Dennis Hopper: The ride just gets easier

Onetime hell-raiser Dennis Hopper now plays golf and votes Bush, but by starring in Romero's 'Land of the Dead', he clearly still has cult status
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The Independent Culture

Lucky to be alive, let alone working, Hopper has inevitably calmed down in his twilight years. Now, he's a grandfather, plays golf with Jack Nicholson, votes Republican and lives contentedly with wife number five (since 1996), the actress Victoria Duffy. Yet, judging by his recent contribution to "Fire Coming Out Of A Monkey's Head", on the Gorillaz album Demon Days, Hopper is still loved by the generation that grew up hearing tales of his excesses. Dubbed "the rebel without a cortex" by one wag, two years before he directed Peter Fonda and Nicholson in Easy Rider, Hopper had already starred opposite them as a dealer in Roger Corman's The Trip, only recently granted a certificate by UK censors. He didn't emerge from his own purple haze until the early 1980s. Arrested in Mexico, he was found naked, begging to be shot dead.

Hopper's memory of those days is, understandably, somewhat askew. "Drugs never interfered with our film-making," he says, his body stiffening. "If somebody had said, 'The drugs and alcohol are interfering', I would've stopped. I'm probably in denial, but I haven't had a drink or hard narcotics in 21 years.

"At the time, drinking, doing cocaine and smoking grass while working... it was all about the work. It wasn't about the drugs. We did them to keep going. They could've cut off my legs and I'd still have been directing movies. Later, when one wasn't allowed to work or couldn't get jobs, then the drugs and alcohol were no longer about the work. They were about wallowing in self-pity and anger. That's a different story."

The problem with a hellraiser such as Hopper is that fact and fiction - like the actor and his roles - have become one. Hopper claimed, for example, that the actor Rip Torn held a steak knife to his throat after Hopper had sacked him from Easy Rider. But his boast of the incident on a 1994 episode of The Tonight Show saw Torn - who claimed that Hopper pulled the blade - sue for defamation and win. Nonetheless, it perpetuates the notion that Hopper was born to be wild, a reputation that seeps into his best work. Think of the freewheeling biker in Easy Rider, the jabbering photojournalist in Apocalypse Now, and the amyl nitrate-huffing psychotic in 1986's Blue Velvet, a role he won after saying to the director David Lynch: "I am Frank Booth". An electrifying performance by a completely sober Hopper - he'd quit drink and drugs four years earlier - Blue Velvet was part of a comeback that cemented his cult status. In the same year, he played a drug dealer in River's Edge and a drunken coach in Hoosiers, which got him the only Best Actor Oscar nomination of his career. But if he has been treading water ever since, playing the villain in films such as Speed and Waterworld, Hopper continues to surprise in other fields. A renowned photographer and artist, he also collects modern art. Now on his third collection - in his LA home hang works by Warhol, Schnabel and Basquiat - his previous collections went towards alimony payments.

In his latest film, Hopper plays an evil tycoon named Kaufman in George Romero's Land of the Dead, the latter's first zombie movie in 20 years. If it's hardly vintage Hopper, he evidently views its director as a kindred spirit. "Romero made Night of the Living Dead in 1968, when I was shooting Easy Rider. I saw it and realised that most of us were trying to make films as metaphors for how we saw society. It addressed problems at the time in my country."

Land of the Dead marks an odd reunion for Hopper with Universal Studios. He clashed with Universal's Lew Wasserman in 1971, after his experimental film, The Last Movie, had won an award in Venice. "I had final cut, they wanted me to re-edit it, I refused," explains Hopper. "Wasserman said, 'If you don't re-edit, I'll show it for two weeks in New York and LA, three days in San Francisco, and it'll never be seen in Europe.' I said, 'You can't do that to me', and went on all the talk shows.

"Of course, that's what he did do. I was young and thought I had power. I had no power at all. I had a big mouth. I didn't direct another movie for 12 years, and I've never really got back into the mainstream of Hollywood." But, he says, he holds no "grudges" against Wasserman anymore.

Hopper, who now owns the rights to The Last Movie, plans to put it out on DVD. As it was, its seemingly prophetic title wasn't accurate. Hopper went on to direct the well-regarded Out of the Blue in 1980, and the LA gangs drama Colors with Sean Penn, but he has been more unlucky as a director than actor. Orion went bankrupt as he directed The Hot Spot; as did Vestron, when he made Catchfire with Jodie Foster. He lets out a raucous laugh. "Rembrandt screwed the maid, and all his paintings were taken down; it took 300 years to rediscover him. But Hopper screwed Hollywood and we may never see his films!" His last directorial effort was the forgettable Chasers in 1994. "It was unfortunate as I was - am - a really talented director. I should have been allowed to make more films," he says. "Hopefully, during my three months off next year, I'll direct one."

As upbeat as Hopper seems, he has moments of self-pity as he thinks back on the days when Easy Rider saw him and co-writers Peter Fonda and Terry Southern nominated for an Oscar for Best Screenplay. "I bullshitted everybody, told them all the dreams, all the things I was going to do," he says. "Now I'm a total failure. I was full of shit and that's the end of it."

He says it with a smile, and you're not sure whether to believe him. At least he's made his peace in his personal life. Aside from his fourth wife, the dancer Katherine La Nasa - mother of his 14-year-old son Henry - he maintains good relations with his ex-wives. He also has three daughters: Marin, 44 (with Hayward); Ruthana, 33 (with third wife, Daria Halprin); and the latest addition (with Duffy), two-year-old Galen Grier. They all live in LA and "get along as well as a family gets along!".

Hopper didn't get along that well with his own parents. He was raised on a Kansas farm owned by his mother's father, while his own father initially managed a grocery store in Dodge City before joining what would become the CIA in the Second World War. Posted to China, India and Burma, he was "in intelligence", says Hopper, with pride. But he admits that he "felt out of place" with his parents, who frowned on acting. When they moved to San Diego, however, he studied acting, particularly Shakespeare, at the Old Globe Theatre. Put under contract by Warner Bros at 18, he made an immediate impact, starring opposite James Dean in Rebel without a Cause and Giant. But in 1957, the studio ousted him after he fell out with the director of From Hell to Texas. Blackballed for eight years, he went to New York and studied under Lee Strasberg, while taking fashion photographs for Vogue and Harper's.

He may have marched with Martin Luther King and against the Vietnam War, but times, like his politics, have changed. This autumn, he stars in a Pentagon-set TV series, E-Ring. Comparisons to The West Wing are being made, but Hopper, who plays a colonel, says: "It's even better as few people know about the Pentagon. And it's a great part. I'm going to knock some socks off."

After his days of portraying the unhinged, it's shocking to see Hopper play such establishment figures in both this and Land of the Dead. But just as his wild youth fuelled early performances, Hopper's work still reflects where his head is. Buttoned up, settled down, Dennis Hopper is happy to be as respectable as the next citizen. "Right now," he says, "is the best time in my life."

'Land of the Dead' screens at Edinburgh Film Festival, 19-20 August; on general release 23 September

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