American actor and filmmaker Dennis Hopper had developed such a wild reputation in the 1960s and the ’70s that he was granted the ominous title of “Hollywood’s Original Hell-Raiser.” Known for his unique acting skills as well as his directorial work (especially Easy Rider), Hopper was a key figure in the counterculture movement of that time. This image of him transformed into a symbol of resistance against conformity and mindless obedience.
In an interview, Hopper once said: “Drugs never interfered with our filmmaking. If somebody had said drugs are interfering with the filmmaking we would have stopped. I’m probably in denial… but at the time drinking and doing some cocaine to work and smoking a little grass, it was all about the work, it wasn’t about the drugs. The drugs were something we did to keep going. You could have cut off my legs and I still would have been directing movies.”
He added, “In my naïve kind of way I thought that artists had the right to drink and use drugs and to experiment and to lead a life that embraces that kind of experience. Because reading wasn’t enough for me, I wanted to experience things. I wanted to know what van Gogh felt when he cut his ear off. I wanted to know what those things, those intense kind of extremes were like. And I found out.”
On the 85th anniversary of his birthday, we revisit 10 crazy stories from Dennis Hopper’s life in order to understand the extensive mythology of the Hollywood legend.
The 10 craziest Dennis Hopper stories:
Trying to find death in a Mexican jungle
In order to play a small part in a B-movie called Jungle Warriors, Hopper travelled to Mexico where he had an unimaginable misadventure. After ingesting a mixture of tequila and LSD, the actor experienced terrible hallucinations and stripped off his clothes before wandering naked into a jungle. When the local police found him, he tried to bait them into shooting him by fighting them and even begging them to kill him.
Hopper explained: “I was making a movie, but I never made it to the set. They found me running around the jungle naked. Before that, at Mexico City airport, I thought I was in the middle of a movie and walked out on the wing. I was out of my mind. It was around then I decided it was time to get into rehab. My liver, my body, my brain were all shot. Hahahahahah!”
Death threats from John Wayne
American actor John Wayne was a global icon who was representative of the immense influence of Hollywood itself. On the contrary, Hopper existed on the other end of the spectrum and did his best to tear down the illusions that had been constructed by a morally bankrupt institution.
Wayne was a vocal conservative who blamed Hopper for everything that was wrong with that era, calling him derogatory names like his own “in-house commie.” Angered by the fact that his daughters had attended a lecture by a civil rights activist, Wayne threatened: “I want that red motherfucker. Where is that commie hiding?” Hopper allegedly spent that afternoon hiding in a cupboard.
Unique payment method for Apocalypse Now
Hopper played the role of a neurotic photojournalist in Francis Ford Coppola’s seminal masterpiece Apocalypse Now. Coppola had already faced severe problems during the production of the film for a long time. In order to avoid further obstacles, he allegedly tried to make Hopper comfortable on set by providing him with a steady cocaine supply.
George Hickenlooper, who explored the making of the film in his own documentary, revealed: “Dennis recounted the story to me that Francis came to him and said, ‘What can I do to help you play this role?’ Dennis said, ‘About an ounce of cocaine.’ So he was being supplied by the film production drugs that he could use while he was shooting.”
Shooting a tree on LSD
Although Hopper has reportedly been arrested at least seven times, this one stands out because of the bizarre nature of the events leading up to it. It involves him dropping acid and shooting at a tree due to the intensity of his hallucinations.
Hopper’s biographer, Tom Folsom, gave the details about the incident: “Hopper won LSD in a poker game, dropped it, and, while tripping, shot a .357 into a tree, thinking the tree was a grizzly bear. He then fled the scene, but was eventually arrested and put in the same jail in which he filmed a scene in Easy Rider.”
Wild drinking routine
It is no secret that Dennis Hopper had an incomparable appetite for drugs and alcohol. Almost all of the stories on this list took place while Hopper was on some kind of wild bender. However, the sheer magnitude of his intake is too much to even conceptualise.
In a later interview, Hopper revealed that he consumed 28 beers and half a gallon of rum coupled with three grams of cocaine on a daily basis at the height of his alcoholism. “It’s not as hard as it sounds. If you mix the rum, like I used to, then you can drink it all day long, no problem,” the actor said.
“I used to get thirsty, you got to have a beer or two if you get thirsty… “
Russian Suicide Chair
During his period of heavy drinking and substance abuse, Hopper was convinced that the mafia was out to get him. Since he thought he was going to be terminated by the organised crime members, the actor decided to participate in the infamous “Russian Suicide Chair” experiment at Houston’s Rice University.
In 1983, Hopper recreated the fake executions done by the Bolsheviks by climbing into the hollow recess of a chair that was stuffed with six sticks of dynamite. The vacuum protected him from the blast but bystanders thought that he was actually blowing himself up. Wim Wenders was there to cheer him on as well!
Asking Peter Fonda to confront his dead mother
The production process of Easy Rider was not an easy one by any means. With many memorable events that took place during the making of the film, this one deserves special mention because of the spiritual turmoil that Hopper induced.
For one of the scenes, the director forced Peter Fonda to access his emotional vulnerability by caressing a statue of Madonna and asked him to talk about his dead mother who had slit her throat when she was just 10. He reportedly asked Fonda to confront the spirit of his dead mother by shouting, “Ask her why she copped out on you.”
Snorting a dead woman’s ashes
Despite the twisted nature of the previous entry, this Easy Rider tale easily takes the cake. “Everyone wanted to kill one another or put one another in institutions,” Jack Nicholson once said and stories like these reinforce that wild claim.
Nicholson, Hopper and Fonda consumed a lot of drugs during the making of Easy Rider. They spent a lot of time at the headquarters of the production company where secretaries had specialised training to serve drugs to the actors. One day, the three stars ended up snorting the remains of an executive’s dead wife while looking for cocaine.
Peru in the ’70s
In 1970, Hopper travelled to Peru for The Last Movie and started a quasi-cult where cast and crew members were taking drugs in inhuman quantities. There were reports of “whipping parties” and one actor almost died from swallowing five peyote buds too quickly. The orgies and the substance abuse sparked a lot of controversies in the conservative country.
Hopper had this to say about the production, “It was one long sex and drugs orgy. Wherever you looked there were naked people out of their [expletive] minds. But I wouldn’t say it got in the way. It helped us get the movie done. We might have been drug addicts but we were drug addicts with a work ethic… The drugs, the drink, the insane sex, they all fuelled our creativity.”
Shooting an Andy Warhol painting
Hopper had always been an art enthusiast and had maintained a close relationship with iconic artist Andy Warhol. After buying one of the artist’s pieces, Hopper was so scared by the painting that he shot it twice. When Warhol found out about it, he wasn’t angry at all. The painting was sold in 2010 (with the bullet holes) for $302,500, 10 times its original price!
While talking about the incident, Hopper’s friend Alex Hitz recalled: “One night, in the middle of a binge, Hopper, out of the corner of his eyes, saw the Mao, and he was so spooked by it that he got up and shot at it, twice, putting two bullet holes in it.”