Dennis Hopper: Not such an easy ride!


When the American Cinematheque’s Egyptian Theatre kicks off its “Widescreen Wednesdays” series this week with a terrific James Dean double bill, 1955’s “East of Eden” and “Rebel Without a Cause,” it will take on more poignancy because of the death of Dennis Hopper, who made his big-screen debut in “Rebel Without a Cause.”

Hopper, then 18, had received nice reviews in early 1955 after playing a young epileptic in the medical series “Medic” and was cast as one of the high school gang members who plagued Dean in “Rebel.” (As soon as “Rebel” wrapped, Hopper landed a much bigger role in “Giant,” Dean’s final film before this death.)

Although I never met Hopper, I talked to him on the phone a few times, including a decade ago when six surviving stars of “Rebel” reunited for a screening at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Hopper told me he thought he was “the best young actor around” until he saw Dean on the set of “Rebel. He told Dean: “I don’t have a clue what you are doing, but I know how great you are. What should I do? Should I stop my contract [at Warner Bros.] and go study with Lee Strasberg in New York?”

Dean took him aside and gave him advice: “He said you have got to start doing things and not showing them. He said don’t have any preconceived ideas about how the scene is going to play. Just go on a moment-to-moment reality level, and don’t presuppose anything.”

Hopper also related that Dean was standoffish toward him on “Rebel.” It wasn’t until “Giant” that they became friends.

“He was really into his work and acting,” Hopper recalled. “I was 18, and he was five years older. That is really a big difference. His whole life was acting. Some days, he would come in, and you would say ‘hello’ to him, and he’d walk right by you. He was totally concentrated on what he was doing. Other days, he was open and gracious.”

A look at his career:

Mr. Hopper first won praise in Hollywood as a teenager in 1955 for his portrayal of an epileptic on the NBC series “Medic” and for a small part in the James Dean film “Rebel Without a Cause.”

He confirmed his status as a rising star the next year, as the son of a wealthy rancher played by Rock Hudson in “Giant,” the epic western also starring Elizabeth Taylor and Dean.

Soon he was traveling in social circles with Dean and was linked romantically with Natalie Wood and Joanne Woodward.

But success as a Hollywood star brought with it a growing hubris, and in 1958 Mr. Hopper found himself in a battle of wills with the director Henry Hathaway on the set of “From Hell to Texas.”

The story has several versions; the most common is that his refusal to play a scene in the manner that the director requested resulted in Mr. Hopper’s stubbornly performing more than 80 takes before he finally followed orders.

Upon wrapping the scene, Mr. Hopper later recalled, Mr. Hathaway told him that his career in Hollywood was finished.

He soon left for New York, where he studied with Lee Strasberg for several years, performed on stage and acted in more than 100 episodes of television shows.

It was not until after his marriage in 1961 to Brooke Hayward — who, as the daughter of Leland Hayward, a producer and agent, and Margaret Sullavan, the actress, was part of Hollywood royalty — that Mr. Hopper was regularly offered film roles again.

He wrangled small parts in big studio films like “The Sons of Katie Elder” (1965) — directed by his former nemesis Henry Hathaway — as well as “Cool Hand Luke” (1967) and “Hang ’Em High” (1968).

Actor Dennis Hopper died at his home in Venice Beach  last Saturday morning from complications of prostate cancer, according to a family friend.

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