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Dennis Hopper R.I.P.

dennis_hopper_wallpaper_4-otherI was in Los Angeles last March when Dennis Hopper received his star on the Walk of Fame but decided not to go down and check out the ceremony. It was being billed as his last public appearance and something inside me didn’t want to see him wasted away and frail. As someone who has witnessed, up close and personal, the terrible effects of cancer I thought it would be too much and preferred to remember him as the stoned Billy from “Easy Rider” or “Blue Velvet’s” unhinged Frank Booth. But one photograph from the event made me regretful I didn’t make the trip to Hollywood Boulevard (it’s in front of Grauman’s Egyptian Theater) that afternoon. Most of the coverage focused on Hopper and his frail state; his arm bandaged and wearing a hat that looked a size or two too big for his wizened head, but a photo of the actor with his old buddy Jack Nicholson was filled with such warmth I would have liked to have been there to soak up the vibe. It’s a simple picture, just the two old guys smiling and laughing at some unheard joke. I know it’s the kind of picture that frequently comes out of these events and these men, who have spent their entire lives in the public eye, certainly know the value of putting a happy spin on a melancholy event, but in this case it looks genuine, like two old friends sharing a private moment. I hope it is. I hope in the midst of Hopper’s battle with cancer—and his ex-wife—the moment in the photo is genuine and provided the actor with a respite (however brief) from the pain. I only met Hopper once, but it was a memorable interview for a less than memorable film. It took place at an Italian restaurant in The Grove behind the Farmer’s Market (where Hopper’s old friend James Dean ate his last meal on the day he died) in Los Angeles. It was a junket for “Knockaround Guys” and he was one of three or four interviews, the others being Vin Diesel, Seth Green and maybe one or two others. Unlike most of these junket situations, this time the interviews were out in the open, and the reporters could all watch each other work. I remember watching in horror as one 19 year-old-twinkie, who clearly didn’t know who Hopper was, do her interview. She, I guess, was there to speak to Seth Green and Vin Diesel and was just killing time with Hopper. Her interview started with, “So! How did you get into acting?”—he mentioned Lee Strasberg, Brando and a few other names she didn’t recognize—and went downhill from there. At the time it seemed like I was watching the end of entertainment journalism. Who could do this for a living and not know who Dennis Hopper was? Luckily he was treated with more respect by everyone who came after. I got to him later in the day. He was wearing a three piece banker’s suit and smoking a cigar that must have been a foot-and-a-half long. I honestly don’t remember what we talked about, but I do remember his energy. In real life he seemed powerful, intimidating and edgy, much like many of the characters he played. He was exactly as I imagined him to be and I walked away feeling like I had just met a legend. Like anyone whose career spanned decades Hopper made some great movies, some good ones and some not-so-good ones, but I don’t think we’ll see the likes of him again. Is there an actor working today who could terrify and shock audiences as Frank Booth in “Blue Velvet” and charm them as Shooter in “Hoosiers” in the same calendar year? He had a unique ability to channel his demons into believable and riveting performances. His presence filled the screen and now that his career is over he won’t be remembered as a great leading man—he never quite made that leap—but a great character actor who was a name above the title star. The unpredictability that fuelled his personal life and often sidelined his career informed his characters and unlike so many of his contemporaries he was never less than interesting and certainly never bored the audience. Is there a better tribute to an actor?

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