Inside Dennis Hopper's beautiful adobe mansion on the outskirts of Taos, New Mexico, the Dallas Cowboys have just made a dazzling run on the TV. Downstairs, his friend, Ronee Blakely, has popped in for a visit, along with his godson. Critics have been praising his role as a violent, jet set cowboy in young German director Wim Wenders' latest film, "The American Friend," as the best acting Hopper has ever done. And Francis Ford Coppola has kindled his hopes for a nomination for his role as a photojournalist in "Apocalypse Now," the director's yet-to-be-released, $24 million personal gamble.
That's not all. His accountant have just served up bullish news that he has finally paid off, to the penny, $780,000 in back taxes run up after money poured in unexpectedly from "Easy Rider." It is, indeed, a happy new year for Dennis Hopper, and he chatters excitedly in a telephone interview, like a child opening a slew of unexpected presents.
"For the first time in five years, I don't owe anyone anything," he says. "I'm really cleaning up my act. I've cut way down on expenses. I own 320 beautiful acres here and have $41,000 in the bank. All I want to do is sit back and take my pick of what comes. As James Dean said in 'Giant' when the men offered to buy his land, "I think I'll just roll along, Madame . . .'"
It was not always so. Just two years ago, Hopper was struggling to ante up: to pay alimony and child support obligations from three split marriages and, at the same time, continue life according to whim. for tax reasons, and to sweeten producers' interest in employing him, he was accepting much of his acting pay as deferred income. In "Tracks," he pocketed $25,000 cash and deferred $300,000.
And when he tired of hustling to balance the books, Hopper would trundle back home to Taos, where a visitor might find him in a bar, nursing his wounds with tequila.
La Cocina is dark and stuffy and the air smells of chili. Dennis Hopper bellies up to the bar and orders a marguerita. His tongue darts out to lick the salt from the rim of the glass, and his blue-gray eyes, hawk-like, search the tables for friendly faces.
Captain American's good buddy is a slight man. He stands maybe 5'-6", with a gaunt, angular face, pale skin and stringy, shoulder-length brown hair flecked with gray. He sports crusty blue jeans and a plaid work shirt, pointy-toed cowboy boots and a handful of eagle feathers in a crumpled hat. Hopper laughs easily and seems to be on the lookout for a good time: a graying rebel out to ambush middle age with a vengeance. He is 41.
Word spreads fast in the Anglo cantina: Hopper is back. Winter in Taos can be so boring, dreary-cold; and nothing warms like a bit of racy gossip.
Suddenly, eyes adjust to the darkness; Hopper spies an empty table, slides in with a lady friend and begins chili-dunking a tortilla chip. The first of several notes, on napkins, scraps of paper, unpaid bar tabs, begin arriving. Most contain erotic drawings - grammar school quality bathroom grafitti. Notes from friends, mostly local artists fulfilling powerful thirsts in a constant fight to ward off Taos' winter ennui. They have overheard Hopper's latest dream about perhaps making a sexually explicit movie.
"I want to change film the way D.H. Lawrence and Henry Miller changed literature," he says.
Such talk makes them smile, and they begin dancing around his table in mock homage to the Porno Prince. Hopper fidgets on his leatherette throne and begins chain-smoking filter tips.
Hopper spent his childhood on his grandmother's wheat farm outside Dodge City, Kansas. His father, a World War II veteran of the OSS, worked for the post office; his mother managed a public swimming pool. His first sheep dow was a gift from the murdered family later profiled by Truman Capote in the book, "In Cold Blood."
He moved west as a teenage, graduated from high school in San Diego and, at 18, signed a contract with Warner Brothers. His first film was a small part in "Rebel Without A Cause," with James Dean. Hopper idolized him.
"James Dean was the best actor I've ever seenand the strangest person. I don't try to emulate him anymore," he cracks. "I've gotten there on my own."
In 1965, Hopper, who never attended college, was about to take a job teaching art and humanities at San Jose State University when Peter Fonda phoned him. Fonda had just completed a moderately successful biker film and had an idea about two dope smugglers who ride to Mardi Gras and get shot by a couple of duck hunters. It provided the kernel for "Easy Rider."
Hopper wrote the script in 17 days, shot the Mardi Gras sequence in five days without a script and finished the rest of the filming in five weeks at a total cost of $340,000, a coup that heralded a new era of low-budget movie-making. Originally an equal partner with Fonda, Hopper claims that by some sleight of hand, Fonda ended up with five per cent more of the action. Still, Hopper owns seven per cent of the film.
"'Easy Rider' was my state of the union message. It was a western, except the guys were riding motorcycles instead of horses. Peter, who played Wyatt, was Wyatt Earp, the good guy, and Billy, whom I played, was Billy the Kid, the outlaw . . . When I shot 'Easy Rider' in 1968, there were all the riots, Martin Luther King had been assassinated and John Kennedy before him. The hippies were the new niggers. So my heroes didn't have to be black to be treated differently, they just had to look different, have long hair."
Hopper was feeling pessimistic about the outcome of any confrontation between good and evil. "I didn't feel hopeful at all. Peter's bike, the beautiful chrome machine with the American flag on it, had all the money in the gas tank. And at the end, it exploded. We were going through a very bad stage in America, and if we didn't straighten up, I felt we'd go up just like Peter's motorcycle."
To use period rock 'n' roll to anchor the film in time, Hopper had to secure musicians' okay by previewing the film. Bob Dylan didn't like the violent ending and asked Hopper to change it. "Dylan didn't want us to die at the end," Hopper says. "He was really upset about Wyatt and Billy being killed and suggested this outrageous ending. He said, "You know the helicopter at the end? Why don't you have the helicopter swoop back down and shoot those rednecks in the truck?' Dylan wanted the good guys to win."
After shooting in Australia, Hopper flew to Brussels to act in "Flesh Colors," a French-Belgian film he describes as "an absurd type drama," opposite Verushka and Bianca Jagger. They play the heads of two rival mafia families in a sort of liberated "Godmother." What was it like working with Bianca?
"Working?" laughs Hopper. "I didn't enjoy it very much. I can't stand people who pretend to be stars and aren't. Madame Jagger spent a lot of time getting dressed up and putting on makeup. I spent a lot of time standing around waiting for her."
Next, it was on to the Philippines to join the crew for "Apocalypse Now," the mammoth Vietnam War movie in which Coppola has reportedly risked reputation and bankruptcy. Hopper calls it "the most impressive" film he's ever worked on.
"It was so well-organized, so disciplined, like Coppola made us into an army." Along with thousands of extras, there were Green Beret advisors, a tribe of headhunters trucked in from the jungle, a $6 million recreation of the Buddhist temples at Angkor Wat, a special effects explosion that required six miles of underground gasoline tanks and air strikes using real napalm.
"Man, we had our own Air Force and helicopters and every kind of gun you can imagine," says Hopper. "We did drills and maneuvers every day."
And like the military, Coppola required everyone involved to sign a secrecy oath not to reveal anything about the film. "So stop me if I say too much," Hopper laughs.
"Apocalypse Now," he says, is a modern version of Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness." He portrays a Pulitzer Prize-seeking photojournalist who cozies up to a green beret colonel, played by Marlon Brando. Brando, gone whacko to win, is busy orchestrating his own private war out of Cambodia. So the CIA dispatches a boat up river to find out how seriously the colonel has run amok. Hopper says his role expanded from 10 lines to give him equal billing with Brando and Robert DeNiro.
From the Philippines, Hopper went to Germany to co-star in "The American Friend," a slow-building, satisfying mystery thriller adapted from Patricia Highsmith's novel, "Ripley's Game." Hopper plays Tom Ripley, the morally ambiguous American "friend" who helps lure a Hamburg framemaker, Jonathan Zimmerman (Bruno Ganz), into a murder conspiracy.
In "The American Friend," Hopper, the American cowboy-in-exile, superbly exudes himself. And, down the road, he talks of rounding up singer-pals Willie Nelson, Waylong Jennings, Billy Joe Shaver and Jerry Jeff Walker for a possible film to be called "Honkey Tonk Heroes," if he can only find the backing.
Yet, while the future looks rosy, Hopper is unlikely to rekindle the furor of "Easy Rider" days. After that film, the Pope sent Hopper a letter branding him a persona non grata, equal to a letter of excommunication from the Catholic Church. And Dennis Hopper isn't even Catholic.