Saturday, May 29, 2010

DENNIS HOPPER USA ICON DIES

Written in April of 2010








Dennis Millard was born May 17, 1937, on flat ground, outside of Dodge City, Kansas. It was spring time on the small farm, tiny green grass sprouts that would turn into endless tarmac were beginning to break out. Dennis's mother,  Marjorie Mae Millard was a beautiful poetess of the soul who loved to swim rivers and lakes in summer time.  

The Millard family really wasn't a stand out, in Dodge City, they seemed distracted and tuned into a radio wave, looking westward somehow. Dennis has always had that look about him, looking forward through everything and onward.

Marjorie Mae dearly loved young Dennis, he was her blessed soul connection. She would spend hours holding him in the breezy groves of his fathers Hemp farm. John grew Hemp to make rope for the war effort. Summer was the sweetest  time on the Millard farm, their front porch was covered with books. Marjorie Mae home schooled Dennis until they moved to California. She taught Dennis to read Whitman, Carl Sandburg , Tolstoy, Abraham Lincoln and Shakespeare.  

Dennis could swim by the age of two, Marjorie Mae would take the boy swimming in rivers and creeks. By the age of 7 Dennis was already working with John to bring the hemp crops in. The flower farmers would can  jelled chicken soup stock, wild bird meat, fruit, berries and vegetables (which they raised themselves organically). The flower unit was self sufficient, the tornado cellar was always larded to the max to survive the Kansas winters on desolation row.

Dennis never really thought about cutting loose until the Millard family loaded up their 48 Pontiac. The V8 car had a trailer knob on the fender to hook up their small Airstream. The trailer was nice for siestas on country roads.  The flower unit was now headed west riding radio waves to California. 

(ASIDE: I realized while editing , that the story begins to bust loose and get down some as the Millards drive to La Mesa! So I am busting loose in the 1950s with Dennis Millard. The inconstancy and lack of tenor is hardly the hallmark of a true PRO. Vonnegut writes all over the place but he is a one of a kind American legend, so he can! Fuck it anyway, EVERYTHING IS IN YOUR SOUL. It flows outside and around time zones into the present, from Heaven into Hell, more on Lee Strasberg methodism latter.) 

The Millards enjoyed a steady drive to La Mesa. Dennis's father John or poppy, was on his way to a new job as post office manager there. Young Dennis kept busy in the back seat of the Pontiac, reading Hemingway,  Shadow comics and eating chicken sandwiches and Clark bars while poppy drove. The flower unit was driving through Texas, northwest, on Highway 90 hugging the Mexican border. Hank Williams and Bob Willis were on the  radio along with devilish bits of cantina music coming out of Juarez. The potent mix of  southwestern music, black bean smell from the greasy spoons, and dry night air tantalized Dennis. It  filled him with wild gringo energy and vision. It made him feel like busting things up somehow. Later Dennis would relate the story of the trip to James Dean, it emboldened both of them to say, "fuck off man" to wonder bread America, circa 1950. 

The Millard's bought a three bedroom pink deco style house that was on the edge of an orange grove in La Mesa. John settled into his job as post office 91491 manager and Marjorie Mae got a job as a life guard instructor, she looked sweet in a the red tank top swim suits. 

Dennis went to Helix High in La Mesa. He was not an uninspired student exactly, but he hated authority figures. Amazingly he was very sociable, coming out of the cloistered environment he was raised in, on the Kansas hemp collective.

Dennis discovered a passion for beautiful women at Helix High School, which he has to this day. Later,   he married and divorced Michelle Phillips for eight days just to fuck her. Hopper preferred to spend time at the swimming pool and surfing, and rarely studied. He was voted "most likely to succeed"  which rang true. Poppy and Marjorie Mae never bothered pushing Dennis much in formal academia, they new he was on his own radio bandwidth. Marjorie Mae's home schooling of Dennis on the Kansas Hemp collective was superb. Dennis didn't need more formal education in a high school.

Besides discovering " the world of  pussy" at Helix, Dennis connected with a desire to express his feelings and thoughts on stage. He also loved the attention and praise he felt on stage. Dennis earned a scholarship to San Diego's Old Globe Theater. He proceeded to hone his acting chops on Shakespeare and Camus. After graduating form high school Dennis moved to LA and began acting in the Pasadena Playhouse. He invented his stage name "Hopper" which was purebred Hunkeism circa 1950 Times Square scene, to be 'hopped up' on speed. 

In reading  Hopper's bio on Yahoo, it seems the 'breaks' the average Joe busts his balls for just happened for Dennis. Dennis is hugely talented, Great Spirt given. I don't think he is the type who works at it much, but he is a hard worker. Further evidence of Hopper's extreme talent is in the type of roles he attracts, he was given insane roles from the start.

Dennis Hopper's debut on national TV in America was a guest spot on the NBC show "Medic" in the early 50s. He played an epileptic soldier no less. I can visualize Dennis sweating and shaking in army fatigues on Black and White TV saying,an "no man, I can't ". The epileptic soldier would come back to Dennis in roles to come. One was the photo journalist in the black out war epic "Apocalypse Now".

Dennis's seizures were so realistic, that it earned him the attention of Hollywood's elite, setting the stage  for the rise of the phoenix out of the the ashes of golden era TV, circa 1954. Others to rise from the ashes were Clint Eastwood, Steve McQueen and James Dean. Hopper was offered auditions all over Hollywood. He did an audition for Harry Cohn, the hard ass head of Columbia Studios.  Harry told Dennis to pick a 15 minute bit from any play he wanted and perform soliloquy. Dennis picked a short sonnet from "Othello". At the end of the audition Cohn told him to drop the Shakespeare crap and get real.  Dennis looked Cohn straight in the eye, with the intense and shameless Billy stare he used in "Easy Rider" and said what else? "Go fuck yourself man". He was immediately eighty-sixed from Columbia Studios, (big fucking deal he hardly needed Cohn).

What does a screaming giant of talent do if he gets eithty-sixed from Colombia Studio? Go to Warner Bros. Hopper immediately got a job as a stand in for James Dean in the film "Rebel Without a Cause" circa 1955, and a bit part as one of the "juvenile delinquents" in the film. Jimmy and Dennis immediately became best pals. They would smoke dope together in the bath room of Dean's Airstream on the set, putting towels in the cracks to keep the "odious" smoke from the attention of Warner Bros. security. The two friends would talk for hours about beat stuff, writers, Camus,  Sartre, and Carlos Williams. They loved music of all types, Monk and Miles Davis, as well as Country and Rockabilly. Both precocious farm boys were living life in full color, trying to bust out of the grind. After shooting they would hit jazz clubs in LA and play conga drums. 

Both Hopper and Dean landed roles in the film "Giant", (a film about Texas oil money in circa 40s) Jimmy got the primo part of Jet Rink (a Howard Hughes type bad boy). Dennis's role was very untypical for him. He played a clean cut kid who was very anonymous. They both were in love with Elizabeth Taylor, who they thought "had the most beautiful tits in the world". The three would sit around in Giant's Texas set compound, and talk about life, laugh, smoke dope and drink wine .  

After Giant,  James dean bought a Porsche 550 Spyder for racing and off track driving. Everyone knows how Jimmy died in the famous auto crash. Dennis Hopper was bummed out by Deans death. He felt like he had lost a true soul brother. Some people think Dennis was the heir to Deans rebel throne. Dennis did become a counter culture hero later in his own right, not because of his best pals accident.

Dennis went on to do some Western's including "Half way to Texas, Hell USA" circa 1958 directed by Hath Hathaway. Hathaway was a hard driven alcoholic director with a red pin cushion nose. He resented Dennis's beatific manhood and took it upon himself to whip it out of the boy. He didn't take to no "improvising" and decided to bust Dennis up like a wild bronco for not following the script to the tee. During a scene I am sure Dennis would rather forget, Hath made him do 80 takes and some push ups. The experience was not good for Dennis. He wasn't over the death of his  friend James Dean and was suffering from "too much too fast". Hath later predicted wrongly " why the boy will be corralled out of the industry". The red neck director ended up getting shit canned by some drunk Navajos while on a drunken weekend. This is what happens to people who try to destroy others because the others are scary.

Dennis did get shit canned from Warner Brothers after "Halfway to Texas, Hell USA". With enough money and some time on his hands he decided to go to Manhattan and study methodism with the  Lee Strasbourg… Ooh la la . The method is to let your soul out without letting the script get in the way. In New York Dennis met people that were more on his wavelength than the red neck western directors at Warner Bros. Chris Harrington and Andy Warhol were key influences on Dennis's expanding concept of art and film in the 60s. 

Harrington introduced Dennis to Roger Cormen who was directing a low budget acid flick called "The Trip" with Peter Fonda in LA. Dennis took over co-writing duties from Cormen  writing the script with Peter Fonda.  The Lee Strasbergs were closer to an acid trip than "The Trip". There were some nice touching freely scenes in the film, today you would call "The Trip" retro. 

At the time Cormen was working on another low budget film, a nut-so vehicle for the Monkees called "The Head". "The Head" was being screen written by Jack Nicholson, and to be honest it was going in a zillion directions, splintering and expanding, because  Nicholson was spiking Cormen's and the Monkee's Cool-aid with Purple Owsley. Dennis was a guiding light in bringing the forces together to finish "The Head". Had Dennis not stepped in when he did Nicholson, Cormen and The Monkees might still be on acid filming "The Head" today.

After "The Head" Hopper decided to direct himself. He had directing experience with Andy Warhol in the factory, on such films as "Skin" and "Aluminum Potato".  Dennis was also studying photography. 

Back in LA one night Dennis went to the "Whiskey" on Sunset with Michelle Phillips to hear The Doors play. Dennis planned to met Peter Fonda and Terry Southern. Southern looked liked Norman Rockwell with his short hair and Meerschaum pipe. He was totally out of place at the Whiskey in the 60s, but he was a wacko genius. Southern met Dennis during the filming of "Giant". Peter Fonda showed up at the Whiskey that night in his white leather pants, no real biker would wear shit like that man. The dude made an impressive entrance on his blue metal flacked chopper . You would have to say there was something in the brew that night. While Jim Morrison sang "Back Door Man," Hopper, Fonda and Southern put down the outline for a film to be called "Easy Rider".

"Easy Rider" circa 1969, was ground breaking in more than a few ways. Firstly there was not much pre ordained script to speak of, only an outline. Terry Southern was famous on the "road set" for shaking the script at Hopper and Fonda, trying to keep the film on track. Secondly there were only real drugs to be used as props and ingested on the set. Hopper and Southern did the script writing duties on the fly. Dennis played the protagonist character "Billy". Peter Fonda was Captain America.  Fonda insisted that only Harleys would be used in the film. Other uses of creative genius included using real life "red necks" with no acting experience in the film. And of course the 16 mm acid scene in the New Orleans grave yard, filmed by Dennis. 

(ASIDE: The pimple faced drug dealer wearing the funny Kango hat in the opening sequence was Phil Spector. He did the bit for free, even volunteering the use of his haunted Bentley as a prop. He bought it from Keith Richards a week earlier. I will never forget the scene as John Kay starts to wail " 'Pusher Man', well I popped allot of pills " ME TOO). 

"Easy Rider" was  a bust out film for Fonda, Nicholson and Hopper. Jack Nicholson was ready to give up acting because he couldn't find work. He was selected at the last minute to replace Rip Torn as the country lawyer. All these guys had worked with Roger Cormen who was a master at film making on the fly, for cheap.  

"Easy Rider" was so successful at the box office that it put all the guys involved at the pinnacle of their careers. Only Jack Nicholson continued to move foreword at break neck speed. Peter Fonda, petered out for some years. Dennis sunk deeper into drug use and the despair of alcoholism . He was writing the eternal script and did a film called "American Dreamer" circa 1971. Another film from this period  "The American Friend" was a great film about a expat living  in Europe. The character  drove a 58 Cadillac around the streets of Berlin, wore cowboy boots, a Stetson and a garage jumpsuit like Neal Cassidy. Dennis was not shaky and gave a strong and powerfully brooding performance.

As most residents of Taos, New Mexico will know, Dennis Hopper lived there in the 70s. One night he was working on the eternal script in the "hash house" of his log cabin and teepee mansion. All the cocaine and whiskey caught up with him. Dennis drove down to the square in Taos wearing his garage overalls and Stetson, carrying a couple of loaded six guns. He preceded to act out a nervous breakdown in stages, shooting a few caps into the air. To be honest this kind of activity was an every morning wake up call/ritual for Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. But Dennis Hopper is a very sensitive artist and this was no fun for him. Thank the Great Spirit of Taos, no one was hurt, but Dennis sadly hurt himself.

After a some months in rehab and some attempts at Alcoholics Anonymous, Dennis relapsed. One morning he got a call from Francis Ford Copalla (who was an unknown at the time) asking him to play the role of a tremulous X green beret slash photo journalist in a film called "Apocalypse Now"circa 1979. The film was a freaked out dark saga, Joseph Conrad genesis. Dennis was primed for the part in his present state of mind, on the verge of another nervous breakdown. Actually the weirdest shit happened to allot of the people involved in the film. 

Much of the cast was unknown at the time, but are big stars today. Sam Bottoms, Lawrence Fisburne, Harrison Ford, Robert Duvall and Scott Glenn. The most bizarre casting was the Reverend Billy Graham's son, Bill Graham. Bill Jr. played a young Army officer whose presence on the set wasn't enough to keep the Devil in check. The experience with "Apocalypse Now" scared the preacher boy so much that he never acted again. Choosing to go home and live with his parents the rest of his life.

Copalla had a nervous breakdown during the film and sweated off 70 pounds. His wife had to help him finish the dark, obsessive work.

In the opening sequence , Martin Sheen (who played the GI sent to kill Col. Kurtz) gets wasted in his Saigon hotel room. This scene was shot by Copalla while Sheen was actually having a stroke. The sadistic director wouldn't cut to get Sheen to the hospital. 

Marlin Brando ( who was paid a huge sum of money to play Col. Kurtz) was "ODing" on food, booze and screwing  too many asian girls throughout the film. 

Dennis got to act out his nervous breakdown again, but this time it was on film. He was brilliant playing Colonel Kurtz's friend, a X green beret photo journalist. He would walk around Col.Kurtz's death camp, long hair, beard, Cambodian rice farmer's PJs and camera. Shaking like the Army epileptic he played on American TV circa 1960, telling anyone in ear range, using broken sentences. " He is a man…. a god, a genius, this is what the man (Kurtz) is about". Dennis did his part 88.5% ad libbed in a very raw emotional state, while wasted. 

Brando was totally out of control in this thing, like a huge Water Buffalo in heat. Marlin refused to take any direction what so ever. Copalla could have used a Hath Hathaway to break Brando's spirit here. As most people know this awesome film was a zillion dollars over budget. I would give Copalla's wife the credit here, the film poured into 300 cans, edited, unedited made it because of her. 

Dennis Hopper  was so prolific as a  actor and director, one would have to tell his story in books from A to Z His work and life is so powerful that trying to put it in a box is like gazing into the sun. By 1981 Dennis got really serious about AA and sobered up. He  has  stayed sober a long time, and gone on to do work with all the great people in the film industry, never losing his weird hipness. Recently Dennis Hopper has been diagnosed with prostate cancer and is in bed mostly at his home, hassling with his last wife. No one ever accused Dennis Hopper of not having "balls like a bull".

In closing I would like to explain how I write stories, because I don't want to confuse people who are interested in facts. This story was written in similar, but not the same fashion as Dennis Hopper's  film "Easy Rider". I take a time line or a bio and fill in the blanks writing flow of consciousness, expanding on  facts I have read in my life. So allot of the bullshit in this story is about my own addiction, nervous breakdowns and insanity. Of course, I am no Dennis Hopper, not even close. The man is on fire and this story, which was so hard to write, is only surface

What comes out is what you get. You might laugh at this story, it might scare you, or it might leave you cold. That has to do with who your are, not who I am. VB

My  hope is that the Great Spirit of Sierra Madre is folding Dennis Hopper in light and keeps him here with us until he is ready to go, as this is written by VB. 

DENNIS HOPPER DIED AT 74, TODAY MAY 30TH, 2010

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