DID THIS EASY RIDER
GO ROUND THE BEND?
Dennis Hopper was not your typical movie
star back in 1970, the year I interviewed him for The New York Times.
He'd just made a sensational directorial debut with "Easy Rider"
and had moved to Taos to escape Hollywood, a community he felt was
"so smogged, so swamped, that it's ready to fall into the sea."
"Henry Fonda said I was an idiot? Wow!"
Dennis Hoppers voice -- soft and friendly and lucid -
comes to me long distance from his home in Taos, New Mexico, where
he is editing "The Last Movie."
"I guess it just goes to show you what the establishment view
of me is. Of course, I did make his son a star in Easy Rider.
But so far as Henry Fondas not wanting to work with me, he
doesnt really have to worry. Because, frankly, I find the
man a bore. He hasnt done a good movie in 10 years. I admired
him in 'The Grapes of Wrath,' but Id say he had a pretty good
director there in John Ford, wouldnt you?
"This whole Fonda thing gets very complicated. You see, I
was married to Brooke Hayward, whose mother was Margaret Sullavan
and whose father, Leland Hayward, is a very close friend of Henry
Fonda - who was once married to Margaret Sullavan himself.
Well, Hayward didnt even see his daughter until she was 6
years old and, man, he was never on the scene when Brooke needed
him. Anyway, Fonda and my father-in-law and that whole Hollywood
establishment put me down from the very beginning. The only ones
who were nice to me were David O. Selznick and Jennifer Jones. They
were the only ones who ever invited me to their home. David O. Selznick
took me aside once and said to me Keep trucking it, Dennis.
"You know, Im suing Peter Fonda now, because we started
out equal partners on Easy Rider, and he ended up 7
points ahead of me. Seven points at $150,000 a point. The movie
cost $340,000 and it may end up being the fourth biggest grosser
of all time. This year alone, Ill make a million and a half
on it - 70 percent of which will go to the government. The
thing is, I wrote the screenplay in two weeks and I never got paid
a penny for it. At the time, I didnt care. Peter said we could
straighten out the financial details later."
It seems a shame to end a fruitful relationship on such a bitter
note. "Oh, no, not at all, its nothing like that,"
Hopper explains. "Peter and I have a wonderful relationship.
Now that Im suing him, he calls me more than he ever did before.
Thats the way it is, you see, when people get guilt feelings.
He even offered to buy me a car. And neither of us has even mentioned
the lawsuit. Peter and I will always be very close friends, no matter
what. Like John Ford and Henry Fonda, like John Ford and Duke Wayne."
Hopper and Wayne are friends of sorts, too, having worked together
in "The Sons of Katie Elder" and "True Grit."
"I went up to congratulate him when he won his Oscar and he
took one look at me and he called me a communist.
Then he asked me to come out on his yacht - its actually
a minesweeper - and hed explain to me why hes
worth a million per picture. Personally, I think its ridiculous
to pay so much money to any star, when nine out of ten movies lose
money in the first place. And I resent Mike Nichols spending $15-million or $23-million or whatever it cost
to make Catch-22. But, of course, Nichols doesnt
care if Paramount falls apart. Hes not profit-sharing in the
film. What I do is give my crew a piece of the profits, and theyre
happy to take the gamble.
"But getting back to Wayne. You met him, didnt you? What
do you think - is it possible not to like the man? You know,
hes like the character I play in The Last Movie.
Naïve, innocent, blindly American, a guy with preconceived
ideas about everything. Paranoid and afraid of anything thats
different. After all, Duke fought the battle of Iwo Jima and the
battle of the Green Berets, and now hes patrolling up and
down the Pacific in his minesweeper, protecting Americans from the
Red Menace. I tell you, it was really something to see him landing
every morning on location in his helicopter!
"And yet the Big Duke destroyed some of the most talented people
in Hollywood during the House on Un-American Activities period.
He and Ward Bond and Adolphe Menjou. Theyd just wake up in
the morning and pick up the telephone and call in a few names to
be added to the blacklist. And most of those people had never even
What does a hipster like Hopper think of a swinger like Jane Fonda
getting arrested for
"For appearing nude?" Hopper giggles.
No. For demonstrating and protesting and marching.
"Well, I love a good march, myself. I marched in Selma. I marched
with Martin Luther King. I marched with SNCC and with CORE. I was
at Berkeley. Personally, I think Janes a little late. She
should have been marching two or three years ago. But then she was
sort of busy in Europe at the time."
Hopper and his "Last Movie" crew created something of
a scandal on location in Peru. There were many vivid reports of
ultra-liberated sexual shenanigans, wild booze bouts and, particularly,
drug-induced pandemonium. According to Hopper, most of the printed
accounts of the Peruvian carousing fall into the category of strictly
"That story in Life about my shooting heroin really bugged
me. Man, I never shot anything in my whole life. I never, ever,
took a needle. And I dont mind telling you that its
a big drag to think that kids will read that and think that if Dennis
Hopper can go out and shoot heroin and then make Easy Rider,
so can we. Now as far as grass goes, Ive smoked that for 18
years. I get high when I can, but I dont need it. And Ive
dropped acid. Yet I dont seem to have any brain damage. Well,
maybe a little."
One thing that Hopper does not get high on is Hollywood. "I
think its important to realize that the studio is a thing
of the past, and they are very smart if they just concentrate on
becoming distributing companies for independent producers. The studio
equipment is obsolete. The unions are obsolete - some of them
are controlled by gangsters.
"But if a movie is well made and says something about our society,
it will do well at the box office. The Grapes of Wrath,
made in 1940, had social significance for those times. Whats
important is to keep the faith. Tell it like it is - whatever
that means. People are concerned about whats happening in
the world and theyll go to see movies that make relevant statements
about those happenings. And its not just the young people
Im trying to reach; Ive already got them. When I made
Easy Rider, I didnt make it just for the kids.
I made it for their parents too, and I hoped that the kids would
drag them out to see it.
"If you want to talk about the community of Hollywood, though.
. . is it dying? Well, I moved to Taos because I dont like
the people in Los Angeles, even though they do have nice banks.
Hollywood is a very cliquish place; you go to private clubs to see
the private people. If you walk on the street at night, the police
stop you and want to know what youre up to. Hollywood is so
smogged, so swamped, that its ready to fall into the sea.
"I tell you, man, you ought to come down here to Taos. Its
beautiful. Like Taos is the beautiful place to be."
Like, man, maybe you ought to tell that to Henry Fonda.
Editor's Note: To read
the remarks that prompted Dennis Hopper's put-down of Henry Fonda,