“I don’t know what people expect when they meet me. They seem to be afraid that I’m going to piss in the potted palm and slap them on the ass.”Marlon Brando
“I should have been dead ten times over. I believe in miracles. It’s an absolute miracle that I’m still around.”Dennis Hopper
“You only lie to two people in your life: your girlfriend and the police.”Jack Nicholson
“The best time to get married is noon. That way, if things don’t work out, you haven’t blown the whole day.”Warren Beatty
They’re the baddest bad-asses Hollywood has ever seen: Marlon Brando, Dennis Hopper, Warren Beatty, and Jack Nicholson. They are men to whom rules did not apply; normal standards of behavior were simply too wearisome to worry about. These are men who brawled, boozed, snorted, and screwed their way into legendhoodbut along the way they changed acting and the way movies were made forever. Hollywood Hellraisers is a whistle-stop tour of jaw-dropping sexual activity, misbehavior of an Olympic standard, all-out excess, and genuine madness. It’s a wonder Hollywood survived.
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About the Author
Robert Sellers is the author of eight books including biographies of Sting and Tom Cruise. He contributes regularly to Empire, Cinema Retro, Total Film, and The Independent. A former stand-up comedian, he lives in the United Kingdom with his wife and daughter.
Read an Excerpt
Legends Are Born
My old man used to hit harder than that.
Near the end of his life Marlon Brando was asked: 'If you could live your life over again, what would you do differently?' Scarcely skipping a beat he replied, 'I wouldn't get married and I'd kill my father.' Life is never that simple, but the great Brando might have avoided a lot of grief if he'd done just that.
Marlon grew up terrified of his own father, Marlon Brando Sr, a man of unpredictable mood swings and often fierce rages. He was a travelling salesman and threw his money around in whorehouses and speakeasys, fucking or drinking anything he could lay his hands on. Rumours of his wayward lifestyle filtered back to the simple house in Omaha, Nebraska, that Marlon shared with his two elder sisters and his mother Dorothy, known by all as Dodie, a fragile, creative spirit who acted in local theatre and dared to dream of Broadway success. Ashamed of her husband's infidelity, Dodie could hit the bottle hard too, and on nights they both got loaded the lounge became a battleground where the children feared to trespass.
Born on 3 April 1924, the young Marlon, nicknamed Bud, had a hectic wildness in him that needed controlling, being taken to kindergarten on a leash, in case he ran away. He once even dropped the neighbour's dog down a well. At night he crawled into bed with his eighteen-year-old half-Danish, half-Indonesian nanny Ermi and they'd sleep naked together. The five-year-old sometimes playfully touched Ermi's ample creamy brown breasts and writhed around on top of her as if she were a bouncy castle. 'She belonged to me and me alone.' Not for long, though, and when Ermi left after two years to get married Marlon was devastated. 'My mother had long ago deserted me for her bottle, now Ermi was gone too. From that day forward I became estranged from this world.' Marlon was a very serious and let's say strange little chap.
If he turned to his parents for comfort, they were incapable of giving it to him. His father, when he wasn't being a bully, giving orders and issuing ultimatums, fostering in his son a lifelong aversion to authority, was an emotional cripple. There were no father-and-son bondings, no shared tender moments, no hugs or 'Well done, son,' just constant lashing out. Dodie instilled in the young Marlon a love of nature and the arts, but too often was legless or borderline conscious, her son reduced to play-acting for her in an attempt to grab some attention and love. When he was older Marlon often brought Dodie home after she'd spent the night drunk in jail, events that traumatised the young boy. 'I admire Marlon's talent,' Anthony Quinn once said. 'But I don't envy the pain that created it.'
On many a Sunday afternoon Marlon and his sister Frances would run away from home. For kicks he enjoyed setting off fire alarms then hiding to watch the emergency services roar down the street. When his pet chicken died and Dodie buried it in the garden, Marlon repeatedly dug the poor thing up until it resembled some monstrosity from the nightmare cupboard of Tim Burton.
When the family uprooted and moved to rural Illinois, Dodie was forced to leave her theatrical and bohemian friends behind, her artistic dreams crushed. But Marlon loved the new place; it was a veritable zoo with a horse, a cow, a Great Dane, several rabbits and twenty-eight cats. To this menagerie Marlon would occasionally add a wounded snake or broken bird he'd found somewhere. He was a champion of the defenceless, once even turning up at home with an elderly bag lady who had fainted outside in the street, fussing over her while the doctor was called. He became naturally drawn to troubled children, perhaps because they reflected something in himself. One such boy, frail with glasses and bullied at school, was Wally Cox, and the two boys became inseparable, even after Marlon tied poor Wally to a tree in a wood and left him there all night. Their friendship lasted until Cox's premature death in the early seventies and, rather spookily, beyond. Brando kept Cox's ashes in his house and confessed to talking to them most nights.
Aware that her marriage was more compost heap than bed of roses, Dodie was hitting the bottle even harder. Hubby still enjoyed his wayward trouser dropping, and when Dodie spotted lipstick stains on his underpants the rows got worse. Marlon had heard his parents argue and fight before but, now a strapping twelve-year-old, was at last confident physically to confront the man he'd grown to despise, a taskmaster who'd raised his family by the strict rules of the Bible but who was nothing but a fraud and hypocrite. The gloves were off, and their frequent clashes were so volcanic that the neighbours could hear them warring. One night Marlon burst into the bedroom while his father was beating Dodie and threatened to kill him if he didn't stop.
It's no surprise that Marlon scarcely discussed his childhood when pressed by friends or reporters. The memories were just too painful. His mother had been the only brightness that shone out from the muck and gloom, and he had had to watch her spiral into drunken promiscuity and darkness, fighting her horrendous private demons. Often she'd disappear on wild binges and Marlon spent tortured nights in bed waiting for her to come home, or he'd search out the streets, the saloons and seedy hotels, often finding her passed out in her own vomit. One time he brought her home naked in a cab from some miserable hell-hole and fought off his father as he rained his fists down on his wretched wife's head.
Is it any wonder, with such a home life, that school seemed a total inconsequence to Marlon, who gladly treated it as such, flunking lessons and misbehaving, like the time he burned the word SHIT on the blackboard with corrosive chemicals. Only for sports and drama did he show any kind of aptitude. When it was discovered he'd failed all his subjects and was being held back a year, his father exploded. Marlon didn't care and got himself expelled when he orchestrated one prank too many, placing cheese into the air-conditioning unit and stinking out his classroom.
Marlon Sr was at a loss about what could be done with his son. The boy needed discipline, that was for sure, and as a product of military school himself, he decided that the army could beat it into him more productively than he ever could. So in 1942 Marlon found himself at Shattuck Military Academy in Minnesota, up before dawn, inspections, drills, hikes, marching about, and lights out at 21.30. If anything his rebellious nature found a greater outlet to express itself, and there were pranks galore: stealing every piece of cutlery from the canteen so his fellow cadets couldn't eat, emptying a chamber pot out of the dormitory window as someone was passing and shimmying up a tower to disable and then bury the school bell, which chimed every quarter hour and drove him to distraction.
As for women, he fucked conveyor-belt fashion local lasses from waitresses to farm girls. According to one fellow cadet, Marlon was an equal-opportunity fucker; he happily screwed ugly, pretty, fat or thin girls. They just had to be fuckable.
He enjoyed facing down bullies, too, acting tough and winning friends with his outrageous disobedience. But the outside world could still scar him. His parents never wrote or visited their son at the academy and during the holidays Marlon, rather than going straight home, sometimes lived like a hobo, riding the trains with fellow drifters, sharing their food and stories by the campfire.
As time went on his behaviour at Shattuck got worse. He dyed his hair red and got out of classes by feigning illness. 'I did my best to tear the school apart and not get caught at it,' Brando confessed. 'I hated authority and did everything I could to defeat it. I would do anything to avoid being treated like a cipher.'
His grades were, unsurprisingly, appalling; only in drama did he seem to make any effort. One day during manoeuvres Marlon's insolence went too far when he talked back to his commanding officer. Confined to barracks, Marlon grew bored so broke out and headed into town for a bit of fun. His absence was reported and he was expelled for grand insubordination. Such was Marlon's popularity that the students threatened to go on strike until he was reinstated. In an unprecedented move the principal wrote inviting him back in order that he could graduate; Brando told him to shove it.
You know, this used to be a helluva good country. I can't understand what's gone wrong with it.
Dennis Hopper's upbringing sounds like a corny western. He was born on 17 May 1936 on a wheat farm in Kansas, just a few miles outside Dodge City, half a century after Wyatt Earp tamed the town before moving on to Tombstone; corrupt folk heroes have fascinated Hopper ever since. The place was a dustbowl, so bad little Dennis had to wear a gas mask to school. It was a time of depression, the middle of America was wiped out, people queued for bread and soup.
The farm was twelve acres of wide-open land and Dennis pretty much had the run of the place. His was a solitary existence with no neighbours and no kids to play with, just a train that came though once a day. Dennis used to spend hours wondering where it came from and where it went to. The farm belonged to his grandparents, who pretty much raised him as their own. For years Dennis struggled to come to terms with the feeling that his parents had let him down, that they didn't show the same kind of love and commitment his grandparents did. They were distant figures mostly. His mother Marjorie was a Bible-thumping fundamentalist who worked over in Dodge City at a swimming pool, and Dennis cherished the times, all too rare, when she'd take him to work and he could have her to himself all day. His father Jay was absent from the homestead most of the time, working on the railroad as a postal clerk.
Dennis was barely five when he was given the news that his father was dead. America had just entered the war and Jay had been called up, but there'd been a terrible accident during his basic training and he'd been killed. Too young to fully appreciate the gravitas of what his mother was telling him, Dennis understood her promise that he'd be meeting his daddy again one day in heaven.
It was easy back then to just skip out of reality sometimes, Saturdays especially, during trips to the local movie house. Dennis was five when he was taken to the cinema for the first time and, bang, it hit him in an instant: the places he saw on screen were the places the train went to and came from, that flickering image on white canvas was the real world, and he wanted so much to be a part of it.
But no Hollywood scriptwriter could possibly have dreamed up the following scenario.
When the war ended Jay Hopper returned from the dead, quite literally. His death had been faked — a James Bond-type ruse so that he could undertake top-secret intelligence work. So while little Dennis believed his dad was decaying in the earth, in reality he was in China, Burma and India, fighting Maoists and taking the surrender of the Japanese in Peking.
The young Dennis welcomed his father back disbelievingly and for a time hero-worshipped him like a character ripped from the pages of a Boy's Own adventure. His feelings towards his mother were altogether different. She'd known the truth all along, the only one in the family who had. How could she have lied to him? It was the worst kind of betrayal. She tried explaining that the government had sworn her to secrecy and forced her to live as a grieving widow, but Dennis had trouble swallowing it.
After this incredible emotional rollercoaster, Dennis's family life returned to some kind of normalcy, and therein lay the problem. Again his parents grew distant, Jay going back to work on the railroad, carrying a gun to guard the mail, Marjorie working over in Dodge City. Again Dennis was left on the farm in his grandparents' care, feeling deserted.
It was now that his trend for experimentation began. By his own future standards it started innocently enough, snorting gasoline fumes from his grandfather's truck and gently tripping, seeing clowns and goblins in the clouds. That was until he overdosed one day and went wild, attacking the truck with a baseball bat, thinking it was a monster, smashing out the lights. 'That was the end of my gasoline-sniffing.' Grandpa was put out, to say the least, and Dennis was banned from going to the cinema until he'd learned his lesson. Trouble was, he never did, but instead graduated to drinking beer, stealing cans from the fridge and running into the wheat fields to pour the sweet nectar down his throat. The fantasy worlds of his boyhood, Dennis discovered, could just as easily be summoned up by alcohol as by his imagination. It was an interesting short cut.
As Dennis got older he lent a hand on the farm, daydreams supplanted by the cold, smelly reality of cleaning up pig shit. And if he didn't do his chores properly he'd be punished, and not just with a spanking. 'I'd say more like a whipping. That's just the way it was in those days.'
Then, like a bolt out of the blue, his parents told him they were leaving the farm and moving to Kansas City. It was a huge adjustment and, once there, Dennis rebelled. Not quite a teenager, he started hanging out with the wrong crowd, returning home at odd hours reeking of beer, reducing his mother to tears and causing his father to yell at him that he was a no-good son.
In 1950 the family were on the move again, this time to San Diego, just a few hours' drive up the freeway from fabled Hollywood. Dennis started to knuckle down at school, which he'd always seen as a chore, impressing teachers with his art work and winning prizes for drama. Consumed with a desire to be an actor, this interest in the arts created a gulf between him and his parents. Why couldn't he be a doctor or a lawyer, they asked, anything but a career in the theatre, which they saw as populated with the same kind of bohemian rebels and bums who'd led him astray in Kansas City. Dennis was beyond redemption in any case, already a committed boozer and close to discovering the wonders of weed. He also liked to party hard. Discussions on the subject always ended up in rows with Marjorie screaming and throwing things. Speaking of his parents years later Dennis admitted, 'I didn't love either one of them. They weren't bad, I just felt out of place.'
Home was becoming something of a nightmare. Jay drank too much and tended to get maudlin about the glory days of his war. He'd often row and fight with Marjorie, creating a hostile atmosphere that deeply affected the young Dennis. It took years, as he himself failed as a family man prone to rages, for him to forgive his parents for the malignancy he believed their soul-destroying scraps planted in his psyche.
So one night during the summer holidays sixteen-year-old Dennis packed a small suitcase and fled the hundred or so miles to Pasadena, calling his parents in the morning to tell them he was still alive. Managing to talk himself into a job shifting scenery in a professional theatre, Dennis soaked up the vibes — 'It was fabulous, man' — and didn't even resent the fact that he wasn't paid. To survive he flipped burgers at a roadside café. It had been an adventure for sure, and he returned home to finish his schooling more determined than ever to be an actor.
It was Dorothy McGuire, a successful film actress, who saw something in Dennis worth nurturing and cast him in a small role in a production of The Postman Always Rings Twice at San Diego's La Jolla playhouse, which she helped run. For the first time since he'd left the farm Dennis felt wrapped up in a warm and inspiring environment. After successful stints performing in Shakespeare he was advised by Dorothy to set his sights on Hollywood. She had some contacts in the movie world who might help. Dennis was on his way to the town of his childhood fantasies. As for the theatre, he never really had any desire to go back: 'Where's the fucking close-up, man!?'
I never know what I'm going to do next. I just live for kicks.
Warren Beatty arrived in the world on 30 March 1937, three years after his sister, who was to become one of America's greatest all-round entertainers — Shirley MacLaine. It must have been an amazing household with those two embryonic egos in it. He was hardly out of nappies before Shirley started to resent her little brother's bid to hold centre stage, sparking off a lifelong sibling rivalry. 'Warren spent most of his time as a baby yelling,' she later said. 'And with growing finesse and sometimes astounding precision, has been doing so ever since.'
Proper little darlings at home, around the neighbourhood they raised hell, setting off fire alarms, dumping rubbish on their next-door neighbour's lawn and halting traffic on busy crossings by pretending to be handicapped and limping across theatrically. They even took to lying in the middle of the road waiting for a good Samaritan to arrive, only then to jump up and run away. 'Warren and I breathed the breath of rebellion into each other,' said Shirley.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Hollywood Hellraisers"
Copyright © 2010 Robert Sellers.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Picture Credits ix
Select Bibliography xi
1 Legends Are Born 5
2 The Methody Fifties 19
3 The Drugged-Up Sixties 59
4 The Explosive Seventies 123
5 The Excessive Eighties 205
6 The Redemptive Nineties 256
7 And Then There Were Three 296
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Really enjoyed the book, if you don't like a lot of vulgarity you should stay away from it, but if you know anything about these actors you have to expect it.
Interesting read about 4 notorious Hollywood actors. The book needs some editing and the author needs to tone down his overly-masculine voice. The section on "Easy Rider" is definitely the highlight.
A very interesting read! I knew these actors were wild and crazy but not as much as described in this book.