Meeting Dennis Hopper

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Dave Calhoun recalls his meeting with the late Hollywood wildman, Dennis Hopper

It was February 2001, just weeks after George W Bush became US president for the first time, that I spent a morning with Dennis Hopper in Amsterdam. The 64-year-old actor-director was in the Dutch city to present a show of his artwork at the city’s Stedelijk museum.

He began our interview – it was 9am on a weekday – by knocking back a frightening bunch of pills, vitamins, dietary supplements, that kind of thing. We were sitting round a little table in his suite in one of the city’s best hotels and he took one of those little glass bottles of mineral water in one hand, a bag of pills in the other and poured both into his mouth at the same time, swallowing them in just a few gulps. I expressed some surprise and he just shrugged and laughed that crazy laugh. He looked good then. He had already grown the goatee he wore in his last years and shed the stocky look he carried in the 1980s and '90s in films like ‘Blue Velvet’ and ‘Speed’. He looked thin and distinguished.

He had some grumbles about how times had changed. ‘I was at a party the other night in Los Angeles with friends and we had to go outside and smoke, like naughty boys,’ he moaned. He was more than happy to reminisce about old times. He had agreed to an interview because I was working on an issue of a magazine dedicated to the theme of rebellion. He liked that. He liked being called a rebel by a younger generation. He wasn’t embarrassed by it. He embraced it. It appealed to his vanity and his myth. He didn’t even wince when I repeated stories from Peter Biskind’s ‘Easy Riders, Raging Bulls’, which had been published just a few years earlier and had packaged all the old tales about him blowing himself up, snorting sacks of cocaine and tying one of his wives to a radiator. He seemed proud of them.

But by 2001 he also had at least one eye on his legacy as an artist. He explained how he’d been taking photos and making art almost as long as he’d been an actor. In Los Angeles in the mid-1960s, he had carried a camera everywhere and his surviving photos chronicle the city’s art scene at the time, featuring artists like Ed Ruscha. He spoke about his paintings too, but he was dreadful at explaining them. If I remember rightly, he just mumbled something about abstract expressionism and left it at that.

Riding a lift with him down to the street after spending an hour talking in his room, I asked him who he had voted for in the recent election. ‘Bush,’ he said, proudly. There was a pause as I nodded politely. At the time I was shocked to hear that this man who had been a living symbol of the counterculture – ‘Easy Rider’, ‘The Last Movie’, ‘Apocalypse Now’ and all that – had voted for Bush. In retrospect, I suppose Bush in 2001 wasn’t the Bush we know now, post-9/11, post-Iraq, but still… Yet, somehow, it made sense. Hopper was a give-a-fuck individualist – a lone rider in Hollywood and a lone rider in his personal life, too, if all those stories of drink, drugs, retreats to Mexico, thumping wives and messy divorces are to be believed. Of course he was a Republican. They say he voted for Barack Obama in 2008, and that doesn’t sound like such a contradiction either. If one thing unites Obama and Bush, it’s that they positioned themselves, however craftily, outside the system. It was a place where Hopper felt most comfortable.

We walked through Amsterdam after the interview. He was heading to the Stedelijk to continue preparations for his show and I said I’d keep him company on the way. As someone who had lived in Los Angeles for most of his life, he was dreadful at negotiating European streets and traffic. He was nothing short of paranoid when crossing the road and I remember laughing at him and him turning a bit testy in return. At one point, I was walking in the gutter alongside the canal and he was on the pavement and grabbed my arm when he heard a car coming behind me. He was nervy and funny. Good company. A gentleman and a survivor.

Author: Dave Calhoun



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