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The San Diego Roots Of Hollywood Rebel Dennis Hopper

March 18, 2013 12:44 p.m.

Guest: Tom Folsom, author of "Hopper: A Journey into the American dream."

Related Story: The San Diego Roots Of Hollywood Rebel Dennis Hopper


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Still ahead we explore the San Diego roots of Hollywood rebel Dennis Hopper. That is as KPBS Midday Edition continues. When you think of actor Dennis Hopper which image pops into your head? Is it the long-haired hippie writing the motorcycling Easy Rider, maybe the creepy voyeur in the oxygen mask from blue velvet, or maybe the freshfaced high school troublemaker in rebel without a cause. Hopper's acting career spanned decades, but it got it's hard at La Mesa's helix high school and at the old Globe in the ballpark and the La Jolla Playhouse. Hopper San Diego roots are one of the facets examined in the book about the multifaceted life of this multifaceted artist. Joining me is Tom Folsom. He's the author of the new book, Hopper. And Tom, welcome to the program.

TOM FOLSOM: Hi, thanks for having me.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I just mentioned some of Dennis Hopper's icon his movie roles and another one that comes to mind is the crazed photojournalist in Apocalypse now. Many actors would love to have just one of these roles live after them, but in your book you include a snippet of an interview Hopper did with Charlie Rose where he calls his career a failure. Why do you think that is?

TOM FOLSOM: You have to remember this is a guy who revolutionized the film industry with Easy Rider. He could have been one of the great directors of the world. I mean, on a level of Bergman, Fellini, he was very much place to do that. And I think what he meant from that, it was sort of the follow-up from his follow-up to Easy Rider which was the last movie. It was a very personal project for Dennis. And it did not turn out so well for him. I mean sort of your respective of what you think of the movie or the quality, it's very avant-garde and it just was not working in a Hollywood system. So Dennis probably think I think that he could've been a great director.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And it didn't work out. Let's go back to the very beginning of his career. When did Hopper began acting, was that in school plays here in San Diego?

TOM FOLSOM: It certainly was. His first role was when he was 13 years old he played an urgent in the Christmas Carol.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: At the old Globe in Balboa Park.

TOM FOLSOM: Absolutely for Hopper, the Globe just opened up this world of Shakespearean magic. People don't think of Dennis Hopper as a Shakespearean actor, but low and behold he certainly was. He was in one of the Shakespeare festivals right after he graduated. He played a fellow in merchant of Venice, so Dennis really had I think by the time he hit Hollywood at 18 he was a seasoned actor, well-trained classical Shakespearean actor.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And he came of age, well, he was still a teenager, but he worked backstage at La Jolla Playhouse when that was really just in its infancy back in the early 1950s. And then he got his first contact with Hollywood. Tell us about that.

TOM FOLSOM: Well you've got to imagine Dennis, and he's like all of us, you grow up watching movies and Dennis had a particular love for the movies ever since he was a little boy in Dodge city Kansas and he'd watched the singing cowboy movies and he really wanted to be up there on screen, not just as an actor it seems for Dennis Hopper, but actually a cowboy. So you've got to imagine Dennis, and he's I think 16 years old at this time and all of a sudden he's surrounded by movie stars because the La Jolla Playhouse was in fact sort of created to let actors really the work on their chops. Movie acting is a very specific thing. It is cut and this and that, but of course you can't really act like onstage enough that the La Jolla Playhouse is for.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: you have this photograph in the book that really captures this moving, wide-eyed expression on Dennis Hopper's face as he is literally backstage them on the ropes watching someone performon stage at the La Jolla Playhouse. It really does show his ambition and his love of this entire theatrical world.

TOM FOLSOM: It's just beaming on his face. Mean he's literally hanging on to the curtain like it's going to hoist him up to the moment. In this case he was actually watching Dorothy McGuire who is playing Sally Bowles in line in camera, and I think he sort of had as one person called it a worshipful passion for Dorothy McGuire. So while he's watching Dorothy and she's on stage and he's so mesmerized by her performance he forgets to pull the curtain that he is supposed to it it's his only job and he blows it so Dorothy is there stranded on stage so after that Dennis as well I wasn't allowed to pull curtains anymore, so I had to clean the toilets now of movie stars and that for Dennis was thrilling. When I get to clean the toilets of movie stars.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You can almost see Dennis Hopper with that kind of manic energy that he always had through his career, just revving up for this leap that he made to Hollywood. And of course, his pigs movie role was in rebel without a cause. The next movie was giant, both starred James Dean. How did Dean influence Dennis Hopper's acting and really his life?

TOM FOLSOM: As we were saying earlier, Dennis was his classically trained Shakespearean actor by the time he was 18. So, his heroes were Orson Welles, Laurence Olivier. That sort of grandiose style. People might look at it now and say that it's a little hammy. I think James Dean certainly thought it was pretty hammy, because he shows up on rebel without a cause, and he's acting pyrotechnics, he's doing things that people had not seen before on the screen, howling, leaping. I think Truffaut, you compared him to kind of a jungle cat when he was talking about Dean, so when you are hyper he's like well, everything that I've learned about acting, he's not doing any of this. He's doing something completely different. And I think that Dennis, that's what he wanted to do. How do I tap that secret to be able to do what James Dean is doing?

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And because of that from your book it tells us how really devastated he was when James Dean died at such an early age. But he was sort of, he really sort of took on the mantle in his roles in Hollywood and he paid a price for it.

TOM FOLSOM: He certainly did. The studios were concerned considering Dennis Hopper to be the next James Dean. People didn't even think that Dean was dead. He had crashed in his Porsche spider only a few weeks before rebel without a cause opened, and you have giant the film which Dennis Hopper is also in coming on the heels of that. So Dean is getting fan mail from all over the country that just refuse to believe he was dead. So someone has to suck up the energy and Dennis Hopper was really sort of the one that the studios place to do that.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And he did it a little bit better than some directors would have enjoyed him doing that. He was blackballed for a while because of that, because he was insolent, is that the word?

TOM FOLSOM: That's very much the word. There's probably a lot of harsher words you might say about that if you were a director working with Dennis. The great showdown as he's doing this film, Hell to Texas with Henry Hathaway, a really old guard crusty director, and so Hathaway wants to shoot a Western. It's got to be one way, black-and-white, good versus evil it's simple, it's a Western. Dennis is asking questions about psychology, he's like, why would he do this? So he's driving him nuts and he's just being really a pain in the neck I would say Dennis Hopper to the director. so he didn't really get such a terrific reputation. I think what Dennis was trying to do was sort of to emulate Dean. Dean had the sort of fantastic showdowns on the set of giant with George Stevens but you have to remember James Dean was also James Dean. He was getting something of a reputation that this is the guy to bank money on. Dennis Hopper by the time he's really acting has sort of Dean fixation, he's been doing a string of bad guy roles sort of the bad guy in Westerns, so he's pretty expendable, I think, to the studios. They are not going to put up with that.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with Tom., He's the author of a new book about Dennis Hopperabout the actor called Hopper. So when he could get work in Hollywood there was a while there in the early 60s, he turned to one of his other passions, and that is his love of art. In fact you know we had a huge retrospective here in San Diego and Southern California of 20th-century California art called Pacific standard Time, in which Dennis Hopper's paintings and his photographs were included. What did he love about being in this emerging art scene in the 60s?

TOM FOLSOM: Well how exciting would it be? Dennis Hopper went to the actors studio around 1957, soap he'd always sort of been bumping around the LA art scene which was sort of burgeoning. He's in New York hanging out at the Cedar Tavern learning about the abstract expressionist, these tortured start of Jackson Pollock, in a way it was like a James Dean himself, so Dennis struggling with this abstract Expressionism and all of a sudden comes back to LA and there is this Campbell Soup can and it is there on the wall and he's like this is it, this is what we've been waiting for. This is my reality is my reality is an abstract Impressionism, pop, so Dennis buys one of the first Andy Warhol soup cans.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And he becomes a fixture in some of the galleries in LA and not only an art buyer, but an artist. His photographs as I said were part of these retrospectives we just had.

TOM FOLSOM: Absolutely, Dennis is doing his own thing. And his home, he literally turns his house into like a pop Fantasia. I mean, he certainly drove his wife crazy, I heard. He went to the billboard company and plastered these billboards you know, in the bathroom. So he's got like a guy eating a hotdog or something like that, or a can of spam. He was like, this is he. His home became the product of pop.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let me move on to what he's probably best known for and that is Easy Rider it's a movie that saved his career, that shaped his career, and remind us just a little bit about the movie and its influence.

TOM FOLSOM: Wow, Easy Rider, I mean, this is not like anything the studios were putting out at the time. They were doing these thoroughly modern Millie, these very sort of stagy studio productions and here comes these two guys on motorcycles, you know, born to be wild is cranking, and they are rolling through America. It's a very sort of documentary style, but they had not seen anything like this before. It was not just critically well-received, it was a huge success. You know, these this movie was made for $300,000 and it made 40 million. He wants to make what he calls the great American art film. He did not think it was Easy Rider. I think he thought Easy Rider was a rather commercial film. He wanted to do a real art film, and he got the chance he know he could do anything he wanted to if you are a studio sure I'll give you $1 million in hopes of getting 150 times that amount which is what happened with Easy Rider so he builds what it feels is this fantastic version of his own peculiar American dream on top of a mountain in Peru he builds a wild West set so he starts to fly them his actor friends and almost creates this weird Western town and lives of these cowboy fantasies filming this stuff so it's a very sort of personal vision for Dennis that the studios just hated.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Was that drug fueled? I mean, was he making bad decisions because he was taking too many drugs?

TOM FOLSOM: I think there is something about the paranoia affect. He excessively worked in the editing room I think for about a year and a half. It's tough to say. Dennis Hopper certainly would not be Dennis Hopper without drugs. I think Easy Rider would not have been Easy Rider without drugs. So, you know, but he was let out of his mind. You know what I mean, he was focus. I think he knew exactly what he was doing when he made the last movie.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Okay so did he do eventually get clean and sober?

TOM FOLSOM: He did, you know when you see him at the Frank Booth and blue velvet, he's completely sober. And he's only, he's in rehab literally a few months before that. To me that is Dennis most intensely personal role. It is the first row that he decides you know what I'm not going to rely on drugs, you know because the stories of he and James Dean was sort of smoke pot together and Warner Bros., like the instance method, you do all this, you smoke dope and here you are. But, Hopper used his training as an actor so I think it's just a terrific role. And I think it is his best.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I want to talk to you about for a minute about the style the book is written in. Your book Hopper, some people have called it written in gonzo prose. Was that a conscious decision on your part to write the book in an offbeat style?

TOM FOLSOM: Well Dennis Hopper is a pretty offbeat character he does not lend himself to the straight biography you might have with someone like William F Buckley. Mrs. Dennis Hopper. He's very much out there. The epigraph of my book is, he's a walking contradiction, partly truth, partly fiction. That is from Kris Kristofferson song the Pilgrim, which he wrote in Peru when he was acting in Dennis's movie. So I tried to bring that sensibility, I try to stay true to the subject.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We could spend a lot longer talking about this but I'm afraid I'm going to have to end it here because we are at the time I've been speaking with Tom Folsom. He is the author of the new book about Dennis Hopper. It is called Hopper. Tom, thank you for joining us.

TOM FOLSOM: Thank you

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Remember to watch KPBS evening edition. That is tonight at five and again at 6:30 on KPBS television and join us again tomorrow for discussions on San Diego's top stories on KPBS Midday Edition starting at noon. I am Maureen Cavanaugh and thank you for listening.