Book review: Dennis Hopper bio follows Hollywood rebel's journey

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It was the dream of every aspiring young actor. Following a powerful 1955 performance as an epileptic on the TV show "Medic," 19-year-old Dennis Hopper, a student of Shakespeare, was summoned by Harry Cohn, the autocratic and feared Columbia Pictures boss who was able to make or break careers. When Cohn told the young hopeful to lose the Shakespeare, Hopper's comeback, "go [expletive] yourself" became the opening salvo in a career and life characterized by hostile rebellion and upheaval, personal demons and cinematic brilliance. Tom Folsom's eccentric biography details all that and more.


By Tom Folsom
It! Books ($26.99).

Mr. Folsom charts Hopper's childhood from Dodge City, Kan., to San Diego, where that passion for acting led him from local theater to "Medic" and to minor roles in "Rebel Without a Cause" and "Giant." James Dean, the star of both movies, became Hopper's friend and mentor until his untimely death in a 1955 car crash. Hopper's obsession with his friend never really ended. Following Dean's example, Hopper studied the self-directed technique of Method Acting with Lee Strasberg, delved into photography and -- encouraged by actor Vincent Price -- became an art connoisseur as well.

Hopper ended up blackballed when he invoked the Method approach to defy director Henry Hathaway while shooting the 1958 B Western "Hell to Texas." Film roles were few after that, but his photography skills landed him magazine work. Mr. Folsom ignores Hopper's many '60s TV guest shots such as his beatnik poet role on "Petticoat Junction." A forgiving Hathaway summoned Hopper to Mexico for John Wayne's 1964 Western "The Sons of Katie Elder." This time Hopper readily took direction, but it didn't prevent Wayne from suggesting he "get off that loco weed."

Working with Peter Fonda in the low-budget LSD-theme picture "The Trip" led to "Easy Rider," the era's defining counterculture film. "Easy Rider" was a collaboration among writer Terry Southern, Mr. Fonda and Hopper (who directed). They portrayed Harley-riding hippies rambling the West and an increasingly hostile South, briefly joined by a then-unknown Jack Nicholson.

In the end both Mr. Fonda and Hopper are shotgunned off their bikes by a Louisiana redneck offended by their long hair. Mr. Folsom ably chronicles the off-screen madness, including Hopper's shameful refusal to give Southern, who did much of the creative work, a fair financial share. His enmity with his co-star never ended. Mr. Fonda was turned away from Hopper's funeral.

"Easy Rider's" huge profits and critical acclaim attuned studios to the youth movement and imbued Hopper with drug-fueled megalomania as he tackled his cinematic obsession -- the bizarre, undisciplined "The Last Movie." Mr. Folsom ably details the production of this surreal tale about filming a Western in Peru and dealing with local inhabitants.

A study in self-indulgence, Hopper was soon in trouble with both the locals and the studio. Nonetheless, he vowed to avoid the fate of Orson Welles, of "Citizen Kane" fame. Ceding control of his second film, "The Magnificent Ambersons," to the studio, Welles stood by helpless as executives drastically altered his ending. Hopper retained control of "Last Movie," but its incoherent plot alienated movie executives and the public.

Shattered by the failure and consuming mass quantities of cocaine and rum at his home in Taos, N.M., Hopper faced hippie-hating local Latinos. There was no "Easy Rider" ending this time. Hopper responded with hired thugs, assault weapons and occasional violence.

Of Hopper's minor film roles in the '70s, only one stood out -- the photojournalist in "Apocalypse Now." A 1983 stay in rehab led to creative redemption in offbeat films, among them "River's Edge," "Hoosiers" and, most notably, as the depraved and villainous Frank Booth in David Lynch's "Blue Velvet."

Mr. Folsom, the author of a book on New York gangster "Crazy" Joe Gallo, intended his wild, careening narrative to echo his subject's erratic life. It does, although the overheated prose occasionally interferes with his storytelling. He also glosses over more complex viewpoints, such as the Clint Eastwood-style libertarianism that led Hopper to support President George W. Bush's 2004 re-election, although he backed Barack Obama in 2008.

Mr. Folsom also gives short shrift to Mr. Hopper's extended battle with the prostate cancer that killed him in 2010. Careful editing would have helped in spots. The presidential candidate who visited Mr. Hopper in Taos was not Eugene McGovern but George McGovern.

Orson Welles lost his mojo. When he paid the bills later in life by starring in pretentious wine commercials, it underscored how far the mighty auteur had fallen. Dennis Hopper was more fortunate. When he made irreverent Nike commercials in the '90s, the world saw them as just one more offbeat Dennis Hopper idea. Flaws and all "Hopper" demonstrates how he got away with it all.

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Music historian and critic Rich Kienzle records the "Believe Your Ears" podcast and writes the Get Rhythm blog for the Post-Gazette.


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