge cinematic comeback after that in David’s bizarre Blue Velvet.

Dennis and I were both involved in the L. A. Pop Art scene, which faded from its peak in the 1960s, then bled its way via the underground and Robert Williams back into the mainstream once again in the 1990s. Dennis was a heavy collector of the three main 60s guys: Billy Al Bengston, Joe Goode and, especially, Ed Ruscha. The first great love of my life was Joe’s ex-wife Judy Goode. We met at art school (the Chouinard Art Institute) where Judy was a ceramics major and ten years my senior. She taught me most of what I know about design. When we first met she was living in Joe’s Hollywood apartment, as she was estranged from her then-current husband, an ad design instructor at Chouinard. Ed Ruscha was the Best Man at Joe and Judy’s wedding.

We were also involved in the thriving Los Angeles rock music scene of the 1960s. Dennis based his Easy Rider character on David Crosby of The Byrds.

The first time I met Dennis I was working at Skywalker Sound as the production designer on what would turn out to be a horrible film, Theodore Rex. I was walking toward my office after lunch when I saw Dennis. He did a double take when he saw me walking toward him, because at the time, believe it or not, I got mistaken a lot for Peter Fonda.

We met again just a couple of years ago when I was working on my murals for the San Diego Natural History Museum. I was painting them at ThemeScape Art Studios out in Chino. While I was working on my murals, the Themescape guys were painting gigantic banners featuring blow-ups of Dennis Hopper photographs for a show of his photography that Dennis was having in Europe. Dennis came by Themescape to check out the banners and approve them. He tensed as I approached him (I no longer looked like Peter Fonda) but relaxed as soon as he found out I was an artist. I showed him the murals I was painting and complimented him on his photography. We talked a lot about art, and a little about film. He was in his Distinguished Gentleman of the Arts period then; his wild hellraising days were long past.

Dennis was in a lot of great films. He never delivered less than his best as an actor on screen. If you’re not familiar with his fine work, here are two films of his I highly recommend. He is not in either of them for long, but his screen time in each is a high point in both movies.

In John Milius and Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now Dennis portrays a war reporter/photographer living deep in the jungle with Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz. Watching Dennis was like looking into a mirror while experiencing LSD. His face in that role is a constantly shifting kaleidoscope of rising, falling and morphing expressions, perfectly capturing the effects of that drug.

The other film is my favorite Quentin Tarantino film of all time: True Romance. In this film, brilliantly directed by Tony Scott, Dennis Hopper plays Christian Slater’s father. The Mob, represented here by Christopher Walken and a few big heavies, comes to visit Hopper in an attempt to find the whereabouts of Hopper’s son. This scene between Hopper and Walken is one of the greatest moments in cinema history. I’ve watched it so many times that I can perform both sides of their conversation from memory.

I wish I had had more time with Dennis. I’ve still got a thousand questions to ask him. Now, those questions will be forever unanswered.

Thanks for the fine work, Dennis. You lived life on your own terms, paid the price, yet kept arising, a human Phoenix with more lives than the black cats you often portrayed.

Peace, Brother.

One Response to “Dennis Hopper, R.I.P.”

  1. John F. Davies says:

    One thing most people do not remember about Dennis Hopper was that he was also in a number of Westerns, including ironically a number of John Wayne movies. The two I remember are ” The Sons of Katie Elder”, and “True Grit” where he played Moon the outlaw, the one who gets stabbed by his erstwhile pal Quincy. His dying words to the Duke about walkin’ the halls of glory are quite poigniant at this moment in time.

    JFD

Leave a Reply