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Dennis Hopper: The Wild Ride of a Hollywood Rebelby Peter L. Winkler
Dennis Hopper: The Wild Ride of a Hollywood Rebel is the first book to cover the entire life and career of flamboyant actor-director Dennis Hopper. Fans of Hopper, film buffs, baby boomers, and readers who are into celebrity scandals will seek out this account of the man who hung out with James Dean and Elvis Presley, created the counterculture classic Easy Rider,… See more details below
Dennis Hopper: The Wild Ride of a Hollywood Rebel is the first book to cover the entire life and career of flamboyant actor-director Dennis Hopper. Fans of Hopper, film buffs, baby boomers, and readers who are into celebrity scandals will seek out this account of the man who hung out with James Dean and Elvis Presley, created the counterculture classic Easy Rider, and came back big in Blue Velvet overcoming years of alcoholism and drug addiction.
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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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Read an Excerpt
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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