As he fights prostate cancer, a vicious battle is already being waged
for the millions the actor earned from films such as Easy Rider. Then
again, says Guy Adams, this is a hellraiser who was never likely to go quietly
Saturday, 30 January 2010
Cut down by a 12-bore shotgun, Dennis Hopper was instantly turned
from jobbing actor into a household name when his Harley Davidson
chopper motorcycle exploded in a slow-motion ball of flames during
the extravagant final scene of his 1969 film Easy Rider.
The famous road movie, in which he played a coke-smuggling, dope
smoking, hippie biker called Billy, swiftly became a modern classic,
placing Hopper and his co-stars Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson firmly
at the centre of the so-called "counter-culture" movement.
It also kick-started his career as the most revered hellraiser of his
generation: a man who claimed to consume half a gallon of rum, 28
beers, and three grammes of cocaine a day, and had a habit of getting
arrested for wandering naked through the streets of Los Angeles.
Today, forty years after Easy Rider, and more than two decades after
he finally managed to quit hard drugs and liquor, Hopper is once more
involved in a dramatic Hollywood ending. Unfortunately, this one
involves the messy final chapter of his tumultuous life.
The 73-year-old method actor, who is fighting prostate cancer that is
widely reported to be terminal, has been caught up in an ugly legal
battle with his fifth wife Victoria Duffy, to whom he's been happily
married for 14 years.
A fortnight ago, Hopper suddenly filed for divorce from Duffy, who is
30 years his junior, citing "irreconcilable differences". In a
statement, he announced: "I wish Victoria the best, but only want to
spend these difficult days surrounded by my children and close
friends." The news shocked Hollywood. Not only are deathbed divorces
rare, but in recent years, the couple have been a picture of
happiness. Indeed, until very recently, they had been living
together, in what appeared to be domestic bliss, at Hopper's house
near to Venice Beach.
This week, the tone of the case changed from strange to sinister: Ms
Duffy, the mother of Hopper's six-year-old daughter Galen, filed
legal papers at Los Angeles Superior Court claiming that her husband
was being "pressured by his advisors and adult children" to seek
divorce. The reason, she said, is straightforward: money.
Ms Duffy will get 40 per cent of the actor's estate if they are
married at the time of his death. Should they divorce, however, she
is entitled to just 25 per cent, under a pre-nuptial agreement signed
before they tied the knot in 1996.
In her lawsuit, Hopper's wife therefore accuses the other friends and
relatives who stand to inherit Hopper's fortune of having brainwashed
the ailing actor now effectively on his deathbed into removing
her from his life.
Right now, Ms Duffy does not believe Hopper "is capable of taking
care of himself, or his legal and financial affairs" or making "sound
decisions in the best interests of our daughter." She added: "I
believe that the filing of the present dissolution action is a result
of estate planning by other family members."
Her legal papers, lodged this week, duly asked the judge to allow
Hopper supervised visits with their daughter for an hour per day,
provided he removes all guns from the family home. She also wants him
to refrain from smoking "medicinal marijuana" for at least six hours
before any visit.
No response has yet been filed, and Hopper's family have so far
declined to formally rebut Duffy's claims regarding the divorce.
However a "close friend" has since been quoted in the New York Post
describing her as a "gold-digger" who devoted their marriage to
spending his fortune.
Hopper had reluctantly decided to sever contact with Duffy, said the
friend, after she tactlessly demanded that he rewrite his will to
guarantee her a greater share. "Victoria wanted more, more, more. She
was going to contest the will in court. To avoid this, he filed for
divorce. It was a pre-emptive move."
Either way, it's an ugly business. And regardless of who eventually
triumphs, the snowballing nature of this row means that Dennis Hopper
is now unlikely to enjoy much peace and quiet. Instead, he seems
destined to end his long and colourful life at the centre of a lurid,
Given previous form, however, that might not be quite so
inappropriate. For although Hopper has mellowed in recent years,
swapping drugs, guns, and inebriated exhibitionism for sobriety and
daily visits to the golf course, he has never been one to quietly
exit, stage right.
After a difficult childhood, in first 1940s Kansas, and then San
Diego, where his hobbies included stealing alcohol and getting high
by snorting petrol from his grandfather's truck, Hopper decided to
devote his adult life to exploring twin obsessions: acting, and
narcotics. For years, the two were largely incompatible. Despite
having obvious talent, and easy good looks that saw him cast in a
couple of James Dean movies, including 1955's Rebel Without a Cause,
Hopper's erratic behaviour prevented him from being given the keys to
During a meeting with Columbia, which was keen to sign him to a
six-figure deal in the late 1950s, he insulted a team of executives
to such an extent that studio head Harry Cohen tore up the valuable
contract in front of him.
On the set of From Hell to Texas, in 1957, he became involved in a
famously-heated row with the Henry Hathaway, who was no fan of
Hopper's style of "method acting", which he'd picked up from Marlon
Brando. The dispute meant that a single scene took 15 hours, and more
than 80 takes, to complete.
"His behaviour was just too erratic, so he was largely blacklisted by
the film industry," says the biographer Robert Sellers, who
chronicles Hopper's career in his forthcoming book Hollywood
Hellraisers. "In some ways, he was a total professional. For example,
he would always turn up on time, even when he was off his face on
cocaine or LSD. But in others, he was just far too difficult. So he
struggled throughout the 1960s, and was forced to pursue his other
career, as a photographer."
Even after the unlikely success of Easy Rider, which was put together
in a haze of drink and drugs (Hopper and Peter Fonda are famously
said to have smoked 155 marijuana joints while filming its campfire
scene) he again squandered his career prospects, deciding to spend
the proceeds from the film on a house in Taos, New Mexico, which he
turned into a hippie commune.
For most of the next decade, Hopper and a revolving cast of friends
devoted their days to drink and drugs. He later recalled snorting
lines of cocaine "the size of a fountain pen" and he put his daily
consumption of mind-altering substances at half a gallon of rum (with
a spare quarter bottle in case he ran out), 28 beers, and three
grammes of cocaine.
During the 1970s, he also got through three wives, including Brooke
Hayward, who later accused him of attacking her after an argument
about his habit of disappearing for days on end at drug-fuelled
orgies; and Michelle Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas, to whom he
was married for the grand total of eight days.
By the time Hopper arrived on the set of Francis Ford Coppola's
Apocalypse Now, he'd also dispensed with third wife Daria Halprin.
More pressingly, after two straight decades of partying and drug
abuse, he was emotionally fragile and appeared to be on the verge of death.
"Coppola took one look at him, and asked if there was anything he
could do to help him get through the movie," adds Sellers. "Dennis
said yes: about an ounce of cocaine a day. They managed to find
someone who could get hold of that for him, and the film eventually
was made." The blizzard of cocaine did nothing to improve Hopper's
state of mind, however. Increasingly paranoid, he began suffering
from panic attacks that saw him attempt suicide by blowing himself up
with dynamite. He finally entered a drug rehabilitation programme in
1983, after being found wandering naked around woods in Mexico.
After eventually drying out Hopper produced arguably his best work as
both an actor, and a director, and a photographic artist. He was
nominated for an Oscar for Hoosiers in 1986, and a Golden Globe for
Blue Velvet the same year. In 1988, he directed the
In more than 50 films since then, he has cemented his standing as one
of Hollywood's most prolific elder statesmen, and with Jack Nicholson
and Liz Taylor, is one of the last surviving stars of a glamorous generation.
Whether his continual output of new material reflects a soaring
artistic ambition, or merely Hopper's need to replenish his bank
balance is unclear: a fourth costly divorce, in which he lost many of
his collection of Andy Warhol paintings, saw him split from Katherine
La Nasa in 1992.
But since marrying Duffy, Hopper's career has certainly enjoyed an
Indian summer. In a typically-robust move, he responded to news of
his cancer diagnosis last year by signing on to play a record
producer called Ben Cendars in 25 episodes of the US television series Crash.
To fans, it was a reminder that, given Hopper's tumultuous past and
complicated present, each day he remains with us is a bonus, "Did I
ever expect to reach 70? Hell, I never expected to see 30," he once
said. "And when I did hit 30, 70 seemed off-the-charts old to me.
It's a miracle I'm still here."