Dennis Hopper's Not-So-Easy Ride

American actor Dennis Hopper attends the press conference of the film " Chelsea on the Rocks" during the 61st International film festival in Cannes, southern France, on Friday, May 23, 2008. (Photo: AP Photo/Francois Mori
AP Photo/Francois Mori
It was a motorcycle, an easy rider, that lifted a young actor-director with a reputation for trouble to movie stardom back in 1969. And despite many ups and downs since then, Dennis Hopper is still a name to be reckoned with. Rita Braver pays him a visit:

When you watch Dennis Hopper in the desert of New Mexico doing take, after take, after take of a scene for his new TV series, you have to wonder …

"Do you ever say, 'What am I doing here?'" Braver asked.

"No, I know what I'm doing here," he replied. "I love it."

At 72, he is definitely relishing the role of Ben Cendars, the hard-living music producer in the new Starz TV series "Crash," based on the Academy Award-winning movie.

It's an over-the-top role for a man whose over-the-top life has been the stuff of Hollywood legend for half a century:

"I've been sober for 24 years, but I had my moment that (laughs) I was completely out of control," he said.

Indeed … "Easy Rider," the groundbreaking 1969 film that he co-starred in, co-wrote and directed, was in large part Hopper's personal reflection on the drug-fueled counterculture movement he was part of in the 1960s.

"Did you have any realization that this film was gong to be something that most people think changed film history?" Braver asked.

"Well, I wanted it to be that," he said. "I always thought of it as a time capsule that was gonna show what it was like during a period of time that it was made.

"'Easy Rider''s my baby," he said. "Yeah, I love her."

Hopper is so identified with "Easy Rider" that it might be easy to forget he's been in more than 100 movies and scores of television shows.

Dennis Hopper was born in Dodge City, Kansas, in the middle of the Dust Bowl and the Depression. His dad was a U.S. intelligence officer who later managed a Post Office; his Mom, a state champion swimmer.

But it was his grandmother who took him to the movies, including westerns featuring Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rogers and Gene Autry: "And I just wanted to know how to get out of Dodge City. How do you get out of Dodge?"

He did get out, when he was 13. His family moved to San Diego where Dennis started acting at the Old Globe Theatre. By 17 he snagged his first Hollywood job, as a boy with epilepsy in an episode of the TV show "Medic."

"After it aired, January 5, 1955, seven studios called me and wanted to put me under contract," Hopper said.

He took the job with Warner Brothers, and landed a small role in the James Dean-Natalie Wood classic, "Rebel Without a Cause."

"What was it like, working on that amazing film?" Braver asked.

"Well, it was great. It was incredible. I was having an affair with Natalie and … "

"Wait, you were having an affair with Natalie Wood?"

"Uh huh."

"That must have been ... fun."

"That was good, yeah," Hopper laughed. "I was eighteen years old, you know, it was wonderful. Watching James Dean work was just a miracle. I'd never seen anybody improvise. You know, in Shakespeare you don't go jumping off the page and saying other people's words!"

"What were you like as a young actor?"

"Very ambitious."

And very stubborn. While making the 1958 film "From Hell to Texas," Hopper refused to follow instructions from director Henry Hathaway during one scene:

"How many takes did you do, do you know?" Braver asked.

"Well, I worked from 7 in the morning till 11 at night. Finally I started crying. And I said, 'Okay, Henry, just tell me what you want.' He said, 'I want you to pick the cup up this way (waves hands around) and the line the same thing.' I did it, and walked out of the studio, and that was it."

In fact, it seemed to be the end of his film career. Nobody would hire him. "After that story, you don't even have to pass a ball around; everybody in Hollywood knew that Hopper had flipped out at 20th Century Fox," he said.

He concentrated on television and theater, and another lifelong passion: Art.

His Los Angeles home is filled with work he's made over the years: paintings, paintings with Xeroxes, digital photographs made into oil.

Throughout the '60s, Hopper photographed his friends in Hollywood and in the Art World, like Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol. And he also became an avid art collector.

"I bought Andy Warhol's first soup can painting for $75," Hopper said, "and I bought a Roy Lichtenstein, 'The Sinking Sun,' for $1,100 out of Roy's studio. That sold last year for $17,870,000."

"Did you sell it?" Braver asked.

"No, unfortunately, my ex-wife got it in the divorce."

Hopper has FOUR ex-wives, including the actress and model Brooke Hayward, and Michelle Phillips of the Mommas and the Poppas, a union that was short-lived.

"That was for eight days," Hopper said. "We lived together for a year and a half, and were married for 8 days."

Those were wild times for Hopper. He finally got back to film in the mid-1960s with "The Sons of Katie Elder," hired by the same director who had banished him. This time Hopper followed every instruction:

"He gives me every line reading, every turn, everything to do, you know, and he comes up to me, he's got his cigar, 'That was beautiful, kid, beautiful!' Tears coming down his face.

"I said, 'I'm a much better actor than I was eight years ago.' And he says, 'You're not a better actor, kid, you're just smarter, you're smarter!'" Hopper laughed.

His career flourished. But even when he was doing his best work, drugs and alcohol were taking over his life.

"My last five years of drinking, I was drinking a half a gallon of rum with a fifth of rum on the side every day, with 28 beers and cocaine just to maintain."

"There's a story that you ended up sort of raving out in a jungle in Mexico when you were making a film," Braver said.

"Yeah, that's true, yes."

That's when he decided to turn his life around. He bought his L.A. home after a difficult de-tox.

He revived his career, even earning an Oscar nomination playing an alcoholic basketball coach in the 1986 film "Hoosiers."

And he got his personal life back on track, too. He's been married to Victoria Duffy since 1996.

"I thought he was cute, thought he was smart and funny, and interesting," she said, "and the rest went from there."

They have one daughter, Galen, and he stays close to his three children from previous marriages.

And this is definitely a Dennis Hopper moment: his new series, a slew of new films (including "Swing Vote"), and an exhibit at the Cinematheque in Paris, paying homage to him as an artist and collector … as well as an actor.

Hopper even received the Legion on Honor, France's highest award, from the minister of culture.

"Onbe thing I promised myself was I wasn't gonna cry, but maybe that's not possible," Hopper said at the ceremony.

"Are you surprised these days to find yourself such an upstanding soul?" Braver asked.

"Upstanding soul, I'm not surprised about," he said. "That I'm still standing, I'm surprised about!"

And Dennis Hopper, maybe more than anyone else, can appreciate what a long, strange trip it has been.