Dennis Hopper was a key member of a small group of men whose drug use, sexual appetites, and social perspectives in the 1960s in part spearheaded a sea change in youth culture that completely pivoted public discourse in the United States. After appearing in a few films in the '50s and '60s, Hopper starred in and directed the groundbreaking 1969 film Easy Rider, which essentially kicked off the great wave of American filmmaking of the '70s, which climaxed, and began dying, with Apocalypse Now, in which Hopper appears.
Hopper was born in Dodge City, Kansas, in 1936. His family moved to San Diego when he was a teenager, where he caught the acting bug in high school. At 33, he finally found his voice, a far out mixture of rock and roll, psychedelia, antisocial California occultism, and radical individualism. All of these elements figure prominently in Easy Rider, a profoundly American film about cultural and generation fissures that's thoroughly steeped in the great foundational American myth, the idea of leaving everything behind and making a new society for yourself and like-minded people.
Along with peers like Jack Nicholson, Hopper was a strong believer in the positive influence of drugs. At one point, he took responsibility for making cocaine available to the masses, noting: "The cocaine problem in the United States is really because of me. There was no cocaine before Easy Rider on the street. After Easy Rider, it was everywhere."
Dennis Hopper's addiction issues were a major problem through the mid-'80s. He openly admitted to being an alcoholic who used cocaine, LSD, and other drugs to fuel his creative expression. After an incident in a Mexican jungle and a stint at a psychiatric hospital, he gave up alcohol for good, and thereafter only occasionally smoked marijuana. Dennis Hopper's death from prostate cancer at age 74 was a loss for the film industry and audiences alike.
Hopper's life was controlled by drugs and alcohol in the early '80s. Over the years, he was very open about his alcoholism; in 2009, he told Piers Morgan, for a piece published in GQ, that, at the height of his addiction, he drank about half a gallon of rum and 28 beers, and snorted three grams of cocaine, daily.
Hopper believed the drugs and alcohol made him a better actor, and it never interfered with his job. As a result, no one told him to stop.
An excerpt from the interview:
"Morgan: That's a lot of consumption for a little guy. I would die if I did that, how did you stay alive?
Hopper: Oh, 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.
Morgan: Yes, but half a gallon? You make it sound perfectly normal, Dennis, but it's not.
Hopper: [Laughs] I used to get thirsty, you got to have a beer or two if you get thirsty... "
During his drug and alcohol-fueled days in the early '80s, Hopper experienced a nervous breakdown in a Latin American jungle, days after trying to climb onto the wing of a moving plane in Mexico City. He was found wandering around naked, and tried to bait police into shooting him.
Hopper told the Guardian in 2007: "I was making a movie, but I never made it to the set. They found me running around the jungle naked. Before that, at Mexico City airport, I thought I was in the middle of a movie and walked out on the wing. I was out of my mind. It was around then I decided it was time to get into rehab. My liver, my body, my brain were all shot. Hahahahahah!"
Hopper was admitted to a psychiatric hospital in Los Angeles after the incident. Some Hollywood friends got him released, and took him to rehab.
Riding high on fame brought by the success of Easy Rider, Hopper directed and starred in The Last Movie, which was shot in Chinchero, Peru, in 1970. As a piece on the making of the film from Business Insider notes, "The baby-faced Hopper informed Universal that he would be making the movie in Peru. What that studio didn't know was the region had become the cocaine capital of the world. Every coke head in LA wanted to work on the picture in order to smuggle drugs back up north,' author Peter Biskind wrote in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls."
Hopper caused a fracas in the relatively conservative, largely Catholic nation by smoking weed and calling homosexuality "groovy" during an interview in Peru during pre-production of the film, in 1969. As quoted from a piece by Brad Darrach for Life: “Taking a long reflective pull on an odd-looking cigarette, Dennis said he thought everybody should ‘do his thing’ and then allowed that he himself had lived with a lesbian and found it ‘groovy’…Within 24 hours the government denounced the article and issued a decree repealing freedom of the press.”
Darrach goes on to describe the day actors and crew arrived to begin production on the film:
“Somebody made a cocaine connection and a number of actors laid in a large supply at bargain prices — $7 for a packet that costs $70 in the States. By 10 p.m. almost 30 members of the company were sniffing coke or had turned on with grass, acid, or speed. By midnight, much of the cast had drifted off to bed by twos and threes. At 2 a.m. I was awakened by screams. A young actress had taken LSD and was ‘having a bummer.’"
The ranch where the cast and crew stayed was the site or "whipping parties," which began when: "... an actor chained a girl to a porch post and, inspired by the notion that she looked like Joan of Arc, lit a crackling fire at her feet. Another actor swallowed five peyote buds in too rapid succession and almost died.”
As for production, Hopper told Uncut in 2005: “It was one long sex and drugs orgy. Wherever you looked there were naked people out of their [expletive] minds. But I wouldn't say it got in the way. It helped us get the movie done. We might have been drug addicts but we were drug addicts with a work ethic… The drugs, the drink, the insane sex, they all fueled our creativity.”
In 2002, actor and songwriter Kris Kirstofferson recalled: “[W]hat [Hopper] did was what he was filming. He was filming the corruption of a little town by the movie people, and I mean they ruined the town. I think he got a priest defrocked…”
The movie wasn't particularly well received. Roger Ebert's review starts: "Dennis Hopper's The Last Movie is a wasteland of cinematic wreckage. There are all sorts of things you can say about it, using easy critical words to describe it as undisciplined, incoherent, a structural mess. But mostly it's just plain pitiful."
While filming Easy Rider, Hopper, Peter Fonda, and Jack Nicholson spent a lot of time at the headquarters of a production company called BBS. The secretaries knew how to roll joints and inject drugs, as well as prepare tables with cocaine for guests. One BBS executive kept the ashes of his dead wife in a gold dish.
One day, while looking for drugs, Hopper, Nicholson, and Fonda snorted the woman's ashes, assuming they were cocaine.