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The true story behind the drugs used in 'Easy Rider'

American actor and filmmaker Dennis Hopper is often remembered as ‘Hollywood’s Original Hell-Raiser’, a countercultural symbol of the 1960s and the ’70s. Hopper’s 1969 magnum opus Easy Rider crystallised his image in the public consciousness as the rebellious artist who had no patience for society’s restrictive norms and obsolete guidelines for morality. The film perfectly captured the social landscape of America at the time by contextualising the abstractions of the hippie movement and presenting poignant metaphors which remain unforgettable.

In an interview with Rolling Stone, Hopper denounced that very image: “The new generation doesn’t know anything about me except for what they saw in Easy Rider. Society loves to put bubbles up there and pop them, and I resent it. I’d rather expose myself. I’m really tired of Hollywood images — the big virile star who’s really a homosexual, the goody-two-shoes who fucks everybody in dark bedrooms at parties. I wanted to be vulnerable because I thought it would be something different. But I don’t sleep with cameras, so this film is not the real Dennis Hopper.”

Easy Rider’s iconoclasm was very effective in its scathing indictment of normative prejudices, mostly because Hopper had a firm belief in the film’s ideals as well. One of those ideals was the freedom to indulge in recreational drug use, which became the key to Easy Rider’s creative process. The film already contained scenes where the characters participated in smoking joints, but many thought that it wasn’t actually marijuana.

It was later confirmed by the stars of the film, like Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson, that the entire crew was using something or the order. Fonda recalled: “Everyone had their [medication] of choice on Easy Rider. [Hopper] had his drink, [Nicholson] smoked joints, and the crew dabbled with acid and dope.” Since it was a Dennis Hopper project, this should come as no surprise as the man has done far more intense things like searching for death in a Mexican jungle and shooting up a tree while high on LSD. for example. 

While reflecting on the making of Easy Rider, Jack Nicholson said: “We were all stoned the night we shot the campfire scene… The story about me smoking 155 joints – that’s a little exaggerated. But each time I did a take or an angle, it involved smoking almost an entire joint. After the first take or two, the acting job became reversed. Instead of being straight and having to act stoned at the end, I was now stoned at the beginning and having to act straight.”

The trio of Fonda, Nicholson and Hopper did not just restrict themselves to ingesting copious amounts of drugs during the production. In the quest for the ultimate high, they reportedly wandered into the office of an executive at the production company to look for cocaine. When they couldn’t find it, they ended up snorting the ashes of the executive’s dead wife.