Moviecrazed
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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." --Guy Flatley


"Henry Fonda said I was an idiot? Wow!"

Dennis Hopper’s 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 Fonda’s not wanting to work with me, he doesn’t really have to worry. Because, frankly, I find the man a bore. He hasn’t done a good movie in 10 years. I admired him in 'The Grapes of Wrath,' but I’d say he had a pretty good director there in John Ford, wouldn’t 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 didn’t 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, I’m 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, I’ll 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 didn’t 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, it’s nothing like that," Hopper explains. "Peter and I have a wonderful relationship. Now that I’m suing him, he calls me more than he ever did before. That’s 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 –- it’s actually a minesweeper –- and he’d explain to me why he’s worth a million per picture. Personally, I think it’s 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 doesn’t care if Paramount falls apart. He’s not profit-sharing in the film. What I do is give my crew a piece of the profits, and they’re happy to take the gamble.

"But getting back to Wayne. You met him, didn’t you? What do you think –- is it possible not to like the man? You know, he’s 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 that’s different. After all, Duke fought the battle of Iwo Jima and the battle of the Green Berets, and now he’s 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. They’d 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 been communists."

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 Jane’s 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 creative writing.

"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 don’t mind telling you that it’s 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, I’ve smoked that for 18 years. I get high when I can, but I don’t need it. And I’ve dropped acid. Yet I don’t seem to have any brain damage. Well, maybe a little."

One thing that Hopper does not get high on is Hollywood. "I think it’s 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. What’s important is to keep the faith. Tell it like it is –- whatever that means. People are concerned about what’s happening in the world and they’ll go to see movies that make relevant statements about those happenings. And it’s not just the young people I’m trying to reach; I’ve already got them. When I made ‘Easy Rider,’ I didn’t 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 don’t 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 you’re up to. Hollywood is so smogged, so swamped, that it’s ready to fall into the sea.

"I tell you, man, you ought to come down here to Taos. It’s 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, click here.