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Dennis Hopper, Jack Nicholson, and Peter Fonda in a scene from Easy Rider

Anarchic Actor, Artist Dennis Hopper, 1936-2010.

Fresh Air remembers the iconic screen actor, who starred in such films as Easy Rider, Hoosiers and Apocalypse Now. Hopper sat down with Terry Gross in both 1990 and 1996 to discuss his film career, his battle with drugs and his career as an artist.



Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
Anarchic Actor, Artist Dennis Hopper, 1936-2010


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Today we remember Dennis Hopper.

(Soundbite of film, "Blue Velvet")

Mr. DENNIS HOPPER (Actor): (As Frank Booth) We're giving our neighbor a
joyride. Let's get on with it. Anyone want to go on a joyride with us? How
about you?

GROSS: That's Dennis Hopper in the 1986 film "Blue Velvet," directed by David
Lynch, who described Hopper as sort of the perfect American dangerous hero.

"Blue Velvet" was one of Hopper's comeback films. A few years before that, he'd
been institutionalized - paranoid and totally disoriented from years of drugs
and alcohol.

As a fan, I'm really grateful he was able to have that second part of his
career, which began with him playing crazed characters in films like "Blue
Velvet," "River's Edge," "Red Rock West" and "Speed." Hopper died Saturday of
metastasized prostate cancer. He was 74.

Early in his career, he was in two defining films about youth culture: "Rebel
Without a Cause," in which he had a small part, and "Easy Rider," which he
directed and starred in with Peter Fonda. While Hopper was still using drugs,
he played a drug-addled photojournalist in "Apocalypse Now."

We're going to hear excerpts of two interviews I recorded with Hopper, starting
with the first, from 1990. We began by talking about Hopper's role in "Blue
Velvet" as Frank Booth, a crazy, dangerous character. Hopper said that when he
read the script, he told director David Lynch, I am Frank.

Mr. HOPPER: I really understood Frank. I didn't have a problem with Frank. I
understood – I just understood him, and I called David. I'd never met David,
and he'd given me the part, and I called him. He was down in North Carolina
already, they had begun filming, and I said, you don't have to worry about
this. I am, I am Frank. I really understand this role.

So he got off the phone, and he told Isabella and Kyle MacLachlan and Laura
that – he said, my God, I just got off the phone with Dennis Hopper, and he
said he was Frank. He said that may be great for the movie, but how are we
going to have lunch with him?

But I just – I really meant that I understood the role, and I do understand
Frank. And I've known Frank. I've known a lot of guys like Frank.

GROSS: Did you think that you were like Frank at some point in your life?

Mr. HOPPER: Well, I understood his sexual obsession, you know, and I – even
though David wrote it, the stuff that he was sniffing as helium, I had always
thought of it as some sort of drug, you know, like an amyl nitrate or a nitric
oxide. And I asked David if it would be all right to play it that way.

He had helium on the set, and helium, all helium does, it doesn't disorient
your mind. All it does is make you sound like Daffy Duck. So I tried it, and I
said, David, I'm really aware – I'm just hearing my voice. I'm not, you know,
able to act. I said, I want something – couldn't I try to use something that,
like, disoriented my mind? And he said what? And I said, think, what's this,
and I'd do a sense memory of an amyl nitrate, a nitric oxide or something. He
said what are those things? I said just watch.

So anyway, he liked what he saw, and I said if you want to dub that voice in
the helium voice in later, we could do that. And he said no, I don't think
it'll be necessary.

Anyway, we didn't dub it in later, and it did work. But you know, since then, I
started thinking how strange it would be if I had used that helium voice and
not had it disorient my mind. What a strange character he had actually written,
even more strange than my portrayal of Frank.

GROSS: Yeah, I see what you mean.

Mr. HOPPER: You know, it would've just been this guy who takes this, that does
this mask and gets this weird voice and then does all those things, and nothing
else happens to him. It would be very bizarre.

But anyway, because when I read it, I thought of it that way, of the drug, kind
of drug-crazed guy and the sexual kind of strange appetite that he had, I could
identify with those things.

GROSS: Do you like roles with the kind of intensity that your performance has
on the character of Frank?

Mr. HOPPER: Well, like, you know, I think that probably, of all the work that
I've done, Frank is probably the flashiest role I ever had. And I like it on
that level.

GROSS: When you were young, you got a scholarship to the National Shakespeare
Festival. Did you want to do classical theater?

Mr. HOPPER: Yeah, I did it, and I wanted to do it. I was – I wanted to become a
great actor, and at that time, the great actors were Shakespearean actors, the
ones who were thought of in the theater. I wasn't able to get into movies, so
in the theater were classical actors. So I got involved in classical theater,

GROSS: Your first movie role was in "Rebel Without a Cause." You were, I think,
18 years old. Did the movie help give you a sense of teenagers being their own
culture and their own misunderstood culture, or were you already feeling that

Mr. HOPPER: I went on that picture – when I went on that picture, I saw James
Dean for the first time, act. And at that point, all I was concerned about was
being an actor. I wasn't concerned about, like, you know, whether people were
juvenile delinquents or not.

I had sort of come out of that, out of San Diego and Tijuana and that kind of
area, but I was interested in acting. And I saw James Dean act, and I –
basically, through "Rebel Without a Cause," I was just trying to figure out
what he was doing because I thought I was the best young actor at that time in
the world, and I suddenly ran into this guy, who was some years older than me,
but he was doing work that was so far over my head, I had to – I actually
grabbed him on the chickie run and threw him into a car and said, what are you
doing? You've got to teach me what you're doing.

GROSS: So what did he teach you?

Mr. HOPPER: He wanted to know what my motivation was for wanting to act, you
know. And he asked me if I had had a problem with my parents and if I had
actually hated my parents and that that was part of the drive that I had to
want to become an actor.

And I said that actually I had felt that. And he said, well, that's what he
felt also, and that his mother died when he was very young, and he used to go
to her grave and cry on her grave and say mother, why have you left me, why
have you left me, and that turned into I'm gonna show you. I'm gonna show you.
I'm gonna be someone. And that was the drive that he had brought into his
acting, which I described the same sort of feelings, that I was misunderstood
by my parents and that I had that feeling when they came to the theater that I
was going to show them. It was, like, yeah, I'm gonna show you. I'm gonna be
something. I'm gonna be an actor.

So this drive, this confused kind of drive and wanting to put it into other
people's – other parts and other things and these feelings, to use them in some
sort of imaginary, given circumstance, became the key for acting.

But anyway, he said you must learn how to not worry about the emotions, but you
must learn how to do things and not show them. You must learn how to smoke a
cigarette, and just not act smoking a cigarette. You must learn how to drink a
drink, not act drinking the drink.

And if somebody knocks on the door, you go and answer the door. Then you see
they have a gun in their hand. Then you react to the gun and so on. So
basically, it's, like, don't indicate, do something and don't show it. And
moment-to-moment reality, never anticipate what the next moment's going to

And so, like, you know, he said, and you're a very good technical actor. So get
rid of all that technique, though. Stop the line readings. Don't worry about
how it's going to come out. Just let it come out. Work on a moment-to-moment
reality level.

GROSS: Stop the line reading. So what did you stop doing?

Mr. HOPPER: Well, I mean, like, you know, I was out of a classical theater
background. So, I mean, there were ways of reading lines. You know, I mean,
even hello, how are you became a way of reading a line. So there's a lot of
ways to say hello, how are you besides one fixed way that you decide in your
room somewhere that that's the way you're going to say hello, how are you?

GROSS: Was James Dean the first friend that you had who died? I mean, like
someone of around your age?

Mr. HOPPER: Yeah, I mean, there had been – yeah, I would think, yeah.

GROSS: Did it scare you a lot to have someone...?

Mr. HOPPER: Well, it was more – I mean, more than a friend, I think of him more
as a teacher than as a friend. We did two films together, which took about a
year of our lives. He only made three movies. We did "Rebel Without a Cause"
and then "Giant," and then he died two weeks before we finished shooting

So I was, like, 19. He was 24. It was more – we dealt with acting. We talked
about acting. It wasn't like we went out and drank beers together and got high
or, like, raced cars or anything.

When he died, it just destroyed me because I totally had this belief in destiny
and how people are destined, you know, to be – to fill, to fulfill their
destiny, you know, and I just couldn't understand why James Dean had died so

He wanted to direct movies. He'd only been in three movies. And I – it just
destroyed my whole concept of destiny, life and that kind of thing for years. I
mean, probably still to this day, it still bothers me. I miss him. I wish I'd
have seen his work.

GROSS: We're listening back to a 1990 interview with Dennis Hopper. He died
Saturday at the age of 74. We'll hear more of the interview after we take a
short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Let's get back to our 1990 interview with Dennis Hopper. I have to ask
you about "Easy Rider," the 1969 film that you co-wrote, directed and starred
in. You had done some work with Roger Corman. Peter Fonda had done some biker-
type movies and acid-trip movies with Corman. Did you see this as an
exploitation film, or did you want it to be a movie in the spirit of the

Mr. HOPPER: You're talking about...?

GROSS: "Easy Rider," yeah.

Mr. HOPPER: Yeah, I didn't really – I wasn't really thinking about either one
of those things. I wanted to win the Cannes Film Festival. I wanted it to be an
art film.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. HOPPER: The counter-culture was becoming the culture at that time. So I
thought I was making a film for everyone. What I did was I showed people
smoking marijuana without going out and killing a bunch of nurses for the first
time, and I, you know, and I used the music of the day as a time capsule kind
of thing, rather than writing a score for a movie. It was the first time
individual songs had been used for a film.

The editing of the cemetery sequence was, like, a lot of, like, you know,
experimental films that I'd seen of the day, Bruce Conner in particular. I'd
used a lot of, like, kind of cutting that I'd seen on television for television

We now look at MTV, but if you realize that these, that those rides that I
edited to the music, to Jimi Hendrix and to The Byrds and to Dylan and so on
were all – those were the first MTV kind of things, music video kind of things
that were ever done.

GROSS: Were you already doing a lot of drugs when you made "Easy Rider," and
was that out of control at all?

Mr. HOPPER: There was a lot of smoking of grass on that picture. Grass made me
paranoic(ph), and I didn't do it. I mean, I would do it – I did it, like, for
the scene where Peter and Jack and I are all smoking marijuana, and we see the
space people, or Jack talks about space people and so on.

But most of the time, I didn't smoke it, only because it made me paranoic. But
I drank. I was a drinker. I was a classic drinker in the great tradition out of
John Huston, Howard Hawks, John Ford and Dennis Hopper. Now, I was an
alcoholic, and I was never a great – I was never a big pot smoker. Even though
I smoked pot a great deal in my life, I didn't do it while I worked.

GROSS: What were your paranoid fantasies that it would bring out, or what form
of paranoia would it bring out in you?

Mr. HOPPER: Well, I, just, it would interfere with the work, and nothing that I
did that interfered with the work – the work was on – the only thing that was
important to me. People, like, came to Paul Lewis and I...

GROSS: The producer.

Mr. HOPPER: Yeah, a few years ago – Paul was also the production manager on
"Easy Rider," and all the films that I've made, he's been with me, "The Last
Movie" and so on. And so people came and said how could you have done "The Last
Movie" doing all that cocaine and so on. We didn't have any cocaine on "Easy
Rider." We just made it popular. That was baking soda that I choose to use in
"Easy Rider."

But anyway, but I went to Peru, and I made a movie called "The Last Movie,"
which I won the Venice Film Festival with, which was never distributed, it's a
long story. But we used a lot of cocaine on that movie, and people said how
could you make a movie and drink and use cocaine and smoke grass and so on?

And Paul said, are you serious? We were making movies. You know, it wasn't
anything – if somebody had said you can't have any drugs, you know, you have to
make the movie, we'd have made the movie. Nobody said you can't have any drugs,
and we weren't doing anything that interfered with what we thought was our
work. So, like, it was always the work. The work was the most important thing,
and the drugs and the alcohol and all those things are secondary to it.

And we never – and I always measured it out, and, you know, if I was getting
too drunk, I'd do a little more cocaine, you know, and keep the work going.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HOPPER: So, like, you know, anyway, that was (unintelligible)...

GROSS: So how did it get to the point where you did so much drugs that you
ended up not working?

Mr. HOPPER: Well, I mean, there comes a point where, like, you know, if you're
not the most popular guy in the world and in demand, suddenly people start
looking at your behavior and then not wanting to work with you.

There are certain people that we don't have to name, but there are some very,
very big people that, like, never, it never interfered with their popularity,
and it never interfered with their careers - and some of our biggest stars.

So, you know, and I'm not advising people to use drugs or not to use drugs.
Drugs destroyed my life, but I probably would never have found out about it and
never gotten straight and never gotten into the trouble that I got into with
drugs and alcohol if my career had maintained a level where I was productive.

GROSS: I get the impression that you've been working really manically since
you've been straight.

Mr. HOPPER: I would have worked manically all my life if I would have been
allowed to.

GROSS: You mean if you got offered enough?

Mr. HOPPER: Yeah, I was never offered anything. So at a certain point, my using
and my drinking became who's coming out of the dressing room, which - what
Jekyll or Hyde. You know, what emotional roller coaster is he going to take us
on now? So, you know, that's what unfortunately drugs and alcohol did for me,
in my life, and my personal life was a shambles.

It never seemed to hurt what went on the screen, but it was the process to
getting it on the screen that terrified people.

GROSS: There's a kind of, I think, pretty famous story about what happened, an
incident that happened in your early career, and you were working – you were
working on a movie that Henry Hathaway was directing, and he was trying to get
you to do the scene the way he wanted to. You had your own way of wanting to do

And I think this went on for, like, 12 hours or something of you doing takes
and him insisting that you do it his way. And then he finally won. And I think,
because of your rebelliousness, that you were pretty much exiled from Hollywood
for a while. Is that right?

Mr. HOPPER: Yeah, for a long time, until he rehired me again.

GROSS: So he rehired you again?

Mr. HOPPER: Yes, seven or eight years later.

GROSS: So did you end up doing a lot of TV in that period?

Mr. HOPPER: Yeah.

GROSS: I recently saw you on the "The Rifleman." I think it was the first

Mr. HOPPER: Right, you know, Sam Peckinpah wrote the pilot of "The Rifleman,"
which I did.

GROSS: It was the pilot I saw, okay. So I'm wondering, you know, now that
you're directing again, if you ever see yourself in the Henry Hathaway role of
really wanting the actor to do it your way?

Mr. HOPPER: I don't see myself any other way.

GROSS: You mean...?

Mr. HOPPER: Did I hear a pause?


(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HOPPER: Did you hear a pin drop?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HOPPER: No, I'm the director. So I want them to do it my way.

GROSS: So if you saw the young Dennis Hopper coming in, and he insisted on
doing it his way, what would've happened?

Mr. HOPPER: I would've probably been amazing by the young Dennis Hopper and let
him do it his way.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HOPPER: But I would never let him know that he was doing it – I mean, I
would've, like, I would've given him plenty of space to do it his way. Hathaway
didn't. But if it comes down to doing it my way, I mean, it's got to be my way.
But, like, I give actors a lot of room to work. I mean, I never had a problem
with Sean Penn. I never had a problem with Robert Duvall.

I had problems with Don Johnson, but I don't have problems seeing what I got on
the screen with Don Johnson because we worked it out, and he did it my way.

The director is the boss, and that's just the way it is. So Hathaway, I learned
that from Hathaway. Also, I learned a lot of things from Hathaway. I did three
films for Hathaway. He was the boss, and the director is the boss, and if you –
if you're in a director's movie, and you don't do what the director wants you
to do, you might as well – it doesn't matter how good you are. You don't – you
look like you're out of step with everybody else, and you might as well just
hang it up right there because there's no sense fighting him.

GROSS: Dennis Hopper, recorded in 1990. We'll hear our 1996 interview in the
second half of the show. Here's Hopper in a scene from the Vietnam War film
"Apocalypse Now." Hopper played a crazed photojournalist. In this scene, he's
talking to the Martin Sheen character, Lieutenant Willard, who's in a cage in
the jungle, held captive by the renegade colonel was sent to find. I'm Terry
Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of film, "Apocalypse Now")

Mr. HOPPER: (As Photojournalist) He likes you because you're still alive. He's
got plans for you.

Mr. HOPPER: (As Photojournalist) No, no, I'm not going to help you. You're
going to help him, man. You're going to help him. I mean, what are they going
to say, man, when he's gone, huh? If he dies, when it dies, man, when it dies,
he dies, what are they gonna say about him? What, are they gonna say he was a
kind man, he was a wise man? He had plans? He had wisdom? (BEEP), man.

Am I gonna be the one that's gonna set him straight, look at me wrong?

(Soundbite of helicopter)

(Soundbite of song, "The End")

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. We're remembering the mesmerizing
actor Dennis Hopper. He died Saturday at the age of 74 of metastasized prostate
cancer. Hopper played a lot of crazed characters. But when I recorded my second
interview with him in 1996, he was playing against type in the film "Carried
Away." He starred as the schoolteacher a small rural community living on a
broken down farm with his mother.

Now you grew up in Dodge City, Kansas, at least that's where you spent the
early years of your life. Did any of the characters in the movie remind you of
anyone you knew growing up?

Mr. HOPPER: Oh yeah. Well, my great uncles, they wore bib overalls until they
rotted off of them. They were wheat...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HOPPER: They were wheat farmers and I used to milk the cow before I went to
school in the mornings so...

GROSS: Were there big town scandals when you were growing up?

Mr. HOPPER: Hmm. Well, I mean Dodge City was - we were still trying to live up
to the old days when Bat Masterson and Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp were there,
you know? I just remember it was a dry state but if you’re old enough to get
your hand upon a bar they'd put a drink in it, so...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Really?

Mr. HOPPER: And fighting around the drive-in seemed to be a, I mean, not the
drive-in movies with the drive-in hamburger joint seemed to be the big thing to
do after football games. And I, you know, my mother managed the swimming pool
in Dodge City, Kansas so I had an active swimming life as a child and my
grandfather was a wheat farmer. So it was a good life.

GROSS: Well, was it fun to see movies about Dodge City living there?

Mr. HOPPER: Well, I remember Errol Flynn came to Dodge City when I was about
five years old. That was a big town, for the premier of, I think it was called
"Dodge City," I think, or "Fort Dodge" or whatever it was. It was in a movie
that Errol Flynn starred in with Olivia de Havilland. And anyway, they came
there. That probably had a lot to do with me eventually wanting to be an actor,
I think.

GROSS: Was that the only connection you saw between the movie world and your
own life?

Mr. HOPPER: Well, I mean I was raised at the end of the Dust Bowl so I used to
tell people the first light that I really saw was not from the sun but it was
from a movie projector.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HOPPER: Yeah. My grandmother used to - she didn’t drive a car so she used
to fill her apron. We lived about five miles outside of Dodge and so my
grandfather would go off to the farm in Garden City, which is 60 miles away. My
grandmother would fill her eggs full of apron on Saturday mornings...

GROSS: Fill her apron full of eggs?

Mr. HOPPER: Yeah and we'd walk into town she'd sell the eggs at the poultry
place and get the money and we'd go see a matinee and I'd see the Singing
Cowboys. Once in a while we'd see an Errol Flynn movie or a sword-fighting
buckling - sword-buckling movie. That's about it. I don’t really remember what
they were. But I knew - I wanted to know where they were making these movies.
And Kansas was a very flat place so I wanted to know where the trains were
going and yeah, what a mountain looked like, what a skyscraper looked like,
what the ocean looked like.

And years later, I thought that I think it's one of the reasons I became so
interested in the visual aspects of things because of that horizon line. When I
finally saw the ocean when I was 13 years old, I saw my first mountain when I
came to Colorado when I was 13 on the way to California. I was really
disappointed. My mountains that I'd imagined were so much bigger. Then I got to
California and I saw the ocean. It was the same horizon line that I'd seen in
the wheat field and I thought wow, this is not what I'd imagined, you know? I
don’t know what I thought. I thought you could see all the way to China or
something or it looked different or it would be a different angle. But it was
the same horizon line. And I think that - then I saw my first skyscraper and
not as big as I'd imagined. I always thought that like my imagination had been
developed quite...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HOPPER: ...was a little out of whack. You know, my buildings were bigger.
My mountains were bigger and the ocean was bigger in my imagination than in
reality and...

GROSS: But when you started taking photographs did you want the size of
buildings and the size of mountains to be as big as they had been in your
memory from movies, or did you want them to be as real as reality was even
though that was often disappointing?

Mr. HOPPER: Yeah. Well, you know, what I did was I became an actor when I was
18 years. I started acting at the Old Globe Theater in San Diego when I was 13
and doing Shakespeare and doing all that. So when I was 18 years old I moved
from San Diego to Los Angeles and in a short amount of time I got a contract at
Warner Brothers. I was still 18 years old. I had just graduated from high
school and I was now under contract to Warner Brothers and I was doing "Rebel
Without a Cause" and when I was 19 I did "Giant" with Rock Hudson, Elizabeth
Taylor and James Dean. So during that period of time everybody was
photographing me. So when I started taking photographs, which is in this period
of time, I'd already been a painter and I started taking photographs not of
people but of walls and of things where I had no depth of field. I would shoot
flat on so I had a painting surface, so I'd shoot flat on a wall or flat on
something and it would become like the surface of a painting. So that was my
early beginnings of photography in the early '50s.

And then I went to a Cartier-Bresson, "Decisive Moment" period when I came to
study with Lee Strasberg in New York, which is where you catch something in
action. Guys throwing a ball, it's just before he catches ball or somebody's
walking over puddle, which it's seeing he's got his foot up just before his
foot hits the water or whatever. It's a moment where you see that a still
camera when to push the shutter and when to catch that decisive moment that
will make it a photograph.

GROSS: When you were going through your "Decisive Moment" period as a

Mr. HOPPER: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...what were a couple of the decisive moments that you clicked the
shutter for?

Mr. HOPPER: Oh dear. Running through the time of my career of taking
photographs I was a lot of different places. I was at the free speech movement
in Berkeley. I was at hippie love-ins. I was - I marched with Martin Luther
King through the South. I was in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
And, you know, I was at the march on Washington in Selma to Montgomery and all
those things. So I covered, in that "Decisive Moment" period I covered
everything from attack dogs and, you know, biting us to a flower being handed
to Martin Luther King, you know, by a young girl.

GROSS: We're listening back to a 1996 interview with Dennis Hopper. He died
Saturday. We'll hear more of the interview after we take a short break. This is

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Let's get back to our 1996 interview with Dennis Hopper.

Now what was your first exposure to art? Was there any art around when you were
growing up?

Mr. HOPPER: Yeah, I don’t know. You know, I drew when I was a kid and I studied
at the Nelson Art Gallery on weekends. They had an underprivileged children's
art class.

GROSS: Were you an underprivileged child?

Mr. HOPPER: Well, I got in there. Yeah, I was, I slipped in. So at that time I
was in a drawing class and I was doing a little watercolor like I’d learned in
Dodge City and this man came up to me and he said, what are you doing? And I
said well, I'm painting this rock and river and so on. And he said well son, he
said, I don’t know how to tell you this but some day you’re going to have to
get tight and paint loose. And this man was - God, I'm trying to think of his
name. God, I just slipped his name right out. But he was Jackson Pollock's
teacher. He was, oh God, this is going to drive me crazy. Oh, Thomas Hart
Benton. Thomas Hart Benton, yeah. He taught me. He taught Pollock. Anyway, I
studied there and I found that I would go into the theater and draw the actors.

GROSS: The movie theater or stage theater?

Mr. HOPPER: Stage theater, where they were rehearsing plays and I'd sketch the
actors and so. So that was sort of my beginning of my art career. And when I
arrived in Los Angeles I had worked at La Jolla Playhouse and my friend, who
was my boss there, he was an interior designer and he was working with Mary
Price, Vincent Price's wife who was an interior designer. They had a kiln where
they did tile work at Vincent's house and I went up there and made some tiles
and that's where I saw - Vincent was an art collector - and that's where I saw
my first Franz Kline, my first Jackson Pollacks, my first de Koonings and so on
were at his house. And I'd been painting abstractly but I never really thought
that anybody really painted abstract until I saw these things. And so I started
doing work and I started showing with the painters around at that time. As a
matter of fact, Ed Kienholz was one of the artists that I worked with.

GROSS: Now it must've been interesting to be exposed to your first abstract art
through somebody's private collection as opposed to through a museum.

Mr. HOPPER: Yeah.

GROSS: Did that in a way encourage you to later become a collector? I mean
because it was part of how you were first exposed to it. I know you collect a
lot of art.

Mr. HOPPER: Yeah. Well, Vincent gave me a painting actually when I was about, I
was 19 or 20, Vincent gave me a small painting. I don’t even remember who it
was by now.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. HOPPER: And he said, I know that you’re probably going to be a collector so
let me start you off.

GROSS: Gee, how nice.

Mr. HOPPER: And then when I got my first money I did start collecting art and
so, it's like a compulsion. I was thinking about it the other day, I think
that, you know, I don’t have a formula where I go to the right dealer and buy
the right painting. I've been very fortunate to seem to have an eye. I bought
Andy Warhol's first "Soup Can" painting, hand painted for $70.

GROSS: When was it?

Mr. HOPPER: It was like 1963, I believe.

GROSS: But why did you want it? What spoke to you about the painting? What did

Mr. HOPPER: The first time America had an art form of its own was abstract
expressionism. We’d always imitated the Europeans before that and rather than
drawing a mountainous scene, I'm now going to draw a mountain or I'm going draw
a tree or I'm going draw this wonderful face of this person. Abstract
expressionist says we're going to use paint as paint. We're not going to draw
anything. We're going to make a brushstroke and that's going to be the
painting. And it's going to be action. It's going to be done with action so
we're not going to have time to think and preconceive a lot of stuff. We're
just going to use our motion and use the action of painting itself and make
that become the design and the pattern and then the motion of the canvas. And
so this changed the whole way that everybody looked at art and America suddenly
had its own art form.

And after you get into second and third generation, there's usually about 12 or
13 people who form the nucleus of a group - I mean in the abstract
expressionist. There was Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline and de Kooning and
Gottlieb and I don’t know, there's Motherwell and there are about 10 or 12 guys
and women. That's sort of the way it's been through the history of art, through
Dada and surrealism and they just suddenly crop up and all these people come
are suddenly painting abstractly. They didn’t have a meeting somewhere and said
let's all paint abstractly but for some reason they followed the history of art
and the next step seems to have been obvious to them and they started doing it.

GROSS: As somebody who was so attracted to abstraction, what interested you in
the idea of something representational of a real commercial object like the
"Soup Can?" Yeah.

Mr. HOPPER: Well, yeah that's what I'm really - I know I'm beating around the
bush. That's what I'm trying to get to. So at a certain point if you’re
collecting art or involved in it you suddenly see the third generation people
are now imitating. It's like looking at Remington or Russell, the great Western
painters and suddenly now you see Western artists imitating those things. It's
not original anymore. It's just an imitation. But when you have an original art
form like abstract expressionism, you get third generation abstract
expressionism imitating the first ones and trying to find their own way. The
critics started talking about what is the return to reality going to be? When
are we going to return to reality?

Now at that time there was a bunch of - a group of painters in San Francisco
called the Bay Area Figurative Painters and there was David Parks and Elmer
Bischoff and Richard Diebenkorn and Nathan Oliviera, whatever. And they were
using abstract expressionist terms and they were going back and using the
figure. And I looked at this and I said no, this is good painting, but this has
already been done. Soutine had done this before in France before abstract
expressionism. This couldn’t be the return to reality because you’re using old
forms to return to reality. It doesn’t make sense to me.

So when I saw my first "Soup Can" painting and I saw my first by Andy Warhol
and I saw my first cartoon paintings by Roy Lichtenstein and I saw the
billboard paintings of Rosenquist and I saw Oldenburg's giant hamburgers and so
on, I realized that this was a return to reality, that this was the comic book
and the soup can and the Coca-Cola bottle of Jasper Johns and so on.
Rauschenberg and these guys were coming to reality with a whole new set of
things. I mean before pop art as we know it, popular art, commercial art came
into being, the largest lithograph was just, you know, a two foot by three foot
piece of paper. Then suddenly we could use - there was Rosenquist and suddenly
we could do what commercial art could do. We can make lithographs the size of
billboards and Ed Kienholz showed us that we could take things off the wall and
we can rooms and environment, and Rosenquist took the square and the rectangle
and broke the surface for the first time in 1961, and suddenly we had different
shaped canvases and suddenly there was hard edge, and it went on and on. And it
was a wonderful, wonderful life I've had in art because I've seen so many
different things happen and develop.

GROSS: You’ve been collecting art for a long time. I think it was like in 1961
that your home burned down in a fire.

Mr. HOPPER: In the Bel-Air fire.

GROSS: Yeah. Now< did that discourage you from collecting? Because you lost, I
don’t know exactly what you lost, but I imagine just about everything you
owned. Though I know your photographs had been touring, had been in an
exhibition, so they were saved.

Mr. HOPPER: Saved. Yeah.

GROSS: But I think a lot of people would think, well, what's the point of
collecting when objects you own can be so ephemeral.

Mr. HOPPER: Yeah. Well, I lost over 300 of my own paintings. I had a studio in
the garage so it all burned down, so I lost all my paintings. I did have a
photographic show that night that opened, so my negatives for my photographs
were saved. In the house itself - I was married Brooke Hayward. Well, all I had
really at that time, my ex-wife Brooke lost all of her mother's, Margaret
Sullivan's furniture that she had in the house. And my father had fought with
Mao across China. He was in the OSS - Office of Strategic Services - and he had
been one of the people that took the surrender from the Japanese in Peiping and
then left them armed till Chiang Kai-shek come and take over so that Mao didn’t
take the country so quickly.

However, he did collect some things when he had this three month period at the
time that he was going back between Mao and the Japanese to get some artifacts
out of China, and he brought these beautiful tapestries and things that he had
brought back from the Second World War. Unfortunately, I lost all those in that
fire. And when I came out of the thing, the only painting my wife had at the
time was a Milton Avery and the only thing that I saved out of the house was
the Milton Avery. I carried it out on my back as the house was burning down. So
it gave us an opportunity, you know, when something - when you lose everything,
you have to start over again, and at that time is when I started collecting. I
had some money to like start collecting and I started buying pop art. Well, I
fell into it right at that moment.

I saw my first soup can painting. I saw my first Lichtensteins, and I bought a
soup can and I bought an Ed Kienholz, which is, he's at the Whitney now, if
anybody's interested in seeing his retrospective. But he was an assemblage
artist and there was mannequin. It was called "The Quickie" and it was a
mannequin - a woman's mannequin head on a roller skate and she had her arm up
and she was picking her nose and it was called "The Quickie." And so I bought
that and I bought that for $30 or something. And then I bought a big abstract
wood relief - black and white relief that Kienholz had also done for - I think
that was $75.

My agent came in and looked at these things, the soup can painting, this
mannequin on a roller skate picking her nose and this big wood black and white
construction abstract thing and he said, you’re wasting your life. You’re
wasting your wife's money and your money and if you don’t stop this foolishness
you’re going to have to look for another agent.


Mr. HOPPER: And that's when my agent and I parted.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HOPPER: I went on collecting. So that's funny.

GROSS: We're listening back to a 1996 interview with Dennis Hopper. He died
Saturday. We'll hear more of the interview after we take a short break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Let's get back to our 1996 interview with Dennis Hopper.

Now, Dennis Hopper, can I talk to you about music a little bit?

Mr. HOPPER: Sure.

GROSS: Has music played an important part in your life? Do you like music a lot
- listen a lot?

Mr. HOPPER: Oh yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: Now, you grew up in your early years before rock 'n' roll. What did you
listen to before rock 'n' roll?

Mr. HOPPER: (Singing) Marie the dawn is breaking. Marie, my heart is aching.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HOPPER: You know, something like that.

GROSS: This is the era of The Four Freshmen.

Mr. HOPPER: Yeah, right.

GROSS: No. Who am I thinking of, The Four Aces - The Four Aces.

Mr. HOPPER: Right. Exactly.

GROSS: Perry Como, Patti Page.

Mr. HOPPER: God, that's right.

GROSS: Could you tell the good from the bad then? I mean was there difference
to you between say, you know, Patti Page and Ella Fitzgerald?

Mr. HOPPER: (Singing) It's big wide wonderful world we're living in.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HOPPER: No, I could - I didn’t know. Listen, I was having enough problems
just trying to get through high school.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Was there anything you loved out of all that period of pre-rock 'n' roll

Mr. HOPPER: Well, I was a big - when I got to Los Angeles when I was 18, this
is like 1954, I got into jazz right away, so there was a period there before
rock 'n' roll, I'm not sure of the years, but it was a period of time there
where jazz was king and Miles Davis was the greatest act in the country. And
Bob Rafelson said to me once, who was the creator of The Monkees and later went
on to do "Five Easy Pieces" with Jack Nicholson, and so on, and make some
wonderful films. But at the time he said if Miles Davis hadn't turned his back
on the audience, the Beatles would never have been able to have invaded this
country so easily.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HOPPER: But Miles would only blow at a certain point when he felt like it.
And so he would go out and just stand there and not - maybe go through a whole
concert. I've seen him go through whole concerts where he didn’t blow at all
and did make some fans angry. But I still love jazz. And rock 'n' roll was
something that I listened to secretly on the radio. I had a - I would move it
to the rock 'n' roll station. But even my wife, when she got in I would change
it to classical or change it to popular or change it to something. I didn’t
want anybody to know that I was listening to rock 'n' roll.

GROSS: Why not?

Mr. HOPPER: It was like animal music. You’re not supposed to be listening to

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HOPPER: And this was like, this was a condition that went on for some time
and by - one time my wife got in the car and started the car before I changed
the station and it was playing rock 'n' roll and she said, oh, I love rock 'n'
roll. And I said, you do? You know, big surprise, huh? Oh wow.

GROSS: You might be one of the few adults who had to hide rock 'n' roll.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HOPPER: Yeah, well, it was strange, you know? It was a strange time. It's
easy to accept pop art and it's easy to accept abstract expressionist art most
places these days. But in the old days if you had an abstract painting, that
was really weird. And if you had a soup can or a cartoon hanging in your house,
I mean who were you? What kind of weird person? And listening to rock 'n' roll
was like listening to the jungle or something. It just was unheard of. I mean
it was not accepted.

GROSS: Now, television, as we mentioned, you were doing a lot of episodic
television in the - like it's the late 50s, early 60s?

Mr. HOPPER: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

GROSS: When did television come into your life? Not as an actor but as a

Mr. HOPPER: Oh, as a viewer. I saw my first television show when I was 13.

GROSS: That's pretty old.

Mr. HOPPER: Same year as I saw the mountains. You know, I was like, let's see,
I was, how old was I? What year would it have been? Forty. Would be about 1949.
Something like that.

GROSS: So it was pretty early in TV's development.

Mr. HOPPER: Yeah.

Mr. HOPPER: Were you shocked by it?

Mr. HOPPER: I wasn’t shocked by it. It was a miracle.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. HOPPER: It was black and white and I think "Kukla, Fran and Ollie" was the
big show of the day, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HOPPER: Pretty exciting stuff. It was in California when I went to visit my
aunt in California, so...

GROSS: What about the best shows to do when you were acting in episodic
television? I saw you in the pilot of "The Rifleman." You know, they were -
maybe they still are rerunning it on the Family Channel.

Mr. HOPPER: Wow.

GROSS: It's a really great series, and the episode you’re in, you’re like the
kind of kid gunslinger who comes into town and you’re a real showoff in it.

Mr. HOPPER: You know who wrote that? Sam Peckinpah wrote the pilot for "The

GROSS: Yeah. Well, he wrote and directed a lot of them. Yeah.

Mr. HOPPER: Yeah. He didn’t direct it but he wrote it. But he was there on the
set telling me how to play the part, so - but Sam and I had known each other
for years. He was the only guy I knew that smoked grass besides me. So we could
hide together on the studio lots and smoke a joint every once in a while.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Just one question about marijuana and other drugs. Do you think that
they affected your visual sensibility at all or, you know, your artistic

Mr. HOPPER: Well, you know, I - first of all, I'm in these 12 step programs
because I had a problem. I became a drug addict and an alcoholic, so I'm sort
of torn with this question. I think that - I don’t think anyone needs them to
enhance their visual or intellectual capacities. Does it help? It might in the
beginning clear - open up some doors, you know? But those doors rapidly close
if you’re a drug addict and it’s not a way of seeing. It's a way of dying, and
that's a reality.

As far as drinking, I mean, being an alcoholic and a drug addict, it was so
easy for me to point that - because I'm an artist, after all, it's okay for me
to drink and take drugs because I have an excuse, and being in total denial
about the fact that you’re an alcoholic and drug addict, because after all Van
Gogh spent a whole summer of drinking to find that yellow.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HOPPER: And then at the end of it I say, well, yeah, he probably couldn’t
find the tube the yellow was in, he was so drunk, you know? But you justify all
these things and it's too easy to justify using drugs and drinking because
you’re an artist, and I can't cop to that excuse. I can say yes, in the
beginning everything works. Sex works. Drug works. Everything works. If you go
too far with it, it becomes less effective and then you start working for it
rather than it working for you.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. HOPPER: And some of the greatest artists of all time never drank and never
took drugs and that's a reality as much as it is a reality that a lot of them
did and a lot of them died painfully stupid lives, which that could've been
avoided if they hadn't drank and taken drugs.

GROSS: I really want to thank you a lot for talking with us about your new
movie and about art and stuff.

Mr. HOPPER: Oh, it’s always a pleasure. It's great listening to your show.

GROSS: Dennis Hopper recorded in 1996. He died Saturday at the age of 74.

Dennis Hopper, thank you for all the great characters you brought to life.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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