Hopper's dramatic Hollywood ending

As he fights prostate cancer, a vicious battle is already being waged for the millions the actor earned from films such as Easy Rider. Then again, says Guy Adams, this is a hellraiser who was never likely to go quietly

Cut down by a 12-bore shotgun, Dennis Hopper was instantly turned from jobbing actor into a household name when his Harley Davidson chopper motorcycle exploded in a slow-motion ball of flames during the extravagant final scene of his 1969 film Easy Rider.

The famous road movie, in which he played a coke-smuggling, dope smoking, hippie biker called Billy, swiftly became a modern classic, placing Hopper and his co-stars Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson firmly at the centre of the so-called "counter-culture" movement.

It also kick-started his career as the most revered hellraiser of his generation: a man who claimed to consume half a gallon of rum, 28 beers, and three grammes of cocaine a day, and had a habit of getting arrested for wandering naked through the streets of Los Angeles.

Today, forty years after Easy Rider, and more than two decades after he finally managed to quit hard drugs and liquor, Hopper is once more involved in a dramatic Hollywood ending. Unfortunately, this one involves the messy final chapter of his tumultuous life.

The 73-year-old method actor, who is fighting prostate cancer that is widely reported to be terminal, has been caught up in an ugly legal battle with his fifth wife Victoria Duffy, to whom he's been happily married for 14 years.

A fortnight ago, Hopper suddenly filed for divorce from Duffy, who is 30 years his junior, citing "irreconcilable differences". In a statement, he announced: "I wish Victoria the best, but only want to spend these difficult days surrounded by my children and close friends." The news shocked Hollywood. Not only are deathbed divorces rare, but in recent years, the couple have been a picture of happiness. Indeed, until very recently, they had been living together, in what appeared to be domestic bliss, at Hopper's house near to Venice Beach.

This week, the tone of the case changed from strange to sinister: Ms Duffy, the mother of Hopper's six-year-old daughter Galen, filed legal papers at Los Angeles Superior Court claiming that her husband was being "pressured by his advisors and adult children" to seek divorce. The reason, she said, is straightforward: money.

Ms Duffy will get 40 per cent of the actor's estate if they are married at the time of his death. Should they divorce, however, she is entitled to just 25 per cent, under a pre-nuptial agreement signed before they tied the knot in 1996.

In her lawsuit, Hopper's wife therefore accuses the other friends and relatives who stand to inherit Hopper's fortune of having brainwashed the ailing actor – now effectively on his deathbed – into removing her from his life.

Right now, Ms Duffy does not believe Hopper "is capable of taking care of himself, or his legal and financial affairs" or making "sound decisions in the best interests of our daughter." She added: "I believe that the filing of the present dissolution action is a result of estate planning by other family members."

Her legal papers, lodged this week, duly asked the judge to allow Hopper supervised visits with their daughter for an hour per day, provided he removes all guns from the family home. She also wants him to refrain from smoking "medicinal marijuana" for at least six hours before any visit.

No response has yet been filed, and Hopper's family have so far declined to formally rebut Duffy's claims regarding the divorce. However a "close friend" has since been quoted in the New York Post describing her as a "gold-digger" who devoted their marriage to spending his fortune.

Hopper had reluctantly decided to sever contact with Duffy, said the friend, after she tactlessly demanded that he rewrite his will to guarantee her a greater share. "Victoria wanted more, more, more. She was going to contest the will in court. To avoid this, he filed for divorce. It was a pre-emptive move."

Either way, it's an ugly business. And regardless of who eventually triumphs, the snowballing nature of this row means that Dennis Hopper is now unlikely to enjoy much peace and quiet. Instead, he seems destined to end his long and colourful life at the centre of a lurid, multimillion-dollar lawsuit.

Given previous form, however, that might not be quite so inappropriate. For although Hopper has mellowed in recent years, swapping drugs, guns, and inebriated exhibitionism for sobriety and daily visits to the golf course, he has never been one to quietly exit, stage right.

After a difficult childhood, in first 1940s Kansas, and then San Diego, where his hobbies included stealing alcohol and getting high by snorting petrol from his grandfather's truck, Hopper decided to devote his adult life to exploring twin obsessions: acting, and narcotics. For years, the two were largely incompatible. Despite having obvious talent, and easy good looks that saw him cast in a couple of James Dean movies, including 1955's Rebel Without a Cause, Hopper's erratic behaviour prevented him from being given the keys to Hollywood stardom.

During a meeting with Columbia, which was keen to sign him to a six-figure deal in the late 1950s, he insulted a team of executives to such an extent that studio head Harry Cohen tore up the valuable contract in front of him.

On the set of From Hell to Texas, in 1957, he became involved in a famously-heated row with the Henry Hathaway, who was no fan of Hopper's style of "method acting", which he'd picked up from Marlon Brando. The dispute meant that a single scene took 15 hours, and more than 80 takes, to complete.

"His behaviour was just too erratic, so he was largely blacklisted by the film industry," says the biographer Robert Sellers, who chronicles Hopper's career in his forthcoming book Hollywood Hellraisers. "In some ways, he was a total professional. For example, he would always turn up on time, even when he was off his face on cocaine or LSD. But in others, he was just far too difficult. So he struggled throughout the 1960s, and was forced to pursue his other career, as a photographer."

Even after the unlikely success of Easy Rider, which was put together in a haze of drink and drugs (Hopper and Peter Fonda are famously said to have smoked 155 marijuana joints while filming its campfire scene) he again squandered his career prospects, deciding to spend the proceeds from the film on a house in Taos, New Mexico, which he turned into a hippie commune.

For most of the next decade, Hopper and a revolving cast of friends devoted their days to drink and drugs. He later recalled snorting lines of cocaine "the size of a fountain pen" and he put his daily consumption of mind-altering substances at half a gallon of rum (with a spare quarter bottle in case he ran out), 28 beers, and three grammes of cocaine.

During the 1970s, he also got through three wives, including Brooke Hayward, who later accused him of attacking her after an argument about his habit of disappearing for days on end at drug-fuelled orgies; and Michelle Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas, to whom he was married for the grand total of eight days.

By the time Hopper arrived on the set of Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now, he'd also dispensed with third wife Daria Halprin. More pressingly, after two straight decades of partying and drug abuse, he was emotionally fragile and appeared to be on the verge of death.

"Coppola took one look at him, and asked if there was anything he could do to help him get through the movie," adds Sellers. "Dennis said yes: about an ounce of cocaine a day. They managed to find someone who could get hold of that for him, and the film eventually was made." The blizzard of cocaine did nothing to improve Hopper's state of mind, however. Increasingly paranoid, he began suffering from panic attacks that saw him attempt suicide by blowing himself up with dynamite. He finally entered a drug rehabilitation programme in 1983, after being found wandering naked around woods in Mexico.

After eventually drying out Hopper produced arguably his best work as both an actor, and a director, and a photographic artist. He was nominated for an Oscar for Hoosiers in 1986, and a Golden Globe for Blue Velvet the same year. In 1988, he directed the critically-acclaimed Colors.

In more than 50 films since then, he has cemented his standing as one of Hollywood's most prolific elder statesmen, and with Jack Nicholson and Liz Taylor, is one of the last surviving stars of a glamorous generation.

Whether his continual output of new material reflects a soaring artistic ambition, or merely Hopper's need to replenish his bank balance is unclear: a fourth costly divorce, in which he lost many of his collection of Andy Warhol paintings, saw him split from Katherine La Nasa in 1992.

But since marrying Duffy, Hopper's career has certainly enjoyed an Indian summer. In a typically-robust move, he responded to news of his cancer diagnosis last year by signing on to play a record producer called Ben Cendars in 25 episodes of the US television series Crash.

To fans, it was a reminder that, given Hopper's tumultuous past and complicated present, each day he remains with us is a bonus, "Did I ever expect to reach 70? Hell, I never expected to see 30," he once said. "And when I did hit 30, 70 seemed off-the-charts old to me. It's a miracle I'm still here."

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