Dennis Hopper: Method Man

by Susan King



Dennis Hopper and Luana Anders in Night Tide (1961)


Dennis Hopper was just 18 years old when he thought he was the greatest young actor in Hollywood. Sure, he was cocky, but he had received rave reviews for playing a teen-age epileptic in a January 1955 episode of the acclaimed NBC series Medic.


Hopper was full of himself when he met James Dean after he was cast as a gang member in Nicholas Ray’s 1955 alienated youth masterpiece Rebel Without a Cause. He recalled in a 2000 L.A. Times interview with me that he was so gobsmacked by Dean’s commitment to realism as well as his intensity, he confessed to the legendary actor:


“I don’t have a clue what you are doing, but I know how great you are. What should I do? Should I stop my contract at Warner Brothers and go study with Lee Strasberg in New York?”


Dean told him to start doing things and not showing them. “He said don’t have any preconceived ideas about how the scene is going to play. Just go on a moment-to-moment reality level and don’t presuppose anything.”


Though they became good friends when they were both cast in George Stevens’ Oscar-winning 1956 film Giant, which was Dean’s final feature, the actor was standoffish toward Hopper on Rebel.


“I was 18 and he was five years older,” said Hopper. “That is really a big difference. His whole life was acting. Some days he could come in and you would say ‘hello’ to him and he’d walk right by you. He was total concentration on what he was doing. Other days he was gracious and open.”


Hopper, who died in 2010 at the age of 74, heeded Dean’s advice throughout his career. Just look at his landmark performance as the drug-dealing biker Billy opposite Peter Fonda’s Wyatt in the seminal 1969 Easy Rider, which he directed and co-wrote with Fonda and Terry Southern. That low-budget counterculture classic changed the cinematic landscape.


Or contemplate the two brilliant performances he gave in 1986’s Blue Velvet and Hoosiers. Hopper was terrifying in the David Lynch masterpieces as vicious drug dealer Frank Booth who huffs on an unknown gas which heightens his rage and sexual arousal. And his heartbreaking turn as the town drunk in Hoosiers earned him an Oscar nomination for supporting actor.


But commitment to his craft also got him in a trouble. In 1958, he was making the western From Hell to Texas for veteran director Henry Hathaway. In a 1986 interview he recounted what happened:


“I wouldn’t do a scene the way director Henry Hathaway wanted…It was 10 in the morning when we started. Ten that night we were up to the 85th take for the same scene. On the 86th I broke down and cried. On the 87th I did it his way. Then I walked out of the studio, and I was banned from Hollywood.”


Well, not exactly banned. Hopper did a lot of television-even an episode of CBS’ rural comedy Petticoat Junction - before, ironically, Hathaway cast him in his first major feature, the 1965 John Wayne Western, The Sons of Katie Elder.


It also didn’t help that Hopper was described as “Hollywood’s Original Hell-Raiser.” His drug and alcohol issues and subsequent paranoia were well-known in Tinseltown, especially in the early 1980s. In a 2009 G interview, the actor said he consumed 28 beers and half a gallon of rum with a three grams of cocaine chaser every day. 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. "


But in-between television gigs, Hopper landed his first starring role in a feature, the threadbare budgeted fantasy/horror flick Night Tide, which streams June 17 on The Film Detective.


Written and directed by noted filmmaker Curtis Harrington, Night Tide premiered in 1961 at the Spoleto Film Festival in Italy where it was named the top American film of that year. But due to various issues, the film wasn’t released until 1963 as part of a double bill with American International Pictures’ The Raven.


Hopper is at his Method best in Night Tide. He brings a haunted longing, obsession, and naivete to the role of Johnny Drake, a baby-faced young sailor on shore leave in Santa Monica, who meets a mysterious young woman named Mora (Linda Lawson). She works as a mermaid in one of the Pier's sideshow attractions and lives in an apartment above the famed merry-go-round. She also can catch seagulls with her bare hands. Before you can say “amour fou,” Johnny is smitten.


We know he’s in deep trouble after Mora tells him she believes she’s a Siren - a mythical creature who lures sailors to their death - and is warned by the merry-go-round operator and his daughter that Mora’s last two boyfriends mysteriously drowned. But Johnny is too mesmerized by this mermaid to heed their warnings.


There is a French New Wave feel to Night Tide especially in its evocative black-and-white cinematography of Vilis Lapenieks and an uncredited Floyd Crosby - David’s dad - who won an Oscar for F.W. Murnau’s 1931 Tabu: A Story of the South Sea.


“The casual naturalism of the film seems unrelated to the world of Gothic monsters and bug-eyed aliens that dominated horror fare of the early 1960s,” wrote David Kalat on TCM.com. “If audiences had ever seen anything quite like this before it would have been in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless’ (1960). Like Godard’s groundbreaking masterpiece, Harrington’s film exploits the genre elements to provide structure to a film that presents itself as slice-of-life glimpse of a disaffected youth culture.”


Hopper was a true Renaissance man. Though best known for his film and TV work, he was a renowned photographer who, from 1961-67, took stunning black-and-white studies of actors, bullfighters, political figures and rock stars and had a renowned art collection including the works of Andy Warhol - he appeared in two Warhol films in the 1960s - and Jean-Michel Basquiat among others.


And he loved the Marx Brothers. Peter Fonda recalled in a 2011 L.A. Times interview I conducted, the time he got a call from Hopper who told Fonda to “pick me up. We are going to a museum in Pasadena. We are going to watch Duck Soup. I love the Marx Brothers, but I never knew about Duck Soup." The 1933 political satire directed by Leo McCarey was a flop upon release and marked the brothers’ last film at Paramount. “It was totally anti-fascist,” said Fonda. “It was banned in Spain and Italy. The film was hysterical.”


They kept going back to see it, each time bringing more of their friends. The comedy is now one of the most beloved Marx Brothers because it is so anarchic and zany. Fonda believed Hopper’s love of Duck Soup lead to its revival in the 1960s.


“After that, the film started to be shown around. I think a lot of it is due to the fact Dennis got so excited, he got other people excited about it.”


*** *** ***


Susan King was a film/TV/theater writer at the Los Angeles Times for 26 years specializing in Classic Hollywood.


The Film Detective presents Night Tide on Friday, June 17 at 8:00 PM ET.

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