In 1983 Dennis Hopper went to Rice University in Houston, Texas ostensibly to screen his latest film Out Of The Blue. But little known to anyone, other than Hopper and a handful of his buddies, he had another agenda entirely. While he did indeed screen his movie, Hopper had actually come to Houston to blow himself up.
After screening Out Of The Blue, Hopper arranged to have the audience driven by a fleet of school buses to a racetrack on the outskirts of Houston, the Big H Speedway. Hopper and the buses arrived at the speedway just as the races were ending and a voice was announcing over the public address system “stick around folks and watch a famous Hollywood film personality perform the Russian Dynamite Death Chair Act. That’s right, folks, he’ll sit in a chair with six sticks of dynamite and light the fuse.”
Was famous Hollywood personality Dennis Hopper about to go out with a bang?
Hopper apparently learned this stunt when he was a kid after seeing it performed in a traveling roadshow. If you place the dynamite pointing outwards the explosion creates a vacuum in the middle and the person performing the stunt is, if all goes according to plan, unharmed.
After bullshitting for awhile with the crowd and his friends, a drunk and stoned Hopper climbed into the “death chair’ and lit the dynamite.
A Rice News correspondent described the scene:
Dennis Hopper, at one with the shock wave, was thrown headlong in a halo of fire. For a single, timeless instant he looked like Wile E. Coyote, frazzled and splayed by his own petard. Then billowing smoke hid the scene. We all rushed forward, past the police, into the expanding cloud of smoke, excited, apprehensive, and no less expectant than we had been before the explosion. Were we looking for Hopper or pieces we could take home as souvenirs? Later Hopper would say blowing himself up was one of the craziest things he has ever done, and that it was weeks before he could hear again. At the moment, though, none of that mattered. He had been through the thunder, the light, and the heat, and he was still in one piece. And when Dennis Hopper staggered out of that cloud of smoke his eyes were glazed with the thrill of victory and spinout.
In this video footage shot by filmmaker Brian Huberman, we see Hopper in all his intoxicated glory before and after his death defying stunt.
At the peak of his fame and influence, from 1964 to 1966, Andy Warhol created somewhere around 500 (the number 472 popped up in my research, as seen below) so-called “screen tests.” Every screen test was a single close-up take of an individual in front of the camera lasting a little shy of three minutes—the idea was that Warhol would run them at two-thirds speed, which resulted in movies about four minutes long each. The short movies that resulted had a consistency of aesthetic feel and featured a wide variety of people, who can be roughly classified into three groups: Factory mainstays, famous people, and un-famous people. Warhol said that he did screen tests for anyone who possessed “star potential.”
As Geralyn Huxley, curator of film and video at the Andy Warhol Museum, wryly points out, “none of them appear to have been used for the purpose of actually testing or auditioning prospective actors.” Some notable people who consented to undergo the Warhol screen test treatment are John Ashbery, Marcel Duchamp, Cass Elliott, Allen Ginsberg, Bob Dylan, Yoko Ono, Salvador Dalí, Donovan, and Susan Sontag.
The track titles on the album are very redolent of the Factory as well as the general VU scene: “Silver Factory Theme,” “Teenage Lightning (And Lonely Highways),” “Incandescent Innocent,” and “Knives From Bavaria.” In addition to much original Luna-esque music of the gorgeous and dreamy variety, the album featured covers of Bob Dylan’s “I’ll Keep It With Mine” and VU’s “I’m Not a Young Man Anymore.”
In 2012 LuxeCrush asked Dean and Britta about the project:
LuxeCrush: How did this “13 Most Beautiful…” project, pairing your music with Andy Warhol stills, come about? I love the interdisciplinary film/music idea!
Wareham: We were approached by Ben Harrison at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh; he described the hundreds of films that the Museum had access to (Warhol made 472 Screen Tests) and asked could we pick thirteen of them and create soundtracks to perform live on stage.
LuxeCrush: What is your favorite Warhol art work, moment or saying? And did either of you ever get to meet Andy?
Wareham: Neither of us ever met Andy. But I love watching him answering interview questions. Where most artists are trained to give long-winded theoretical explanations of why they paint a particular way, he would just say “because it’s easy.” Warhol never ceases to amaze me. We are used to seeing the same famous images again and again (Marilyn, Coke Bottles, soup cans, etc.), but there is so much more, from his early drawings for department stores to his late paintings, paintings for children, TV shows, films. He had a way of turning things upside down.
Lots of lovely and stirring videos of Dean & Britta scoring the screen tests after the jump…...
The year was 1970 and Dennis Hopper was still riding the wake of the internationally huge cultural phenomenon of Easy Rider. Clearly, the cat could get away with just about anything including appearing on Johnny Cash’s weekly TV show reading Rudyard Kipling’ poem “If.” Now most of us pop culture obsessives have seen this clip of Hopper on the Cash show. It’s pretty pervasive on the ‘net and you may have already stumbled across it. But some smart cookie by the name of “Gints Apsits” has played around with the Hopper footage and created something that might resemble where Hopper’s psychedelicized head could have been at this particular point in his life.
Not only do words infect, egotize, narcotize, and paralyze, but they enter into and colour the minutest cells of the brain. . . . Rudyard Kipling.
Perhaps we’re watching Hopper watching himself through the eyes of his gas-huffing character Frank Booth. Or is that too damned heavy meta?
I am a child of the 1970s, so Dennis Hopper really means two things to me, Blue Velvet first and Easy Rider second. For me, Hopper doesn’t have much of an identity before Easy Rider, which goes to explain why I had scarcely any idea of his excellent photography (and excellent connections to the art world) during the 1960s. This information helps inform some of his filmmaking career, for instance his artistic intransigence over The Last Movie—only someone steeped in modernist art and abstract expressionism would ever have made such a stand. Everyday I Show brings us an excellent selection of Hopper’s b/w pics from the 1960s, be sure to click there to see more of them. Hopper wasn’t in the league of a Diane Arbus or a Garry Winogrand, but he clearly knew what he was doing and also had some great subjects in the form of Jane Fonda, Andy Warhol, Ed Ruscha, plus Teri Garr (!).
Sometimes Dennis Hopper was a whiner who played the James Dean role of angsty misunderstood outsider, blaming his woes on “the man,” or those philistines in Hollywood who didn’t appreciate his art. He had a point, but in his younger days, he was often infuriatingly naive about how life and Hollywood worked. Sure, he had talent, he had ambition, but he also had (by his own admission) a big mouth and no power—which can be a major drawback to those who seek to change the world.
After the success of Easy Rider, Hollywood thought they could exploit Hopper’s success by hiring him to make another movie, a kind of Easy Rider 2. They didn’t care what it was about so long as it made them money, lots of money. But when rumors about Hopper’s drug-addled unreliability spread through Tinsel Town, and certain studios withdrew their offers of finance damned fast. Even his gun-toting music producer friend Phil Spector walked away from stumping up dollars for Dennis after he was reminded about the actor/director’s incredible appetite for drugs. It was therefore a surprise when Universal (home of Frankenstein and Dracula) gave Hopper a million to make The Last Movie.
Hopper planned to make his movie-within-a-movie 14,000 feet up the Peruvian Andes, in a tiny village called Chinchero, which should have made the accountants nervous, not just because of the logistics involved in transporting crew, actors, and film gear to this faraway location, but because Peru was one of the world’s leading producers of cocaine. But as Hopper had signed up for a small salary and a share of the profits, Universal agreed. However, a hint of what was to come during the filming was witnessed by some of the press, who accompanied cast and crew on the flight out, as Hopper and co. started passing round the inordinately large supply of in-flight drugs.
But this was only the start, as on arrival Hopper pissed off the Peruvian government and the Catholic church by proselytizing about the joys of marijuana and speaking out in support of homosexuality. Of course, he was right on both counts, but it meant he had two major enemies determined to have this “hippie revolutionary” kicked out of their country. Government spies were sent into Chinchero to watch the filming in the hope of finding evidence to deport Hopper. Understandably, this did not help the already paranoid auteur.
As described in Robert Sellers’ book Hollywood Hellraisers, drugs were cheap in Peru, and “within hours of arriving a crew hand managed to score some cocaine, seven dollars for a packet that cost ten times that in the States. By the first evening some thirty members of the crew were sniffing the stuff, or smoking grass or dropping acid.”
There were wild parties a plenty…. One actor chained a girl to a post because she looked like Joan of Arc and he wanted to re-enact the saint’s immolation. There was also a rumor that another actor almost died when he took too many peyote buds at once.
Hopper managed to get a priest defrocked after involving him in a drug-fueled mass for James Dean, while the locals stripped a horse clean of its meat after it was killed in a riding accident. Filmmaker Kit Carson described the filming:
That whole shoot, that was one of the most out-of-control situations I’ve ever seen.
But Hopper was professional, and finished filming on time and under budget—it was the editing that was to cause his biggest problem. Hopper moved to Taos, New Mexico, to put the whole film together. This was when Universal started seriously worrying about what they had actually paid for. Major arguments ensued, and Hopper went slowly mad in Taos under the influence of drugs and drink. Remarkably he did finish and deliver The Last Movie, which says much for his tenacity, but still, Universal were horrified.
One executive said to Dennis, ‘Great, so you made an artistic film. What are we supposed to do, kill you? Only a dead artist makes money. We’ll only make money on this picture if you die.’ Dennis was livid. ‘Don’t talk to me like that. You’re talking to a paranoiac.’ And he wasn’t joking.
Hopper had made a million-dollar European art house movie for a company who mainly made mass entertainment. His close buddy, Jack Nicholson, was supportive of Hopper, but thought he gone about the whole thing the wrong way:
You don’t take someone’s bread and then walk across the street and say “Fuck you.”
The Last Movie won the Critics Prize at the Venice Film Festival, but bombed in America with both audiences and critics. Though it’s an indulgent movie, with a rather simplistic message, I’m still glad Hopper made it, as it pushed the boundaries of what could be made in Hollywood. Unfortunately, it ended Hopper’s career for the next ten years.
So that’s the back story to this little clip of a slightly bombed Hopper, who having won his award still knows what Universal and the critics think of his film, as he discusses The Last Movie with baseball player Willie Mays, actors James Brolin and Diane Baker, on The Merv Griffin Show from 1971.
There’s something in celebrities ‘fessin-up about how they became clean and sober that has replaced the witch trials as popular entertainment. Once it was naming familiars and butt-sex with the coven, now it’s mea culpa on Oprah, with tie-in book and a ten-minute-work-out DVD. (Of course, the conspiracist might take this just a wee bit further by pointing out the date of the first Salem witch hanging was June 10th, 1692; while Alcoholics Anonymous was founded on June 10th, in 1935.)
To be frank, I’m not too impressed by hoary old tales of some star’s drink and drug excess, as I don’t think it important, especially in today’s culture of such ubiquitous and casual drug use. Haven’t we all been down that rabbit hole numerous times before, and all lived to tell the tale?
Of course, once it was novel and even considered revolutionary, but now drug taking is as commonplace as a franchise outlet. Blogs send out their hacks stoned or tripping to interview the dull and unwary, while our favorite TV chefs are exposed by trial to have allegedly snorted their way through the housekeeping money. (The most scandalous part of that last tale was not the alleged drug use, but the fact nearly a million dollars goes missing and nobody thought it important enough to investigate? How the 1% lives, eh?)
Of course, there has always been an element of pretend machismo in how many grams, pills, and shots one can take—like those would-be-writers who once daily stood wreathed in cigarette smoke at the end of the bar, downing pint-after-pint-after-pint, short-after-short, as if alcohol consumption were some Herculean challenge. Ah, we’ve all been there—no?
Dennis Hopper was there in spades. By all accounts he should have died from his excessive indulgence of drugs and booze. He didn’t. He went briefly mad instead, and ended-up in a mental hospital, where it is claimed Hopper was exhibited as a (barely) walking “Just Say No” advertisement (One can imagine the scene.)
Then Hopper got clean and sober and told everyone about it. You could say he switched his addiction for self-gratification to an addiction for work, acting in virtually every film, TV show, and video game he was offered. His aim was to be a grown-up, and provide for his family. This meant acting in a lot of duff films, such as playing King Koopa in Super Mario Brothers.
After seeing Super Mario Brothers, Dennis’ son Henry asked his father, “Why did you do that?” Dennis smiled and replied, “To buy you shoes.” Henry didn’t smile back at his father, “I don’t need shoes that badly,” he said.
It must have been galling for the clean and sober Hopper to see so many ill-conceived and poorly written movies get made (no matter the size of the pay-check), especially as he had tried for many years to make his own movies when he was under-the-influence. I know which ones I prefer.
In 1994, Dennis Hopper was the focus of this documentary for the BBC series Moving Pictures. It’s a star-studded, access-all-areas program, richly informative with a great central interview with Hopper, who happily ‘fesses up to just about everything.
Dennis Hopper plays a George Lincoln Rockwell-like neo-Nazi in this creepy 1963 episode of The Twilight Zone.
Written by Rod Serling and directed by Stuart Rosenberg (Cool Hand Luke), “He’s Alive” is Serling at his preachiest but it’s a message that when it aired in January of 1963 was particularly relevant. At the time, The American Nazi Party and its psycho leader George Lincoln Rockwell were getting International attention. The roots of the White Power movement were beginning to take root and plenty of people were both repelled and drawn to Rockwell and his goose-stepping racist followers.
Hopper’s jittery intensity suits the role perfectly.
Happy birthday Dennis Hopper. You were one of the great mad geniuses of American pop culture.
During the Sixties Taos was a rural hippie Mecca. Communes like New Buffalo, Reality Construction Company and The Hog Farm popped up around this Northern New Mexican town like ‘shrooms in a field of cow pies. In 1969 I spent a few weeks at the Lama Foundation, a commune 20 miles outside Taos, where I lived in a small A-frame and spent most my time reading books and staring off into the endless New Mexico sky. This quiet mountain area was propelled into the national consciousness when Dennis Hopper shot footage in the vicinity of Taos for Easy Rider. It kind of changed things forever. Taos went from being a low key destination to a center for hippie tourism. The locals hated it.
I moved back to Taos in 2002 and lived there for seven years. The legacy of Dennis Hopper and Easy Rider still color the town and what was once seen as an intrusion by a bunch of Hollywood hipsters has now become an honorable part of the town’s history.
Hopper ended up living in Taos for a short time. He bought the historic Mabel Dodge Lujan house and the El Cortez movie theater in 1970. Throughout his life, Hopper would return to Taos. He was made honorary Mayor of the town and is buried in Jesus Nazareno Cemetery, Ranchos de Taos.
It was in Taos that Hopper struggled with his follow-up film to Easy Rider, the misunderstood, flawed, masterpiece The Last Movie. Hopper practically lost his mind (some say he did lose it) while trying to edit the film into a commercially viable product. He spent a year doing so and the end result was both a critical and commercial disaster.
I saw The Last Movie when it was released in 1971. I found it an amazing head film that rivaled Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo for sheer mind-blowing brilliance. But my first viewing was enhanced by some Nepalese finger hash and subsequent small screen viewings of the movie haven’t been quite as psychedelically satisfying.
While Hopper was madly trying to edit The Last Movie, he called upon the help of Jodorowsky and the Chilean brujo went to Taos to offer his insight.
In a 2008 interview with Damien Love, Jodorowsky discussed the Taos experience:
I had showed El Topo privately around the studios, I showed it to Metro Golden Mayer, Universal. And, all the time, the people at the screenings were enthusiastic, but then, when the salesmen came along, they would say, “We don’t know to sell this picture.” And Dennis Hopper was at one of these private shows, and he liked El Topo a lot. And so he invited me to come to Taos. And in Taos, he had four or six editing machines and twelve editors working. At that time, he didn’t know what to with The Last Movie. And I saw the material, I thought it was a fantastic story. And I said, “I can help.” I was there for two days, and in two days I edited the picture. I think I made it very good. I liked it. But when he went to show it to Hollywood, they didn’t want it, because by then he was in conflict with them. Later, I think that Dennis Hopper decided that he couldn’t use my edit, because he needed to do it himself. And so he destroyed what I did, and I don’t know what he did with it later. I never told that to anybody through the years, but I am sure that if, one day, they found my edit, it was fantastic. Because the material was fantastic. I took out everything that was too much like a love story or too much Marxist politics. For me it was one of the greatest pictures I have ever seen. It was so beautiful, so different. I don’t know what it is like now, how it has been edited, the final thing, I don’t know if he conserved anything of mine. But it was a fantastic film. One thing I do remember from back then, though, was how strong the smell of Dennis Hopper’s underarm perspiration was. It was so strong, and one day — he had I think ten women there — and I put everyone in a line in order for them to smell the perfume of Dennis Hopper. Because he never changed his shirt, for days upon days. He smelled very strong. That I remember.
My good friend Bill Whaley, who has been a seminal part of Taos’s art culture since the 1960’s, wrote about his encounters with Hopper around this time in local paper The Horsefly, of which Whaley was the publisher. Here’s Bill’s account of first seeing The Last Movie at a private screening in Taos and a rumination on what Hopper was going through while editing the movie.
If I’m not mistaken, El Topo was first shown at El Cortez Theatre in Rachos de Taos, Dec. 13, 1970. At the time, I managed the theater for Dennis Hopper. Then he was still editing The Last Movie at the Mabel Dodge House. The latter was about four to six hours in length. David or Dennis or perhaps Diana Schwab, David’s secretary phoned me and asked me to arrange for a special screening of a film on Sunday afternoon, which turned out to be El Topo. After watching El Topo, which blew everyone’s mind, we watched the rough version of The Last Movie. That evening, we showed the regularly scheduled feature: Fellini’s Satyricon. My mind was deluged by too many images. I never recovered. Due to its complex themes and brilliant cinematography, I remember thinking that Dennis might turn out to be the next American Fellini if he could edit The Last Movie with some sense of its mimetic qualities. That promise remained unrealized.
In Taos, the real Dennis Hopper appeared to get all mixed up with the artistic conceit or character represented up there on the screen of The Last Movie. Whether due to the demons or stimulants that dominated his psyche, he had committed himself to a course of action that ultimately undermined his project. As Dennis edited The Last Movie he appeared to call on the same techniques of personal emotion that a method actor uses as inspiration, but this time employed to cut the film. Somewhere in the cross over between film and life, Dennis appeared to lose access to the rational faculties and objective reality that are also a necessary part of life and the artistic process–at least in terms of the conventions of story telling and a semblance of acceptable behavior.”
Hopper stories in Taos are legend. He could be a loud-mouthed, gun-toting drunk - he showed up hammered at a city council meeting toting a shotgun - who tried to fuck every flower child that moved (foreshadowing Frank Booth). He could also be a gentle, stoned philosopher who appreciated the deep spiritual aura radiating from the magnificent Sangre de Cristo mountain range that towered over Taos like great stone gods. He hung out with artists and hippies and did his damnedest to support the local culture. But in a small town where locals have trouble accepting outsiders, Hopper may have been too much of shit stirrer, too big of a presence and too batshit crazy, even for the open-air madhouse that is Taos.
Locals claim that Taos Mountain will steal a piece of your soul so that you must stay in order to feel whole or the mountain will ultimately reject you, sending you on your way. With Hopper, the mountain did a little of both. Ultimately, it accepted him…or else one day he’s gonna crawl out of his grave and come raging into town with shotgun barrel blazing.
In L.M. (Kit) Carson’s 1971 documentary The American Dreamer we follow Hopper as he struggles with the film making process, hot tubs with groupies, rambles, pontificates, mindfucks, and gradually goes gloriously mad while wrestling with celluloid and the visions in his ever-expanding brain.
For more of Bill Whaley’s tales of Dennis Hopper in Taos, visit The Horsefly archives.
Dennis Hopper was thirteen when he first sniffed gasoline and watched the clouds turn into clowns and goblins. There was little else to do in Dodge City, where he had been born and raised. Catch lightning bugs, fly his kite, burn newspapers, swim. Hopper was, by his own words, “desperate.” A sensitive child without the stimulation to keep his fevered imagination in check.
Hopper went to movies and watched Abbott and Costello and Errol Flynn. He got home and got high on gasoline fumes and became Abbott and Costello meets Errol Flynn, and wrecked his grandfather’s truck with a baseball bat. It was a hint of what was to come.
Signed to Warner Bros at eighteen, Hopper identified with Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando, and James Dean, but found he was expected to conform to the studio’s whims. He was too full of himself, too high on being Brando, Dean and Clift to conform—“I’m a fucking genius, man,” he told anyone who listened. His fuck you attitude saw him picked on and bullied and by old time studio director Henry Hathaway, who had him black-balled from Hollywood.
Over the next few years, Hopper did little work. He picked-up a camera and channeled his talent iby documenting the social and cultural changes happening across America during the 1950s and 1960s. He became a “gallery bum”. Where others went to the beach, Hopper hung around art galleries looking for inspiration.
He met and became friends with the young artists whose works were exhibited—Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg and Ed Ruscha—and he started to collect—but it wasn’t about the money.
“My idea of collecting is not going and buying bankable names, but buying people that I believe are really contributing something to my artistic life.”
This short film takes us inside the late actor’s home-studio, where he gives a quick tour around his collection of Modern Art works, from Julian Schnabel, Jean Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, and Ed Ruscha.
Two short clips from Irwin Allen’s The Story of Mankind (1957), a bizarre movie loosely based on the non-fiction book by Hendrik Willem van Loon.
The film tells of the trial of mankind by a council elders form outer space, who must decide whether humankind should be allowed to continue or be vaporized. For the defense, the dapper Ronald Colman as The Spirit of Man. For the prosecution, the camp Vincent Price as The Devil. The pair deliberate on the evidence, which is taken from key moments in human history, from Julius Ceaser to Christopher Columbus, Elizabeth I to Napoleon. You get the picture.
The cast was a Hollywood producer’s wet dream, which included Virginia Mayo as Cleopatra, Peter Lorre as Nero, Hedy Lamarr as Joan of Arc, Agnes Moorehead as Queen Elizabeth I, Harpo Marx as Isaac Newton and even Groucho Marx.
In the first clip, two very different acting styles come together, as Dennis Hopper presents his Method Napoleon, against Marie Windsor’s Hollywood Josephine. The two styles don’t quite gel, but Hopper’s speech about a “United States of Europe” is highly topical, considering French President Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s current ambitions.
The second clip has Harpo Marx as Isaac Newton discovering gravity and sliced apples with his harp.