Hopper Still Plays “Easy Rider”
My first official act after taking the film critic job at the Tampa Tribune in 1979 was to fly to New York, see “Apocalypse Now” before it came out, and interview director Francis Coppola and many of the film’s actors. Dennis Hopper turned out to be a surprise, but he gave a great interview. And he agreed, with much coaxing and arm-pulling to stand for a kind of “Midnight Cowboy’ photograph in front of the Warwick Hotel, where we were staying for the interviews. Hopper wouldn’t walk the streets of New York, like John Voight had done in cowboy hat, boots and jeans in the movie version of “Midnight Cowboy.” But he did stand in front of the hotel’s front doors, looking appropriately paranoid about being a country boy in the Big City. When I asked Hopper why he wouldn’t walk in the street, he said, “Hey, man, I’m not going out there and walk around. Those people will kill me, man.” I took one quick picture, which you’ll find on this page. After reading the interview, his phobia might be a little more understandable.
Tampa Tribune, Oct. 12, 1979
By Greg Tozian
Tribune Staff Writer
NEW YORK — If there’s one thing actor-writer-director Dennis Hopper has in 1979 it’s plenty of time. In fact, time is something the veteran film star doesn’t need any more of.
The ex-darling of the freestyle “sixties” film movement — who made an instant but not quite indelible mark on the American psyche with his directorial debut in “Easy Rider” — understands time too well.
In his quarter century as an actor he has made 15 films, only five of those in the past 10 years. And since his last job, Hopper has had three long years to stare at somersaulting tumbleweeds on the choked flatlands isolating his Taos, New Mexico ranch.
It’s left him with time now to waste and wait.
He waits in a territory best known for raising beef cattle and cotton and rattlers; a place about 50 miles south of Colorado, just the other side of the universe from Hollywood.
“I’m waiting two and a half years and nobody’s come to me (with a job offer),” Hopper said recently in his peculiar, staccato style of talking. The 44-year-old actor stared down a cocktail glass of Coke and “something,” swirling the ice and booze in random circles.
“I love my work. I know how to do it well. I don’t even care if people like what I do, but I know how to do my work,” Hopper says. He suddenly looks up wide-eyed from beneath the brim of his black 10-gallon hat.
Then, as if he’s just hit upon something totally new, he adds, “Well then, let me be a professional. And let me prove it.”
The actor’s words come fast and slow and sometimes he starts to speak and the words just won’t come at all.
Hopper is sitting for this private interview in a second-floor dining room in the swank Warwik Hotel, in the heart of Manhattan. Thirty minutes before, he had been part of the a jam-packed press conference for “Apocalypse Now,” Francis Coppola’s long-awaited Vietnam War epic and one of two films Hopper has made in the last three years. The other movie, Wim Wenders’ moody, Hitchcockian and little-seen color Noir, “The American Friend,” had a short run in selected theaters a couple of years ago and then died. Hopper is the only one among 200 press hounds, actors, movie flaks and hangers-on in the hotel today that is dressed in cowboy clothes.
In “Apocalypse Now,” he plays a nameless, aimless photo journalist living among the squalor of a renegade commando camp in the jungles of Cambodia. The camp is the domain of an insane, god-like Green Beret officer (played by Marlon Brando).
Hooper’s character is one of a mass of “Moonie” styled followers: a stoned, unwashed, Nikon-wielding, over-aged hippie as far away from reality as he is from Anytown, USA.
Some critics have already observed, in reviews of “Apocalypse,” that Hopper seems to be living in an artistic — if not personal — time warp. He plays the same kind of “oh, wow, man” drug-crazy caricature in this latest film as he did 10 years ago in “Easy Rider.”
Some say those two performances are so alike because Dennis Hopper the actor is just playing Dennis Hopper. Period.
Whether you believe that or not, similarities do exist between the man and his characters.
At times during the interview, Hopper answers questions directly, seeming to care that he “relates.” But those relevant moments seem as infrequent as the number of recent Hopper movie parts.
Most of the time, he rambles, picking up on a question about his “drug days” or singing the praises of the primitive, head-hunting Ifuago tribesmen, who are cast as extras in “Apocalypse,” and with whom Hopper lived for months during the filming.
In one 10-minute-long tirade on his drug experiences Hopper claims he is an alcoholic.
“I’ve done all the drugs there are,” he says matter-of-factly. “I’m one-quarter Apache, my great-grandfather was Geronimo. I was in on peyote meetings when I was 13.
“Peyote is like eating a flower, so everything sort of flows and blows. And you know, acid is like eating an IBM machine, where everything goes ‘zzzzzzzz …,’” Hopper says finally, wiggling his fingers wildly in circles around his head, to simulate tangled wiring. In the room, some nearby press people laugh at Hopper, and he laughs back with (or at?) them.
About the 250 Ifuago savages he lived among, Hopper says they were “the sweetest people I ever saw, and they were headhunters.
“They were headhunters. They were sweet, sweet, sweet people. They put their heads on their houses,” Hopper said, starting a minute-long monologue on the native tribe’s “head-cutting” customs. There are horror stories about Hopper’s refusal to bathe — in a sort of Method Acting manner — during the tedious months while shooting with the tribesmen in the jungle. The other actors reportedly wouldn’t go near him unless they had to act in a scene with Hopper.
In those infrequent times during the conference, when Hopper consented to talk about the film industry, he did so bitterly. The man who — as much as any other actor and director — made a reputation as a rebel working outside the system in the ‘60s, now curses the industry or not giving him a fair shot.
“Let me tell you if you fuck the system … they pat you on the back and congratulate you. ‘Hey great, terrific,’” he said, mocking the studio moguls’ rap. “And then the next movie you make, it’s not distributed.”
Hopper feels he was burned, pure and simple, on the distribution of “The Last Movie,” the experimental, semi-autobiographical film he made two years after “Easy Rider.” It was his second and last job as a director.
“I won the Venice Film Festival with ‘The Last Movie,’ Hopper said quickly.
“And what did they say to me when I brought back the Venice Film Festival? They only American ever to win it since Buster Keaton? I came back like I’d won the World Series, man.
“I said, ‘hey,.’ And they said ‘we must have bought it.’ I said, ‘you didn’t buy it, man.’ And they said, ‘The only good artist is a dead artist.’”
Hopper now owns “The Last Movie” lock, 35-millimeter film stock and barrel and hopes to get the little-seen 8-year-old film back in distribution himself.
He is also hoping to put together a film called “Honky Tonk Heroes” — a modern western he wants to write, direct and star in — based on the lyrics of a popular Waylon Jennings country song. But he doesn’t know where he will get the backing to carry out that film project.
“What are you gonna do, hang yourself?” Hopper says, seemingly to himself.
“If you really love what you do, it’s hard to sit in a bar and wait for somebody to call.
“I’d like to have some of those kinds of parts, so I could prove myself as an actor. I haven’t had the parts, man … the ones I would have like to have had. I mean like Bogart had.”