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Dennis Hopper: The Wild Ride of a Hollywood Rebelby Peter L. Winkler
One of America's most intriguing show-business luminaries and true rebels, Dennis Hopper's amazing life was a roller-coaster series of triumphs and failures. Always intent on proving his genius and leaving a legacy, the Emmy and Oscar-nominated Hopper acted in more than 115 movies and four TV series, directed seven films, and passionately pursued an artist's life
One of America's most intriguing show-business luminaries and true rebels, Dennis Hopper's amazing life was a roller-coaster series of triumphs and failures. Always intent on proving his genius and leaving a legacy, the Emmy and Oscar-nominated Hopper acted in more than 115 movies and four TV series, directed seven films, and passionately pursued an artist's life as a photographer and creator and collector of modern art, embracing the work of artists like Warhol and Lichtenstein before the label “pop art” was even coined. Dennis Hopper: The Wild Ride of a Hollywood Rebel explores Hopper's life from his lonely childhood in Kansas, where he became determined to win the affection of others by becoming a great artist, to his often drug-fueled days and nights in Hollywood and his spiritual home in Taos, New Mexico.
From Hopper's early days in Hollywood, where he had an affair with 16-year-old Natalie Wood and took acting lessons from James Dean while making Rebel Without a Cause and Giant, his '60s head trips and the making of Easy Rider, the crushing failure of The Last Movie and his lost years in Taos, to his recovery and political right turn in the '80s, Dennis Hopper: The Wild Ride of a Hollywood Rebel unsparingly documents his journey from a self-destructive bad boy to a reformed member of the Hollywood establishment and iconic survivor of the counterculture. The book also delves into Hopper's tumultuous personal life, including his dramatic attempt to divorce his last wife while he battled terminal cancer.
This is the first book to cover the entire life and career of the man who hung out with James Dean, Elvis Presley, and Jack Nicholson, costarred in and directed Easy Rider, and came back big in Blue Velvet, overcoming years of alcoholism and drug addiction. Dennis Hopper: The Wild Ride of a Hollywood Rebel is a must-have for Hopper's fans, film buffs, and readers hooked on celebrity scandals.
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“Peter Winkler's new book, Dennis Hopper: The Wild Ride of a Hollywood Rebel, beautifully captures the life, the legend, and the long career of this extraordinary individual. The product of meticulous research and expert wordsmithing, this biography details Hopper's many achievements as actor, director, painter, and photographer. With empathy and insight, Winkler provides an unforgettable portrait of an actor blessed with multiple artistic talents and yet cursed with strong tendencies toward self-destructive behaviors. Readers of this book are sure to enjoy sharing the wild ride.” Richard L. Kellogg, author of Vignettes of Sherlock Holmes
“Peter Winkler has used his great skill as an interviewer to unlock the mystique behind a troubled and not always attractive Hollywood legend.” Ronald Martinetti, co-founder American Legends publishing company and website
"A readable and remarkably even-handed chronicle of one of Hollywood's wildest cards. Peter L. Winkler knows his subject – and the territory – and he objectively delivers the goods on Dennis Hopper." Stephen M. Silverman, author of David Lean and The Fox That Got Away: The Last Days of the Zanuck Dynasty at 20th Century Fox.
"Dennis Hopper exploded in our midst like a firecracker thrown from a dark shadow in a passing car. Peter Winkler's new biography of the counter-culture symbol, first across the finish line since the actor's death, is full of tough research and interviews, and reads as fast and furious as the man." Patrick McGilligan, author of Jack's Life (a biography of Jack Nicholson) and Nicholas Ray: The Glorious Failure of an American Director.
“Well, I read it, and all I can say is … whew! Wild Ride is exactly that. One incredible drug and drink-fueled tale tumbles over the next. …Hopper, as presented by author Winkler, is fascinating.” Liz Smith
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Dennis Hopper: The Wild Ride Of A Hollywood Rebel
By Peter L. Winkler
Barricade Books Inc.Copyright © 2011 Peter L. Winkler
All right reserved.
Chapter OneFirst Light
A lonely farm boy wonders where the trains are headed and follows them to Hollywood.
"I come from Kansas, which is nowhere. And I hate my parents, who are no one."
Dennis Hopper, introducing himself to writer Gwen Davis at a Hollywood party in 1956
Dennis Lee Hopper was born in Dodge City, Kansas, on May 17, 1936, to Jay Millard Hopper and Marjorie Mae Hopper (nee Davis). "My grandparents were from Kentucky—I'm related to Daniel Boone," Dennis Hopper said. "He was my great-great-great-uncle. Sarah Boone, his sister, was my great-great-great-grandmother."
Jay Hopper managed a grocery store in Dodge City until the outbreak of World War II and served as a lay minister in the Methodist church. After the war, he got a job with the postal service's railway division, guarding the mail on the trains running from Kansas City to Denver. This entitled him to wear a sidearm, which impressed Dennis when he saw his father off at the railroad station and may have influenced the gun fetish that manifested itself in his adult life.
"Well, my father was pretty busy," Dennis recalled. "I mean, I learned more about him at his funeral than I did, really, growing up." Jay Hopper was a shadow in his son's life, "a hard, totally secret man with no words," as Dennis later put it. Child-rearing was left to Marjorie Hopper, a temperamental fundamentalist with 19th-century values who was unprepared for motherhood. The backstroke champion of Kansas, Marjorie was on her way to the Olympics until she became pregnant with Dennis when she was only seventeen.
"It was my mother," Dennis said, "basically, who took care of those things, even though we had a terrible relationship, my mother and I. I mean, she screamed, yelled, and threw things at me. It was a terrible, terrible relationship. I wanted to be an actor. I decided when I was very young, when I first saw movies, that I wanted to be an actor." Dennis' desire to become an actor was anathema to his mother and became the source of constant friction between them.
Brooke Hayward, Hopper's first wife, met his family in the '60s. "Dennis' grandfather was a sweetheart," she said. "I think Dennis was fond of his father, but his mother was a nightmare. She talked endlessly, and you couldn't stop her." "Hopper was the son of an unemotional father and an overly emotional mother," CBS News reported in 2004. "She was wild, very emotional, a screamer and a yeller," Hopper said about his mother. "My mother had an incredible body, and I had a sexual fascination for her. I never had sex with my mother, but I had total sexual fantasies about her."
Until he was ten, Dennis spent most of his time on his grandparents' little twelve-acre farm seven miles outside of Dodge City, where they grew Chinese elms and alfalfa, and kept chickens, cows, and pigs. "It was the dust bowl," Hopper said, "so I had to wear a gas mask to school five days a week because the dust was so heavy in the air, and my grandmother would open the door, and five inches of dust would blow inside. The sky was obliterated by dust storms a lot of the time. There were bread lines and soup lines, and it was really bad. The whole middle of the country had blown away."
"My early memories of Kansas are like, sort of classical stuff," he said. "There was a ditch in front of the house, a lot of weeds, a very fertile place, Kansas. There was a dirt road in front, a mailbox. A country road. I got my first sheepdog from the brother of the Clutters, the family that was murdered years later that Capote wrote about in In Cold Blood."
"I never knew my father or my mother very well," Hopper said. "I very seldom saw my father—which I resented tremendously." Dennis' father joined the military when he was six, and his mother trained lifeguards for the Red Cross and managed an outdoor swimming pool in Dodge City. Dennis' grandmother was his only company during the day, when his grandfather worked on a large wheat farm sixty miles away in Garden City.
"As a little tiny child he didn't have anyone to play with," Marjorie Hopper said. "We didn't live where there were a lot of children, so he only knew children when he was at school. Grandmother read him every child's book in the Dodge City library before he was in kindergarten and was reading him novels."
"Most of the time I spent alone, daydreaming," Hopper said. "I didn't do much; occasionally I cleaned out the chicken house. I watched more than anything else. Wheat fields all around, as far as you could see. No neighbors, no other kids."
With little else to do, Dennis would look at the horizon line or lie in the ditch with his dog, watching the daily procession of flatcars loaded with heavy farm equipment rumble by until they disappeared over the horizon. "I used to spend hours wondering where it came from and where it went to," he said.
"My grandfather and my grandmother Davis were my best friends. I shot a BB gun at the black crows," Hopper recalled in an autobiographical sketch. "I fought the cows with a wooden sword. I hung ropes in the trees and played Tarzan. I listened to Joe Louis fight on the radio. I fed the chickens, pigs, cows. I swam in the swimming pool my mother managed in Dodge. I got a telescope and looked at the sun and went blind for five days. I caught lightning bugs, lightning shows, sunsets and followed animal tracks in the snow. I had a kite. I used the telescope to burn holes in newspapers. The sun was brighter than I was. God was everywhere and I was desperate. I walked on the rails on the train tracks. I shot marbles with an agate shooter. I caught catfish and carp in the river. I wondered what mountains looked like and skyscrapers. I imagined them on the Kansas horizon."
Dennis first discovered the intoxicating effects of mood-altering substances on his grandparents' farm. Grandfather Davis owned an old tractor whose gas tank was on the front, where the radiator is usually found. Dennis' curiosity led him to remove the gas cap and take a tentative whiff of whatever was inside. Becoming more adventurous, he breathed deeply of the gas fumes and went reeling from their dizzying effect. He enjoyed the disorientation and started doing it nearly every day. He would stretch out on the hood of the tractor, huff the gas fumes, and turn on his back. The sky turned into an animated fantasy, with clouds transformed into clowns and goblins. Dennis had his first bad trip one afternoon when he OD'd on gas. The grill and lights on the tractor were transformed into the face of a terrifying monster attacking him. Dennis' grandfather pulled him away from the tractor as he smashed away at its lights and windshield with his baseball bat. Dennis was so high, he wasn't even aware of what he was doing until his grandparents explained it to him afterward.
Saturdays became special occasions for Dennis when his grandmother treated him to a trip to the local movie theater to see the matinee. She would fill her apron with fresh eggs and walk the six miles into town with him, where she'd sell the eggs at the local poultry shop. She'd use the proceeds to buy tickets to one of the dingy little theaters, where Dennis sat in the balcony, enthralled by the adventures of Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Smiley Burnette, or Wild Bill Elliott, who was his favorite, because he wasn't a singing cowboy.
"Then all the next week," Hopper said, "I'd live that picture. If it was a war picture, I'd dig foxholes; if it was sword-fighting, I'd poke the cow with a stick. Those dark little Kansas theaters, Saturday afternoons, man, that was big news to me. It was just after the dust bowl, and sometimes I used to say that the first light that I saw was in the movie theater, because the sun was just a little glow. And being in Kansas, there's nothing really to look at. And right away, it hit me. The places I was seeing on the screen were the places the train came from and went to! The world on the screen was the real world, and I felt as if my heart would explode, I wanted so much to be a part of it. Being an actor was a way to be part of it. Being a director is a way to own it."
Riding his broom horse, Dennis announced the start of WW II to the crows on his grandparents' farm. When his father left for military service, his mother perpetrated a strange deception on Dennis that undermined his trust in his parents and authority figures. She took him aside one day and told him that his father had been killed in a munitions explosion during basic training. She was the only member of the family who knew that the story was a ruse to conceal Jay Hopper's duty in a unit of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) that was active in Burma, China, and India.
Dennis adjusted to the news of his father's supposed death and went on with his life. "I ate raw onion sandwiches in the Victory Garden," he later wrote. "I drove a combine and one wayed. I was William Tell and Paul Revere. I dug fox holes in the field and played war. I was Errol Flynn and Abbott and Costello. I racked balls in the pool ball, smoked cigarettes, drank beer, and ate more onions."
After taking the surrender from Japanese forces in Peiping (also known as Peking or Beijing), Jay Hopper returned to civilian life and rejoined his family, confounding his nine-year-old son with his reappearance. "Now wouldn't that make you a paranoiac?" Dennis later said.
Dennis' family moved to Newton, Kansas, and then to Kansas City, Missouri, after Jay Hopper returned from China. On moving to Kansas City, Marjorie Hopper enrolled Dennis in art classes for underprivileged children at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, which he attended every Saturday for three-and a-half years. Dennis had already started painting in Dodge City, the result of his rebellion against his mother after she enrolled in a dancing school. "But my mother put me in a tap-dancing class with a bunch of girls, man," he said. "I had to wear this little white outfit. She was trying to live in another place in another time, but I couldn't do it. I said, 'I'm not going anymore.' So she got me these watercolors, and I learned to do this little mountain and the tree with the roots and the water coming by."
Hopper's art instructor was a member of the Rocky Mountain School of painting that flourished in the mid-to-late 19th-century, whose members specialized in creating large scenes depicting the Rocky Mountains and the natural wonders of the West. When he was eleven, Hopper got his first art critique from Thomas Hart Benton, the hard-drinking American muralist. "Thomas Hart Benton would come in occasionally," he recalled. "He came about three times probably, just to visit the kids. But he wasn't teaching, really. He would just walk through the museum. He walked around, looked at one of my little watercolors and said, 'You're little, so you might be too young to understand what I'm about to say to you, but someday you're gonna have to get tight and paint loose.' " Benton's advice may have contributed to Hopper's later belief that artists had a prerogative to use alcohol and drugs to liberate their creativity.
In November 2009, Hopper told San Diego Magazine's Tom Blair why his family moved to San Diego when he was thirteen. "My aunt lived there," Hopper said, "and my younger brother had bronchial asthma, and they said it would be the best place for him. And I think my mother just wanted to go to San Diego." Hopper told a later interviewer that his family moved because Jay Hopper got a job managing the San Diego post office. The Hoppers put down roots in Monterey Heights, a suburb of Lemon Grove, a quiet little blue-collar town. (The Hoppers lived at 3224 Massachusetts Avenue.) Marjorie Hopper got a job managing the largest outdoor swimming pool in El Cajon and presided over the local genealogical society. Dennis attended Lemon Grove Junior High School and then spent two years attending sessions split between Grossmont High School and Helix High School in La Mesa, which was still under construction. He finished his last two years of high school at Helix High.
Moving to San Diego afforded Hopper his first opportunity to see the mountains and the ocean he could only fantasize about in the flatlands of Kansas. "I'm creative man, because of my big disappointment: seeing real mountains and real ocean for the first time," he later explained. "In movies about Dodge City, they always put in big mountains, but there aren't any. Just endless wheat fields, this fantastic flat horizon line, incredible electric storms, sunsets like the northern lights. Wow, what a bringdown! The mountains in my head were much bigger than the Rockies. I didn't know what I thought I would see when I looked out at the ocean, but I thought I'd see something different. But then, looking out at the ocean, it was the same perspective I had looking out at a wheat field. I remember thinking that that ocean looked very similar to our wheat fields. The Pacific was the horizon line in my wheat field."
During his teenage years in San Diego, Hopper became consumed by his desire to become an actor, which first emerged when he was a child. "I decided when I was very young, when I first saw movies, that I wanted to be an actor," he recalled. "When I was at Nelson-Atkins back in Kansas City, we'd be there for five hours on a Saturday, but we would have an hour to go around the museum. They had a theater in the museum, and during my hour, I used to go in and sketch the actors."
Before he even left Dodge City, Hopper was making precocious complaints to his contemporaries about the constraints Kansas placed on his artistic development. Lin Dee, a childhood acquaintance, recalled, "Many times we heard you say you couldn't wait to leave us ... You went on to follow your dreams, saying you needed to go for your chance to grow."
Hopper's desire to become an actor was tied up with another idea from his childhood, that becoming a famous artist would relieve his emotional pain. "I as a child was very, very unhappy and very lonely," he said in The American Dreamer. "The only way I could stop being unhappy and stop being lonely was to become something like an artist that would be, you know, so creative and so beautiful that everybody would, uh, say 'Wow!' Then I remember like, you know, the loneliness of holding your pillow thinking it's Elizabeth Taylor and thinking it's Leslie Caron and not being able to tell anyone and having to leave the room at school because you're so in love with Leslie Caron you just couldn't bear it anymore or go to the bathroom and cry for a while. The time when you couldn't identify with your parents and you couldn't identify with anyone, any of your surroundings, so you wanted new surroundings and new dreams and new ideas and new people, new things."
The most influential art form in Hopper's childhood was the movies. Hopper believed he could make people go "Wow!" by becoming an actor. But acting wasn't his first choice to achieve fame and fortune. "When I went to Hollywood, though, I was going to be either a matador, a race-car driver, or a boxer," he said. "In Spain, if you're broke and lousy in school, you become a matador. In Italy, you race cars. Here, you box or act. I boxed and got beat up, so acting was the only thing left." (Some of Hopper's studio biographies claimed that he was a Golden Gloves welterweight finalist.)
San Diego became Hopper's gateway to Hollywood, when he discovered the Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park and the nearby La Jolla Playhouse. "When I moved to San Diego, I told my parents I wanted to take acting lessons, and they were horrified at the idea," he said. "But I started taking classes and started playing small parts at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego." The teenage Dennis Hopper hated his parents for opposing his plan to become an actor. "I didn't love either one of them, very honestly," he said. "They weren't bad—like, this isn't a monster story—but I just felt out of place. They thought I should be a doctor or a lawyer or an engineer, and that being an actor was a life of becoming a bum—and this was not an acceptable occupation. So we start there, and you can get the rest."
Hopper's high-school friend, Bob Turnbull, who shared Hopper's ambitions and later joined him in Hollywood at his invitation, used to drive around with Dennis in a blue 1930 Chevrolet that Jay Hopper fixed up for him. Turnbull met Dennis' parents only fleetingly. "Whenever he went out to do anything, we always ... out the door and into a car, never really into his house to meet his folks," Turnbull remembered. "They wanted him to have a normal career, as they called it. He was very embittered by that."
Excerpted from Dennis Hopper: The Wild Ride Of A Hollywood Rebel by Peter L. Winkler Copyright © 2011 by Peter L. Winkler. Excerpted by permission of Barricade Books Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Peter Winkler has produced the definitive biography of one of our finest stage and screen actors. Dennis Hopper: The Wild Ride of a Hollywood Rebel is the story of the talented but troubled man who excelled as an actor, director, photographer, and artist. Hopper was gifted with incredible creativity but was haunted by a volatile personality, difficult relatinships with women, and years of drug and alcohol abuse. Winkler tells the story of Dennis Hopper with insight and commendable empathy. Movie fans will enjoy reading about the life and times of a Hollywood icon.
"And suddenly he'll grab you, and he'll throw you in a corner, and he'll say "Do you know that 'if' is the middle word in life? 'If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you, if you can trust yourself when all men doubt you'..." - I mean, I'm no, I can't - I'm a little man, I'm a little man, he's, he's a great man. I should have been a pair of ragged claws scuttling across floors of silent seas - I mean" This is 'crazy Dennis Hopper' as Francis Ford Coppola called him, from the film "Apocalypse Now." I love Dennis Hopper when he was in this crazy period; I also love him when he cleaned up and showed his true force as an actor in films such as "Blue Velvet" and "Hoosiers." Peter L. Winkler has written an extremely detailed account of the actor that led many lives and went through many transformations as an artist. Having devoured this excellent biography in a sitting, re-reading my favorite Hopper periods Wings of Wax, Lost in Taos being my favorite sections in the book. The Taos chapter, the longest in the book, is incredible; his filming of "The Last Movie;" Nick Ray staying at his house; the drugs, the madness, 'the horror, the horror.' Hopper is well chronicled from beginning to end in nine chapters, with great anecdotes strewn throughout. Book is cleanly written. "The Last Movie" being a cult favorite of mine, waiting for Criterion to release that lost gem; I love the detail in the book of Hopper wearing Dean's ring during that period. "Blue Velvet" and Frank Booth is given a half-a-dozen pages, ample; though, would've loved more from that masterful performance. What I really appreciated about this book are the details: filmography, bibliography, and index. This is a book I can go back to for the many great films and madness that was Dennis Hopper. Being a high school filmlit teacher and film historian, this is a fine piece of film history, a reference guide to Hopper as actor and director and his many facets. The great tornado that never slowed down even after he sobered up. His incredible comeback performances in "Blue Velvet," "Hoosiers," "River's Edge" are my personal favorites, as well as his mature turn in "Carried Away." I also loved his role in "Elegy" with Ben Kingsley, so many great performances, still waiting on a release of Wim Wenders' "Palermo Shooting"! Solid job on this!!!
Mr. Winkler writes about Dennis Hopper with immense wit and wisdom. The entire book is a page-turner and filled with vivid details; Mr. Winkler obviously did his homework here! This book should be read by each and every Dennis Hopper fan, each and every movie fan, and above all else, each and every superbly written book fan. Cheers to Mr. Winkler!
A full portrait of the one and only Dennis HopperBy Grady Harp Peter L. Winkler has done the next to impossible task of making sense of the life of Dennis Hopper. Probably history will record the icon as one of the most enigmatic of Hollywood geniuses (think Orson Welles et al) but Winkler has taken a straightforward look at the life and influences of this wild man of cinema and the result is an immensely readable, very well written and researched biography, and if we're lucky some screenwriter will hone in on this book and convert it into a film honoring the wild man of Hollywood: Winkler writes so well that perhaps he will be the obvious candidate to take on that task! A bit of encyclopedic background for starters: Dennis Hopper (May 17, 1936 - May 29, 2010) was an American actor, filmmaker and artist. He began his acting career appearing in two films featuring James Dean, Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and Giant (1956). During the next 10 years, Hopper appeared frequently on television in guest roles, and by the end of the 1960s had played supporting roles in several films. He directed and starred in Easy Rider (1969), the cinematic symbol of the 1960s, a celluloid anthem to freedom, macho bravado and anti-establishment rebellion. He was unable to build on his success for several years, until a featured role in Apocalypse Now (1979) brought him attention. He subsequently appeared in Rumble Fish (1983) and The Osterman Weekend (1983), and received critical recognition for his work in Blue Velvet and Hoosiers, with the latter film garnering him an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. He directed Colors (1988), played the lead character named after the movie title in Paris Trout, and played the villain in Speed (1994). He played another villain, King Koopa, in Super Mario Bros. (1993). Hopper's last performance was filmed just before his death: The Last Film Festival, originally slated for a 2011 release. Hopper was also a prolific and acclaimed photographer, a profession he began in the 1960s. He was married five times, addicted to cocaine and alcohol and died at his home in Venice, CA at the age of 74, due to complications from prostate cancer. These are the abrupt facts. What Winkler does with this information is weave a tapestry of an almost incontrollable Wildman whose actual life was far more entertaining than the memorable roles he created in movies and television. An aspect that makes Winkler's biography unique is his refusal to sensationalize any part of Hopper's life: he knows when to leave fact alone because in the manner in which he shares all the realities of Hopper's life he is able to prove that fact is stranger than fiction. For an enormously interesting `novel' few at present are as entertaining as Winkler's magisterial yet very human view of the life of Dennis Hopper. Grady Harp
After reading Peter Winkler’s book, “Dennis Hopper: The wild ride of a Hollywood rebel,” I had an epiphany. Dennis Hopper is Forrest Gump, the guy who does a little bit of everything in a big way. As a movie actor, director, producer, beatnik artist, poet, paramour, and businessman, Hopper had his finger on the pulse of creative America, and at the same time had his hands on some of the most famous women of his time. In a word, Hopper had a little bit too much fun. With quotes, anecdotes, and commentary Peter Winkler expertly draws us into the world of Dennis Hopper and shows us why Hopper defined the term “renaissance man.” Winkler’s style is economical and cuts through the fluff to get right to the heart of the matter. His storytelling ability kept me engaged, and wanting. A finely crafted and fun read that will even motivate you to get off the couch and start living life a bit more fully!
This thoroughly researched biography tells the story of the richly eventful life of actor-artist-director Dennis Hopper without ever lapsing into fanboy gushing. I like how the author used excerpts from Hopper's interviews whenever possible. It almost reads like Hopper narrating his own story at times. The chapter on Easy Rider is especially impressive, as it sorts through conflicting accounts of the making of the film. Above all, the book was very entertaining.