by Joe Shea
American Reporter Correspondent
June 10, 2010
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REYNOLDS PLANTATION, Ga., May 29, 2010 -- Dennis Hopper died today at 74. He was a friend once, and thinking of him last night, and knowing he was sick, I said a prayer for him before I fell asleep. I'm glad I did; he's gone now, and ever after, it will be too late.
I got to know Dennis through the good graces of Gov. David Cargo of New Mexico, whom I interviewed for the Village Voice in the Santa Fe summer of 1970. It was a grand summer for me, at 22; I had just broken into the Voice with a series of articles that were all about the wilds of northern New Mexico and the hippies flooding into the rugged Sangre de Cristo Mountains around Taos, where Dennis lived with his brother. There had been some rough incidents, including one in which his brother William was in an armed confrontation with locals who resented the attention his famous brother had brought to their home.
Home was the former ranch of the ex-wife of D.H. Laurence, Mabel Dodge Lujan, a woman of fabled beauty and mystery whose estate sold Dennis her place there. He was happily ensconced in the big hacienda there in the summer following the release of "Easy Rider," directed by him and starring Peter Fonda, Jack Nicholson and himself as two ill-fated hippies and a drunken lawyer making their way through the Deep South at a time when racial and cultural prejudices ran very high. It was a film we went to see almost as a religious act, and their demise in the film was terribly sobering.
Armed with an invitation from Dennis arranged by the governor, I went to see him at the ranch, ate with him, watched over his shoulder for a half-hour as he edited "The Last Movie," and over that summer we hit bars and parties whenever he came down to Santa Fe.
One of the last times I saw him was at a benefit I organized for the New Mexico Review & Legislative Journal, run by a friend of mine named "Em" Hall, for George Emerson Hall, a Washington, D.C., who was going with Sen. Stuart Symington's niece; they were sweet people who let me use their offices to write. I had to climb in through a window after midnight, since the landlord didn't allow anyone there at night, and I would work on stories for the Voice until dawn and then slip away unseen. It was one of the most productive periods of my life, and at the end of Dick Wolf, the publisher of the Voice, told me at our Christmas party in New York that my work that summer was "as good as Hemingway" when at my best. But this is about Dennis.
Although he stoked himself on giant spliffs, there was nothing unexpected or "deranged" - in the words of the New York Times, which has a photo of him on its home page today - about Dennis as I knew him. He still had the beard and muttonchop whiskers of the movie, and wore the same fringed buckskin coat most of the time. We hit it off right away, which was sort of strange since I was a pretty ordinary guy with some talent as a writer.
Looking at him under the influence of one of those spliffs, as he told me about his life in Dodge City, Kan., as a kid spending afternoons in the movies watching Westerns all day, I saw the great Western characters flitting through his face, like a movie in itself. We talked about James Dean and the tricks he would play on waitresses at the IHOP in Hollywood. Dean might pretend to be a cripple, for instance, and bring the waitress to tears of sympathy.
I guess Dennis sort of played second fiddle to him, and Dean's death should have propelled Dennis into his place as America's hottest star. I'm not sure why it didn't, at least until 1969, when Easy Rider broke loose and made a whopping $49 million, more than anyone thought it would. It made Dennis a major guy. In Taos, he said he was still owed a lot of money for it.
When we met that first time, in Taos, there was a story in Life magazine saying he was a heroin user. We were at dinner - Richard Zanuck was there - and Dennis complained it was untrue. He was planning to sue, and wanted to respond to it on the "Tonight" show a day or two later. I suggested that because the defendant in small claims cases has to come to court to defend himself, I suggested he sue the publisher of Life there. He loved the idea, and that's what he decided to do.
A month or two later, I asked him to appear with me and a couple of other Shakespeare buffs at a benefit I organized for the New Mexico Review. James Taylor, then the hottest male singer in the country, was making "Two Lane Blacktop" and was in Santa Fe that night, so I called his hotel room and invited him to sing. No such luck! But anything was possible in 1970.
Another time, at a party, we went outside to smoke, and we got to talking about poetry, I guess. My Aunt May had offered me $5 to memorize a great Rudayrd Kipling poem, but I was too lazy. Dennis was not. He stood there on the porch and recited the entire poem from memory, with feeling. I'm glas he didn't have to listen to me chiminbg in. And if that poem of advice to a young man - If you can keep your head when all about you / Are losing theirs and blaming it on you - was the first he'd ever given me, it wasn't the last.
In August, I had the incomparable thrill of seeing a poster made that advertised Dennis Hopper, Vera Zorina and Jo Shea, along with G.B. Harrison, a great scholar of the Bard. Vera Zorina didn't show up but Dennis did, coming in about halfway through the event and doing a double rendition of Hamlet's famous monologue - once as players normally do it and then again as his character in Easy Rider would. It was a chancy idea but he pulled it off with great aplomb, and the audience was very happy. So was I.
At the end of that wonderful summer, I met and fell in love during Fiesta on a ballroom balcony in the Hotel La Fonda with my friend B.J. Hoos of Appleton, Wisc., a gifted and beautiful actress who happened to be naked under a long dress. I also got accepted at Antioch College's new experimental campus in Columbia, Md., with a full scholarship, as part of the great Joyce Varney's writing program. It disappointed my editor at the Voice, Ross Wetzsteon, but I was delighted at a chance to finish my first novel, Revolution! Dennis was supposed to write the introduction, but it never got published. I read the next spring in Army Archerd's Variety column that he was preparing to film "Assault on Mount Wilson," which was the climactic part of my novel's first draft.
Then that winter of 1970 I met Dennis by chance at the literary watering hole Elaine's on Manhattan's Upper East Side, I sat with him and Warren Hinkle of the recently defunct Scanlan's Magazine, a Mother Jones on steroids that published not only R Crumb, whom I got to meet when I went to Warren's office earlier that Summer, but some of the leading revolutionary lights of the time, which was a moment in American history when revolution really seemed possible. I guess it does now, too, but back then it looked like fun. I'm afraid I scammed Warren out of $1,000 - not meaning to - which I blew on a game of three-card monte somewhere in San Francisco. I'd have never gotten home to Santa Fe except that I hit a slot machine in Jackpot, Nev., for $2, which was all you needed then for gas from Jackpot across Nevada and down to my Land of Enchantment.
I think Warren may have have put the kibosh on me, because Dennis was unfriendly that night. For a long minute, he turned and stared at me, his eyes became great black pools of emptiness. There was no bottom to them. Afer a minute or so, as I tried to meet his gaze, he turned away. Like a crazy fan, I chased hm through the night in a taxi cab and lost him somewhere.
A few months later, on a dare at a college party from a friend named Peter, I called Dennis. The same guy had met Pig Pen opf the Grateful Dead and asked him if it was really true that I had sang "The Impossible Dream" with them at Berkely that same summer, as i had truthfully boasted. Pig Pen said yeah, and asked him how I was doing! He took a while to come to the phone, and I told him I was in college and some guys wanted to talk to him. He talked to Peter, who also ended up in Hollywood, and then we chatted a moment longer. I asked Dennis if he had any advice for me. "Keep moving, man," he said. I think I moved something like 75 times after that, across 19 countries.
On Veteran's Day, 1986, I invited him to a benefit for the Committee to Draft U.S. Sen. John F. Kerry, which I started in 1986 to try to get John into the presidential race of 1988. I had met Kerry in the day he tossed the medals back at the demonstration Washington on another long-ago afternoon. He was the brother of Peggy Kerry, and she was the girlfriend of Lucian K. Truscott IV, another great Voice writer I had gotten to know. I saw John as a sort of Barack Obama of his day, someone whose youth, integrity and compelling heroism in Vietnam could inspire and awaken the country.
Anyway, I called Dennis's agent, and he passed on the invite "from Joe Shea of Santa Fe." I was behind the ticket counter at the Coconut Teaszer at Laurel Heights and Sunset, right on the Hollywood/West Hollywood line, and just inside the door, not expecting him at all. When he arrived in his blue cashmere coat, I didn't recognize him at all. He was dressed as the character in "Blue Velvet" dressed, and that film had just come out and wa tremendous hit He paid the $5 at the door, came in and signed our petition to John asking him to run, looked around for a minute and left. I only remembered him because of his sharply polished looks, and didn't realize it was him until I saw his last name on the petition and saw his picture in Time a week later in a rave review of Blue Velvet.
There's a lesson here. I had a friend and didn't know it. I couldn't believe that someone like him, a really wonderful and famous movie star, could possibly care anything about me. But he came to the phone, he made it to the show, and came to the Kerry party, and those were things only a friend would do. I wonder how manty others, in Hollywood and everywhere, know they have lost a man as good that.
Keep moving, man.
Joe Shea, editor of The Amercan Reporter, learned of Dennis Hopper's death while checking news on the New York Times on the Internet in the lobby of the Ritz-Carlton at Reynolds Plantation near Lake Oconee, Ga., Saturday afternoon.