January 20, 2010
By Glenys Roberts
As a gesture of pure, hate-fuelled spite, it takes some beating.
Ultimate bad boy Dennis Hopper, the actor who played the psychotic
thug in Blue Velvet and the hairy biker in Easy Rider, is divorcing
his wife, Victoria, from his deathbed. Most people, given weeks to
live, would at least attempt a reconciliation. Especially if they had
a six-year-old daughter and had enjoyed nearly 14 relatively happy
But not the incorrigible Dennis. Suffering from terminal prostate
cancer, he is vowing to cap the amount Victoria gets in his will and,
what's more, to deny her any hope of contesting it. As the
73-year-old lies dying, he also wants her to move out of the
beachside compound where they had once lived in harmony.
It seems only yesterday that I was in Morocco with Hopper, who was
playing a Philistine general in Nic Roeg's movie, Samson And Delilah.
Newly married to the then 28-year-old actress, Victoria Duffy, the
couple were holed up in their desert bungalow, enjoying each other's
company so much that the other stars, including Elizabeth Hurley, who
had been expecting displays of Hopper's legendary roistering, were
left sorely disappointed.
Here was the infamous Hollywood hellraiser, variously known as a
genius and a maniac, in nesting mode, his only arguments confined to
benign exchanges with the local carpet-sellers as he haggled for soft
furnishings to take back home.
It was a far cry from the argumentative "madman of the movies" we had
come to expect, the man who habitually carried a gun and a knife, and
whose daily intake of stimulants was half a gallon of rum, 28 beers
and three grams of cocaine.
I always gave him a wide berth in Hollywood, largely because I wanted
to keep my sanity - and he had a habit of sucking others into his murky world.
Despite the odd spell of good behaviour, Hopper has always been very
bad indeed. Yet he could have been Hollywood royalty. Born in Kansas
in 1936, he claimed he developed his outlaw urges while growing up in
his home state, where "if you could put your hand on the bar, they
put a beer in it - even though the state was dry".
When his soldier father returned a hero from World War II, he failed
to rein in his son. The young Hopper took to sniffing petrol fumes
and smashing up trucks with a baseball bat.
A born show-off, he soon gravitated to Hollywood to work in the
theatre. And there he started propositioning girls in the street with
the characteristically unsophisticated chat-up line: "My name is
Dennis Hopper. Do you want to f***?" Legend has it he even tried his
luck with a couple of nuns.
He recently described his philosophy as "living to the edge of your
senses. All my early idols were alcoholics and drug addicts. Arthur
Rimbaud, John Barrymore, Edmund Kean. Crazies.
"When I started doing Shakespeare at the age of 13, the first stories
I ever heard were about the great English Shakespearean actors, who
all seemed to be a bunch of drunks. So I took immediately to the
bottle and let it carry me through my career. Then there was the sex..."
He was initiated into Hollywood ways by none other than Natalie Wood.
The pair were making Rebel Without A Cause with James Dean, and as
well as bedding director Nicholas Ray, Natalie also propositioned
Dean's stand-in - the then 18-year-old Dennis Hopper. The two made
love in a car by the side of the road.
Then, while working in New York in 1961, he met and married Brooke
Hayward, daughter of the great Broadway producer, Leland Hayward. In
a legendary scene, her exasperated father followed them up the aisle
whispering in his beloved daughter's ear: "It's still not too late to
get out of it."
In New York, Hopper cultivated his interest in photography, sculpture
and painting, taking photographs for Vogue and developing his passion
But his real speciality was the city's heavy-duty nightlife. He hung
out with foul-mouthed comedian Lenny Bruce and jazz musician Miles Davis.
Brooke, mother of his first child, says: "Dennis had a reputation for
being difficult - he was actually very shy and very sweet, but much
of his personality was distorted by virtue of being an actor."
Why she put up with him for so long has always puzzled me. He would
come home from drug-fuelled orgies - and start beating her up. By
1969, the marriage was over.
That was the year Hopper and Jack Nicholson persuaded supermarket
heir Huntington Hartford to give them $500 000 to finance their
breakthrough movie, Easy Rider, in which Hopper, by now a
semi-psychotic maniac, directed as well as starred, alongside Jane
Fonda's brother, Peter. The stories from the set are legendary. On
one occasion, Hopper demanded that Peter clamber on top of a statue
of the Madonna and open his heart about his mother, who had committed
suicide by cutting her throat with a razor when Peter was only 10.
"Ask her why she copped out on you," raved Hopper cruelly.
Relations became so bad Nicholson said: "Everyone wanted to kill one
another or put one another in institutions."
Hopper's famous lack of inhibition was always getting him into
trouble. Orgies with 50 girls a night were quite common, as was his
fondness for walking naked through town.
At the height of his depravity, he was involved in marathon sex
sessions fuelled by a mixture of cocaine and heroin that he injected
every 10 minutes.
When the Easy Rider crew moved to Taos, New Mexico, Hopper had
everyone dropping LSD and hallucinating.
One girl who resembled Joan of Arc was chained to a post and narrowly
avoided being set on fire. Another actor almost died when he took too
many hallucinogenic peyote buds.
But Dennis's most memorable moment in Taos was when he married blonde
Mamas And Papas singer Michelle Phillips, who happened to be
visiting. The morning after the wedding, he woke up so stoned he
didn't recognise his bride. The marriage lasted a week; Phillips has
always said she divorced him because of his unnatural sexual demands.
Indeed, when he later tried to set up a hippy commune in Taos, the
drug abuse and violence were so bad the locals ran him out of town.
Despite all this, Easy Rider was a phenomenal success, giving its
leading men untold freedom to behave as they liked. Fonda, Nicholson
and Hopper would congregate at a production company called BBS, where
secretaries were hired for their skills in rolling and injecting drugs.
One story known to Hopper insiders concerns the ashes of the dead
wife of a BBS executive, which were kept at headquarters in a gold
dish. The doped-up stars were so used to inhaling anything they found
in an open bowl that one day they snorted her ashes by mistake.
For the time being, though, Hopper could do no wrong. The studios
threw money at him hoping he would make another masterpiece, and he
came up with his next film, The Last Movie. It was a flop and Hopper
did not direct anything for a decade. Within a year, he was in an
institution, which probably saved his life.
"I always thought an artist was allowed to derange their senses any
way they wanted, as long as they created," he said.
By the '80s, after falling off the wagon and indulging in another
binge, things had once again got so bad, Dennis was known as The
Menace. He was imprisoned in Mexico after being found naked wandering
in a jungle and begging the police to shoot him. He reportedly spent
time in seven different jails.
He was hospitalised for months in LA after he tried to clamber on to
the wing of a moving plane. He claimed the drugs they gave him to
bring him down gave him temporary Parkinson's disease, which brought
him to his senses - and he gave up drinking in 1983.
Having failed at matrimony to two more actresses - which produced
another daughter and a son - Hopper married Victoria in 1996 and
appeared to calm down. Their daughter, Galen, was born in March 2003.
The wonder is that despite all this bad behaviour, Hopper has managed
to make more than 80 films. No one has ever disputed that he is
talented both as an actor and artist .
And until last year, he was still filming a TV series in the heat of
the New Mexico desert - playing an aggressive, drug-fuelled and
paranoid music producer, based on his friend, Phil Spector, who was
recently jailed for shooting dead a woman.
While he is officially a reformed character, Hopper the hellraiser is
still given to venting spleen in the most magnificent fashion - both
on and off screen - if he doesn't get his own way.
His deathbed divorce is obviously a last act of defiance from one of
Hollywood's greatest hellraisers.