A Pilgrimage To Dennis Hopper

 The first time I saw Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider I didn’t think he was acting. I thought he was some stoned-out freak shoved in front of a camera to see what he’d do. When I realized later he’d written, produced and directed the film, acting took a paradigm shift for me. He was brilliant and crazy as hell, his own kind of signature wacko that got in your face and howled like a hyena. Like Frank Booth in Blue Velvet on his knees inhaling gas, fondling Isabella Rossellini, crying, “Baby wants to fuck!” He’d called David Lynch after reading that script and said, “You have to let me play Frank Booth, because I am Frank Booth.” Like Brando, Dean, Nicholson, he showed you what human beings were really like, really did, not some half-baked vanilla version.

If you were afraid to offend, embarrass, horrify, mystify, disgust or shock people, you were in the wrong profession. If you thought acting was about being pretty, you’d missed it. Not only was he going to show you what people were really like, he was going to reveal the bizarre truth you never imagined.

Once, Hopper was arrested, naked and raving drunk in public–a natural lineage of behavior from James Dean, his mentor, pulling a knife on a director. And there was the time the young Hopper worked with old school director Henry Hathaway, who made him do eighty-five takes on a scene because he refused to do it the director’s way, the old codger tiredly lifting his megaphone, saying, “Do it again,” eighty-four times until Hopper finally cracked, did it the director’s way, and stormed off the set.

Early in my film career I have an audition for a movie Hopper’s directing in North Carolina called Chasers. I am instructed not to approach him or shake his hand. All right, I think, a rule from the rulebreaker. Expect the unexpected. I have a mishmash of early film pieces on tape I’d planned to hand him, but hearing these instructions make me decide to wait to see what the vibe’s like. Maybe it’d blow an otherwise perfect audition. I’m half-broke and have to drive five-hundred miles in my old Volvo, which is acting up with electrical problems. My plan is to start out at noon, which would put me there around dinner time, when I’d get a cheap room, go over my lines, and grab a good night’s sleep before reading in the morning.

Regional actors are used to these journeys, but they’re drudgery. Richard Jenkins asked me on a set once, “Is it true you guys drive hundreds of miles to read down there?” To him it sounded like a military mission, and he wasn’t far off. I’d made round trips on the same day as the audition, driving home afterward to save money, which always seemed pointless. When I arrived at the interview after eight hours on the road, my head was mush and I didn’t have a prayer of getting the part. Casting would look at me quizzically like, what the hell’s wrong with you? I’d drive home frustrated and pissed off, babbling to myself, pounding the dash and cackling out of my mind, doing far better work in the car than I’d done in the audition.

This is before cell phones, so if there’s car trouble I’m at the mercy of the road. The first stretch out of Atlanta is a monotonous corridor of rolling highway and unbroken tree line for a hundred and fifty miles through Augusta toward Columbia. It’s late September and leaves are turning, blue sky lifting and falling against gas stations, fast food restaurants, and fireworks billboards. I have a couple of peanut-butter sandwiches, an apple, a banana and a Thermos of coffee, and I eat while listening to Atlanta stations fading, putting on some War, thinking about my wife and two boys, two and eight. I don’t like to be apart from them. Business is business, you have to do it, but you’ll never convince me there’s anything natural about it. I feel more like this when I’m broke and have to spend the little I have to drive hundreds of miles from my family without any assurance it’ll pay off. There’s not enough work in town, so I go where it is; I’m the hunter-gatherer, the fisherman heading to sea. I love my vocation and know I’m good at it, but trying to land it can be a lonely process. But hell, I’m a writer too, so I must love something about being alone.

When I gas up near Darlington, the car won’t restart. Lovely, I think–then it sputters to life, and I say a prayer I won’t get stranded on the road hundreds of miles from my family and not even get to read for the man. I wonder if he’d ever been broke with car trouble and trying to get acting work. Then I remember that was everyday business for Hopper. When he crossed Henry Hathaway, the old director had him banned from Hollywood for years. No one would hire him. Everybody got kicked around by somebody, and as one of the enfant terribles of modern filmmaking, nicknamed “Dennis the Menace,” Hopper’d made himself a human soccer ball until he was making his own pictures. Just get me there and back, I think, let me deal with car issues when I get home. I have enough cash for the cheap room and food, and my wife’s loaned me her Chevron card; if I had a credit card, it’d be maxed out already.

As soon as I hit I-95, the signs for South of the Border start up, a Mexican theme park just south of the North and South Carolina line. Sombreros and clichéd cheesy little mustached grinning Mexicans with chili necklaces barking at you from an endless string of trashy bill- boards. For fifty miles these bright garish signs blot out the landscape, which is more interest- ing now. Then I cross the Little Pee Dee River, which makes me miss my baby boy. who’ll have no comprehension of why I’m not home tonight. Then I see the phony sad Mexican theme park off to my right like a city from fake hell, spinning sombrero rides and towers and restaurants with orange and yellow and black sombrero roofs, giant strings of chilis every- where, and though I can’t make out a soul there, I’m sure a few people are gobbling frozen bean burritos to the tune of piped-in Mexican standards.

I watch for Lumberton signs and my turn onto State Highway 74 for the last ninety-mile jaunt east to Wilmington as the light’s fading. Blue Velvet was shot in Wilmington, which David Lynch called Lumberton, showing the big lumber trucks all through the movie loaded with trees, a radio DJ hawking, “Time to get up, woodchucks, and get those chainsaws revving, a beautiful day for lumbering!” As soon as I hit 74, the trucks are pounding past me heading the other way. It’s a split four-lane for a while, which narrows to two lanes, and I’m in farm country with wide stretches of fields and ramshackle houses and barns in the middle of withering crops, falling down, leaning, glorified piles of lumber that saw the Civil War. A poor, humble, beat-up landscape.

I’m in good spirits on my last leg, running lines for tomorrow, an Air Force General I’m reading for, and another throwaway role, when my car starts to sputter and lose power. Finally it’s not firing at all and I pump the gas, begging it to go, and it gives out completely, and cuts off so I have to muscle it without power steering onto the shoulder. Oh hell, I think, sitting a minute, trying to revive it, looking off into the dark swampy trees. Twenty minutes of light left
and I’m stranded on a desolate bleak highway rivaled only by the Tamiami Trail I hitchhiked up one night with a friend out of Miami, so dark you couldn’t see your hand.

This is bad, though. It’s the highway Michael Jordan’s father would be murdered on years later when he stops to take a nap, or maybe just had car trouble. Every few minutes one of those thundering lumber trucks from Blue Velvet comes rumbling by, blowing me back a few feet, peppering me with debris and dust, the drivers not even glancing at me. Am I screwed?
I’ve come all this way to be stuck here with a 10 A.M. call to read for Hopper in the morning.

If I don’t get there on time, the trip’s shot and I have to fix my car and limp home defeated.
Dues make you a better actor, I tell myself; of course, they do.

With a flashlight I tinker with the distributor cap, trying to dry it off inside. This was the problem before, but nothing I do gives a spark, and the battery slowly bogs down, and I’m desperate. At last light, a local State Patrol car pulls up and a grinning, crewcutted young officer says, “Havin’ trouble?” and I’ve never been happier to see a cop. I tell him I need to get to Wilmington tonight and my car’s shut down; he tells me to hop in, he’ll run me over to Gabby’s Gas in the next town. “Old Gabby’ll help you one way or another,” he says, “This ain’t the place to get broke down tonight. No tellin who you’ll run into on this bad man’s highway.”

In a few minutes, we pull into a blue-plastered Pure Station from another time in a tiny town already closed down for the night. Some old character’s yelling into his phone, slams it down, and the State Patrol kid introduces me to Gabby and tells him my problem. Gabby says, “Hell, I got nothing else to do tonight but go home and fight with my wife, I’ll tow you
to Wilmington, no problem!” I tell him I don’t have any cash but can write him a check and promise it’ll be good, and he says, “I trust you; and if it ain’t good, I’ll come down to Georgia and take it out of your ass, how ‘bout that?” I thank him, say goodbye to the State Patrolman, and Gabby and I are headed over to pick up my car with his tow truck.

Gabby’s about five foot six, with wild long wooly-white hair, and looks like a cross betweenWill Geer and Wild Bill Cody. He has no A/C and growls and yells over the noise from his half-mufflered engine, shaking his Lucky ashes out the window, George Jones droning on the radio.

The side of his truck says, “GABBY’S GAS…YOU BLOW ‘EM…WE TOW EM!” He’s got the energy of a leprechaun, bouncing around the truck, rattling chains, hooking up the wench, lifting my ar while he’s yelling he’d rather do this than go home and listen to his wife piss in his ear, and we barrel east again for the sixty-mile haul to Wilmington. I figure I’ll tow the car to my cheap motel, do the audition in the morning, then try to find a full-service Chevron for repairs, but Gabby says “Hell no, I’m finding you a place to fix your car tonight, I ain’t draggin’ you over here to leave you in some goddamn parking lot. You married?” he shouts above the roar of the truck, his hair flying back in the wind as we tear along the dark four-lane, his dispatch radio popping off static.

“Yeah,” I say, “Nine years. How ‘bout you?”
“Aw hell, been married three times; my second wife tried to kill me five years ago. Swore I’d never remarry but my third wife was too damn good in bed. Readjusted my thinking.” Dennis Hopper’d love this guy, I think.

“My second wife was a wrestler, see. Got into an argument one night and she put me in a headlock and almost snapped my neck. Got two herniated discs.” He points to his ruddy vertebrae. “A torn meniscus in my right knee. Had to get a restraining order against the psycho bitch and she’s turned my daughter against me. Got kids?”

“Two boys, two and eight.”

“Yeah, well, once she’s got a kid with you, she’s got you by the short hairs. Not just for money, she can hurt you every which way. Your kid’s a part of you, see, and then she finagles that part of you against you and then you’re fucked, brother. Thank God for my new old lady. She likes to fight too, but what woman don’t?”

“How long you been drivin’?”
“Thirty-eight years this November, since I left the Navy. Driven three million miles in that time, give or take a hundred-thou. Think I’ll pick up a cold six-pack when we land over here for the trip back. Nice night for it.”

We cruise into Wilmington, passing the ghostly USS North Carolina docked for tourism, with its hundred-and-thirty-five guns lit up against the harbor, and I give Gabby directions to the Greentree Inn on Market. It’s a short walk to restaurants and a mile from the Screen Gems lot, where I’m reading in the morning. As luck has it, a full-service Chevron’s next door, and
Gabby unhitches and drops my car off while I write him a check for eighty-five dollars.

“Give it three days and it’s good as gold,” I say. “My number’s on there if there’s any
problem.”

He peels a 16 oz. Pabst Blue Ribbon off his six-pack and hands it to me. “Fill up a hot bath, sip on this baby, get a good night’s sleep and go show Mr. Hopper what for in the mornin’. Do it for Gabby. Tell him I’ll be in his damn movie if he needs a wiry old Navy man.”

“You’d be the best thing in it,” I tell him, meaning it. “Drive safe, Gabby.”
“I’m indestructible, brother.”

It’s not exactly the way I’d planned to get here, but as I write a note for the mechanic telling him I’m next door, I know the angels are still with me. I check into the Greentree, which has crater-like monster potholes in the parking lot as if the place had been bombed, call home, and take Gabby’s advice about the hot bath and cold beer. I toss around half the night dreaming a montage of my General’s scene, flying along in Gabby’s truck, and standing out on that desolate highway, stranded in Blue Velvet with Frank Booth, those damn lumber trucks plowing past me like dark rolling Leviathans.

In the morning I’m told I need a new distributor and they can have it done by noon. I eat at the Huddle House, focus on my roles for an hour, and start the short hike to the Screen Gems lot. It’s a crisp fall morning, I’m feeling fresh, my car’s being fixed, I’m reading for a notoriously eccentric Hollywood legend and I’ll be back in my own bed tonight, God willing. I check in at the guard station, sign in at casting, make sure I’ve got the right script, and join the nervous
actors sitting in chairs along the hall, silently mouthing their scenes. A few actors drift out, looking flustered or relieved, then Dennis Hopper pops out wearing a tan sports jacket over a black T-shirt. He coolly shuffles down the hall. In a minute he strolls back with that relaxed, confident, cocky, short man’s gait, a quick rhythmic swagger, and everyone mutters and chuckles when he steps inside.

Somebody goes in, I don’t notice who, and five minutes later the door flies open, and a chunky black actor leaps out on one foot with a big sweating grin and a loud clap, dancing the Skate down the hall, going, “All y’all can go on home now! Yeah! I got that one in the bag, baby! I got it!” He snaps and fist pumps. “Don’t even need to go in there. I got the part! Hell
yeah, baby, Mr. Hopper done found his man, and it’s me! All you suckers can take a hike!” He’s completely sheened out, doing a combination James Brown-Ickey Shuffle that seems to go on endlessly. Men, women, children, black, white and Hispanic, watching this jive clown dance down the hall and turn the corner, yelling, “I got it! Got the part, damn right!” until he’s out of the building.

Of course he’s completely full of it. The lamest trick in the book’s trying to deflate your competition by making them think your part’s been cast, so you’ll lose focus and do a lousy audition. Casting rarely makes decisions while you’re in the room–not until they’ve seen every- body–so it’s silly, jive, bush-league bullshit. I have no idea what the fool’s reading for, but the vision of him popping out of that door, putting on that strutting little show, is a small actor’s
perk, part of my own personal comical movie for the road. I never see this guy again in the real movie or anywhere else.

Finally, my name’s called and I go in feeling exhilarated and relaxed, which is good.

Obviously, fate wanted me to be here, I think. There are no accidents. This can be the best part if you let it.

It’s a big room with seven or eight people, producers mostly, sitting behind two long L configured tables. Someone greets me and I hand him my headshots and wave hello to Dennis Hopper, remembering my instructions not to approach him. I have my tape in my briefcase just in case.

“What you doin’ for us today, Ron?” he says, and I tell him I’m reading the Air Force General. “Good, let’s see it. Go ahead, roll it.”

I run through the scene with the reader standing next to the camera. Leaning back in his chair, with his hands behind his head, Hopper tells me to take my time next take. I do it again.

“Yeah, yeah, that’s better, all right,” He half-shuts his eyes, leaning forward. “This time.

This time I want you to do it the way Gene Hackman would do it. Do it like Gene Hackman would do it, yeah. Yeah. Do it like Gene Hackman this time.”

Is he joking? I wonder. He seems deadly serious. I’ve had some unusual directions, but this is one of the strangest. Dennis Hopper’s telling me to do my role as if I’m Gene Hackman, his co-star in Hoosiers. It isn’t that I have a problem with the direction. I’ll do it like an ostrich if he wants me to. And I’m crazy about Gene Hackman–who isn’t? It just throws me for a second.

I’ve never been told by a director to do a role as if you’re some other star doing it–and this is a star telling me to do it. At the same time, I’m chuckling inside. This is Dennis Hopper. Did I expect a normal audition? Sometimes directors give specific notes to see if an actor will follow directions–and I’m not bad at impersonations–and it’s the spirit of the guy you’re after anyway So I give it my best shot.

“Not bad,” he says, staring at me a minute, and I think he likes me. “You got anything else? Another role?”

I tell him I’ve got an MP role and I run through that once quickly, and he’s sitting back in his chair again, leaning back on two legs, hands behind his head, nodding, saying “Okay, that’s fine,” and I think, what the hell, you’ve got some kind of connection maybe, who exactly made the rule anyway, and I take my tape out of my briefcase and approach his table. He looks a little surprised as I walk up, and he stands very slowly as if we’re doing a scene together,
reaching across for the tape as I hand it to him. For a few seconds, we’re staring at each other
like we’re in some kind of movie scene, and I’m thinking he’s thinking, whoever this guy thinks
he is I’ll play along just to see what he does–sure, what the hell; and there’s this moment, this brief suspension in time, when all the beautiful, insane, manic-headed and off-the-wall crazy roles he’s done well up into a few seconds for me, to show him I’m connected if by no other means but appreciation for his colors and originality and boldness and in general doing it his way and not giving a shit about anything else, and he gives back to me, a kind of awed respect
at who I am, with a handshake, even if it’s only just appreciating that I appreciate him—or else
he’s just amazed I’d have the balls to approach him like this—didn’t this guy get the memo?— and he has respect for an actor who’s not afraid to make a fool of himself since that’s been his bread and butter his whole career. At the same time, I’m thinking, I wasn’t supposed to do this, was told not to; oh well, hell, it feels like I’m supposed to, so fuck it. Maybe he just thinks I’m insane to be approaching him and this is the best way to get rid of me, the way he stares at me, leaning forward, I can’t tell, but I don’t think so. No, we have a moment of some kind of recognition, whatever it is, and I mumble “It’s a true pleasure.” I thank him and everybody in the room, and I’m out the door.

It’s a funny feeling early in your career when you meet a kindred acting spirit, one you’ve known for years that didn’t know you. Actors mean something to people not because they’re more important, but because they’ve made themselves completely vulnerable and let people live and die through them. What an actor does is like a dream people carry around in their heads for years, and sometimes it explains your life to you better than anyone else could,
explains life itself and makes sense of the nonsensical, lets you know that all of your nightmares
and fears and awkward moments and heart-rending are shared by everyone, pulls everyone together in a scene that lets you laugh at the absurdity of every one of our lives. Actors have some of this too for other actors, but a whole lot more. It isn’t star or celebrity worship, although everybody’s got a little of that. You know these are just people who sweat, bleed, cry, have their hearts shattered and beaten down and die just like you do, and many of them have bigger problems because of who they are. It’s like watching a great running back run in an open field. You think I can do that, I can see myself doing it. You’ve been mentored by these people, been inspired many times, been told by their performances: look, you’ve got something you can do that nobody else can, it’s as much yours as this is mine, so don’t hold back–make it happen. I’ve paved new ground for you, let’s see what you bring to the table. And for Godsakes, don’t bore us!

I’m feeling high as I stroll back to the motel. I’d just done a damn good read for, entertained, even–one of the best real life characters in the business. Something had happened in there, though to this day I couldn’t tell you what. And now I’m heading home. My car’s ready, it’s early, and I’m on the road wondering what the hell Dennis Hopper thought when I handed him that crazy tape. He’d looked at it like it was some illuminated object, a mysterious charm or amulet–a gift to me just doing that–letting my tape have value for him for a few seconds because it obviously did for me.

A few weeks pass and I don’t hear a thing. Gabby cashes my check and there’s other work at home and after a while I’m let down, assuming I didn’t get the part. Maybe approaching him did blow the whole audition, but I doubt it. He would’ve done the same thing. An actor has to deal with so much rejection he can’t dwell long on one thing, but sometimes not getting a role will eat at you for months, and this one’s a bit of a mystery.

When Chasers comes out in theaters I don’t go see it. I wait until it pops up on cable.
When I finally do see it I look closely for the parts I read for and they aren’t in the movie. Which makes me feel better, but strange too, because of all of that work and study and driving, breaking down, getting towed, car repairs, and everything else was done for ghosts of roles that weren’t going to live anyway.

As time goes on, I realize this trip wasn’t made for me to play some insignificant role in Dennis Hopper’s film. It was for him to play a lasting one in mine. I sit back with a tall 16 oz.

Pabst Blue Ribbon watching him run through his forgettable movie, playIng a goofy, comical character named Doggie, driving a fat red Cadillac, and I laugh about being told by Dennis Hopper to “play it like Gene Hackman.” Knowing he had a small independent movie in his head of me. Wondering what he thought of my tape–if he even looked at it.

In The Last Movie, Hopper tries to help a Mexican filmmaker make a western in which they use real bullets, and his character surreally gets killed making the thing, gets shot on camera filming a movie of a shootout. It didn’t do very well at the box office, but it’s one of my favourite Hopper films. It’s a sort of signature film of his, a perfect metaphor for Hopper’s surreal and dreamlike life. If films are an actor’s life, what better way to die than to pretend to be shot on film and actually get shot and die there?

Someone once said, “We must follow the film wherever it takes us,” and Hopper made his life like he made his movies, with total abandonment, insane commitment, and irreverence, breaking all the rules as a matter of course, becoming Hollywood’s “greatest survivor.”

Considering he started huffing gasoline from his grandfather’s truck at age seven, you have to marvel at how a career like his was possible.

The short film I have in my head of going to see the wild auteur was for me better than the film I went to read for. It was the real reason I went to read for him. It’s not always about the celluloid film and our role in it, although we think it is, the permanent record and performance that everyone sees, that pays the bills. Sometimes it’s about that odd little random piece of flickering brain footage that keeps on spinning out forever for us of the wild-headed people we spent time and space with, if only a few moments. People who had already changed our lives in unknown and derelict ways, as human beings and film actors alike.

Ron Smith

About Ron Smith

Ron Smith is a character actor (recently appearing in "True Detective" with Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson). His writing has appeared in the River Teeth Journal of Narrative Nonficiton and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize.

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