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TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Today we remember Dennis Hopper.

(Soundbite of film, "Blue Velvet")

Mr. DENNIS HOPPER (Actor): (As Frank Booth) We're giving our neighbor a joyride. Let's get on with it. Anyone want to go on a joyride with us? How about you?

GROSS: That's Dennis Hopper in the 1986 film "Blue Velvet," directed by David Lynch, who described Hopper as sort of the perfect American dangerous hero.

"Blue Velvet" was one of Hopper's comeback films. A few years before that, he'd been institutionalized - paranoid and totally disoriented from years of drugs and alcohol.

As a fan, I'm really grateful he was able to have that second part of his career, which began with him playing crazed characters in films like "Blue Velvet," "River's Edge," "Red Rock West" and "Speed." Hopper died Saturday of metastasized prostate cancer. He was 74.

Early in his career, he was in two defining films about youth culture: "Rebel Without a Cause," in which he had a small part, and "Easy Rider," which he directed and starred in with Peter Fonda. While Hopper was still using drugs, he played a drug-addled photojournalist in "Apocalypse Now."

We're going to hear excerpts of two interviews I recorded with Hopper, starting with the first, from 1990. We began by talking about Hopper's role in "Blue Velvet" as Frank Booth, a crazy, dangerous character. Hopper said that when he read the script, he told director David Lynch, I am Frank.

Mr. HOPPER: I really understood Frank. I didn't have a problem with Frank. I understood - I just understood him, and I called David. I'd never met David, and he'd given me the part, and I called him. He was down in North Carolina already, they had begun filming, and I said, you don't have to worry about this. I am, I am Frank. I really understand this role.

So he got off the phone, and he told Isabella and Kyle MacLachlan and Laura that - he said, my God, I just got off the phone with Dennis Hopper, and he said he was Frank. He said that may be great for the movie, but how are we going to have lunch with him?

But I just - I really meant that I understood the role, and I do understand Frank. And I've known Frank. I've known a lot of guys like Frank.

GROSS: Did you think that you were like Frank at some point in your life?

Mr. HOPPER: Well, I understood his sexual obsession, you know, and I - even though David wrote it as, the stuff that he was sniffing as helium, I had always thought of it as some sort of drug, you know, like an amyl nitrate or a nitric oxide. And I asked David if it would be all right to play it that way.

He had helium on the set, and helium, all helium does, it doesn't disorient your mind. All it does is make you sound like Daffy Duck. So I tried it, and I said, David, I'm really aware - I'm just hearing my voice. I'm not, you know, able to act. I said, I want something - couldn't I try to use something that, like, disoriented my mind? And he said what? And I said, think, watch this, and I'd do a sense memory of an amyl nitrate, a nitric oxide or something. He said what are those things? I said just watch.

So anyway, he liked what he saw, and I said if you want to dub that voice in, the helium voice in later, we could do that. And he said no, I don't think it'll be necessary.

Anyway, we didn't dub it in later, and it did work. But you know, since then, I started thinking how strange it would be if I had used that helium voice and not had it disorient my mind. What a strange character he had actually written, even more stranger than my portrayal of Frank.

GROSS: Yeah, I see what you mean.

Mr. HOPPER: You know, it would've just been this guy who takes this, that does this mask and gets this weird voice and then does all those things, and nothing else happens to him. It would be very bizarre.

But anyway, because when I read it, I thought of it that way, of the drug, kind of drug-crazed guy and the sexual kind of strange appetite that he had, I could identify with those things.

GROSS: Do you like roles with the kind of intensity that your performance has in the character of Frank?

Mr. HOPPER: Well, like, you know, I think that probably, of all the work that I've done, Frank is probably the flashiest role I ever had. And I like it on that level.

GROSS: When you were young, you got a scholarship to the National Shakespeare Festival. Did you want to do classical theater?

Mr. HOPPER: Yeah, I did it, and I wanted to do it. I was - I wanted to become a great actor, and at that time, the great actors were Shakespearean actors, the ones who were thought of in the theater. I wasn't able to get into movies, so in the theater were classical actors. So I got involved in classical theater, Shakespeare.

GROSS: Your first movie role was in "Rebel Without a Cause." You were, I think, 18 years old. Did the movie help give you a sense of teenagers being their own culture and their own misunderstood culture, or were you already feeling that way?

Mr. HOPPER: I went on that picture - when I went on that picture, I saw James Dean, for the first time, act. And at that point, all I was concerned about was being an actor. I wasn't concerned about, like, you know, whether people were juvenile delinquents or not.

I had sort of come out of that, out of San Diego and Tijuana and that kind of area, but I was interested in acting. And I saw James Dean act, and I -basically, through "Rebel Without a Cause," I was just trying to figure out what he was doing because I thought I was the best young actor at that time in the world, and I suddenly ran into this guy, who was some years older than me, but he was doing work that was so far over my head, I had to - I actually grabbed him on the chickie run and threw him into a car and said, what are you doing? You've got to teach me what you're doing.

GROSS: So what did he teach you?

Mr. HOPPER: He wanted to know what my motivation was for wanting to act, you know. And he asked me if I had had a problem with my parents and if I had actually hated my parents and that that was part of the drive that I had to want to become an actor.

And I said that actually I had felt that. And he said, well, that's what he felt also, and that his mother died when he was very young, and he used to go to her grave and cry on her grave and say mother, why have you left me, why have you left me, and that turned into I'm gonna show you. I'm gonna show you. I'm gonna be someone. And that was the drive that he had brought into his acting, which I described the same sort of feelings, that I was misunderstood by my parents and that I had that feeling when they came to the theater that I was going to show them. It was, like, yeah, I'm gonna show you. I'm gonna be something. I'm gonna be an actor.

So this drive, this confused kind of drive and wanting to put it into other people's - other parts and other things and these feelings, to use them in some sort of imaginary, given circumstance, became the key for acting.

But anyway, he said you must learn how to not worry about the emotions, but you must learn how to do things and not show them. You must learn how to smoke a cigarette, and just not act smoking a cigarette. You must learn how to drink a drink, not act drinking the drink.

And if somebody knocks on the door, you go and answer the door. Then you see they have a gun in their hand. Then you react to the gun and so on. So basically, it's like, don't indicate, do something and don't show it. And moment-to-moment reality, never anticipate what the next moment's going to hold.

And so, like, you know, he said, and you're a very good technical actor. So get rid of all that technique, though. Stop the line readings. Don't worry about how it's going to come out. Just let it come out. Work on a moment-to-moment reality level.

GROSS: Stop the line readings. So what did you stop doing?

Mr. HOPPER: Well, I mean, like, you know, I was out of a classical theater background. So, I mean, there were ways of reading lines. You know, I mean, even hello, how are you became a way of reading a line. So there's a lot of ways to say hello, how are you besides one fixed way that you decide in your room somewhere that that's the way you're going to say hello, how are you?

GROSS: Was James Dean the first friend that you had who died? I mean, like someone of around your age?

Mr. HOPPER: Yeah, I mean, there had been - yeah, I would think, yeah.

GROSS: Did it scare you a lot to have someone who was close to you go?

Mr. HOPPER: Well, it was more - I mean, more than a friend, I think of him more as a teacher than as a friend. We did two films together, which took about a year of our lives. He only made three movies. We did "Rebel Without a Cause" and then "Giant," and then he died two weeks before we finished shooting "Giant."

So I was, like, 19. He was 24. It was more - we dealt with acting. We talked about acting. It wasn't like we went out and drank beers together and got high or, like, raced cars or anything.

When he died, it just destroyed me because I totally had this belief in destiny and how people are destined, you know, to be - to fill, to fulfill their destiny, you know, and I just couldn't understand why James Dean had died so young.

He wanted to direct movies. He'd only been in three movies. And I - it just destroyed my whole concept of destiny, life and that kind of thing for years. I mean, probably still to this day, it still bothers me. It's - I miss him. I wish I'd have seen his work.

GROSS: We're listening back to a 1990 interview with Dennis Hopper. He died Saturday at the age of 74. We'll hear more of the interview after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Let's get back to our 1990 interview with Dennis Hopper. I have to ask you about "Easy Rider," the 1969 film that you co-wrote, directed and starred in. You had done some work with Roger Corman. Peter Fonda had done some biker-type movies and acid-trip movies with Corman. Did you see this as an exploitation film, or did you want it to be a movie in the spirit of the counterculture?

Mr. HOPPER: You're talking about...?

GROSS: "Easy Rider," yeah.

Mr. HOPPER: Yeah, I didn't really - I wasn't really thinking about either one of those things. I wanted to win the Cannes Film Festival. I wanted it to be an art film.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. HOPPER: The counterculture was becoming the culture at that time. So I thought I was making a film for everyone. What I did was I showed people smoking marijuana without going out and killing a bunch of nurses for the first time, and I, you know, and I used the music of the day as a time capsule kind of thing, rather than writing a score for a movie. It was the first time individual songs had been used for a film.

The editing of the cemetery sequence was, like, a lot of, like, you know, experimental films that I'd seen of the day, Bruce Conner in particular. I'd used a lot of, like, kind of cutting that I'd seen on television for television commercials.

We now look at MTV, but if you realize that these, that those rides that I edited to the music, to Jimi Hendrix and to The Byrds and to Dylan and so on were all - those were the first MTV kind of things, music video kind of things that were ever done.

GROSS: Were you already doing a lot of drugs when you made "Easy Rider," and was that out of control at all?

Mr. HOPPER: There was a lot of smoking of grass on that picture. Grass made me paranoiac, and I didn't do it. I mean, I would do it - I did it, like, for the scene where Peter and Jack and I are all smoking marijuana, and we see the space people, or Jack talks about space people and so on.

But most of the time, I didn't smoke it, only because it made me paranoiac. But I drank. I was a drinker. I was a classic drinker in the great tradition out of John Huston, Howard Hawks, John Ford and Dennis Hopper. Now, I was an alcoholic, and I was never a great - I was never a big pot smoker. Even though I smoked pot a great deal in my life, I didn't do it while I worked.

GROSS: What were your paranoid fantasies that it would bring out, or what form of paranoia would it bring out in you?

Mr. HOPPER: Well, I just, it would interfere with the work, and nothing that I did that interfered with the work - the work was the only thing that was important to me. People, like, came to Paul Lewis and I...

GROSS: The producer.

Mr. HOPPER: Yeah, a few years ago - Paul was also the production manager on "Easy Rider," and all the films that I've made, he's been with me, "The Last Movie" and so on. And so people came and said, how could you have done "The Last Movie" doing all that cocaine and so on. We didn't have any cocaine on "Easy Rider." We just made it popular. That was baking soda that I choose to use in "Easy Rider."

But anyway, but I went to Peru, and I made a movie called "The Last Movie," which I won the Venice Film Festival with, which was never distributed, it's a long story. But we used a lot of cocaine on that movie, and people said how could you make a movie and drink and use cocaine and smoke grass and so on?

And Paul said, are you serious? We were making movies. You know, it wasn't anything - if somebody had said you can't have any drugs, you know, you have to make the movie, we'd have made the movie. Nobody said you can't have any drugs, and we weren't doing anything that interfered with what we thought was our work. So, like, you know, it was always the work. The work was the most important thing, and the drugs and the alcohol and all those things are secondary to it.

And we never - and I always measured it out, and, you know, if I was getting too drunk, I'd do a little more cocaine, you know, and keep the work going.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HOPPER: So, like, you know, anyway, that wasn't...

GROSS: So how did it get to the point where you did so much drugs that you ended up not working?

Mr. HOPPER: Well, I mean, there comes a point where, like, you know, if you're not the most popular guy in the world and in demand, suddenly people start looking at your behavior and then not wanting to work with you.

There are certain people that we don't have to name, but there are some very, very big people that, like, never, it never interfered with their popularity, and it never interfered with their careers - and some of our biggest stars.

So, you know, and I'm not advising people to use drugs or not to use drugs. Drugs destroyed my life, but I probably would never have found out about it and never gotten straight and never gotten into the trouble that I got into with drugs and alcohol if my career had maintained a level where I was productive.

GROSS: I get the impression that you've been working really manically since you've been straight.

Mr. HOPPER: Mm-hmm. I would have worked manically all my life if I would have been allowed to.

GROSS: You mean if you got offered enough?

Mr. HOPPER: Yeah, I was never offered anything. So at a certain point, my using and my drinking became who's coming out of the dressing room, which - what Jekyll or Hyde. You know, what emotional rollercoaster is he going to take us on now? So, you know, that's what unfortunately drugs and alcohol did for me, in my life, and my personal life was a shambles.

It never seemed to hurt what went on the screen, but it was the process to getting it on the screen that terrified people.

GROSS: There's a kind of, I think, pretty famous story about what happened, an incident that happened in your early career, and you were working - you were working on a movie that Henry Hathaway was directing, and he was trying to get you to do the scene the way he wanted to. You had your own way of wanting to do it.

And I think this went on for, like, 12 hours or something of you doing takes and him insisting that you do it his way. And then he finally won. And I think, because of your rebelliousness, that you were pretty much exiled from Hollywood for a while. Is that right?

Mr. HOPPER: Yeah, for a long time, until he rehired me again.

GROSS: Till he rehired you again?

Mr. HOPPER: Yes, seven or eight years later.

GROSS: So did you end up doing a lot of TV in that period?

Mr. HOPPER: Yeah.

GROSS: I recently saw you on the "The Rifleman." I think it was the first episode.

Mr. HOPPER: Right. You know, Sam Peckinpah wrote the pilot of "The Rifleman," which I did.

GROSS: It was the pilot I saw, okay. So I'm wondering, you know, now that you're directing again, if you ever see yourself in the Henry Hathaway role of really wanting the actor to do it your way?

Mr. HOPPER: I don't see myself any other way.

GROSS: You mean you...?

Mr. HOPPER: Did I hear a pause?

GROSS: Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HOPPER: Did you hear a pin drop?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HOPPER: No, I'm the director. So I want them to do it my way.

GROSS: So if you saw the young Dennis Hopper coming in, and he insisted on doing it his way, what would've happened?

Mr. HOPPER: I would've probably been amazed by the young Dennis Hopper and let him do it his way.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HOPPER: But I would never let him know that he was doing it - I mean, I would've, like, I would've given him plenty of space to do it his way. Hathaway didn't. But if it comes down to doing it my way, I mean, it's got to be my way. But, like, I give actors a lot of room to work. I mean, I never had a problem with Sean Penn. I never had a problem with Robert Duvall.

I had problems with Don Johnson, but I don't have problems seeing what I got on the screen with Don Johnson because we worked it out, and he did it my way.

The director is the boss, and that's just the way it is. So Hathaway, I learned that from Hathaway. Also, I learned a lot of things from Hathaway. I did three films for Hathaway. He was the boss, and the director is the boss, and if you -if you're in a director's movie, and you don't do what the director wants you to do, you might as well - it doesn't matter how good you are. You don't - you look like you're out of step with everybody else, and you might as well just hang it up right there because there's no sense fighting him.

GROSS: Dennis Hopper, recorded in 1990. We'll hear our 1996 interview in the second half of the show. Here's Hopper in a scene from the Vietnam War film "Apocalypse Now." Hopper played a crazed photojournalist. In this scene, he's talking to the Martin Sheen character, Lieutenant Willard, who's in a cage in the jungle, held captive by the renegade colonel that Sheen was sent to find. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of film, "Apocalypse Now")

Mr. HOPPER: (As Photojournalist) He likes you because you're still alive. He's got plans for you.

No, no, I'm not going to help you. You're going to help him, man. You're going to help him. I mean, what are they going to say, man, when he's gone, huh? 'Cause he dies, when it dies, man, when it dies, he dies, what are they gonna say about him? What, are they gonna say, he was a kind man, he was a wise man? He had plans? He had wisdom? Bull(bleep), man.

Am I gonna be the one that's gonna set them straight? Look at me, wrong!

(Soundbite of helicopter)

(Soundbite of song "The End")

Mr. JIM MORRISON (The Doors): (Singing) This is the end, beautiful friend. This is the end. My only friend, the end. Of all elaborate plans, the end. Of everything that stands, the end...

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're remembering the mesmerizing actor Dennis Hopper. He died Saturday at the age of 74 of metastasized prostate cancer. Hopper played a lot of crazed characters. But when I recorded my second interview with him in 1996, he was playing against type in the film "Carried Away." He starred as the schoolteacher in a small rural community, living on a broken-down farm with his mother.

Now you grew up in Dodge City, Kansas, at least that's where you spent the early years of your life. Did any of the characters in the movie remind you of anyone you knew growing up?

Mr. HOPPER: Oh yeah. Well, my great uncles, they wore bib overalls until they rotted off of them. They were wheat...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HOPPER: They were wheat farmers and I used to milk the cow before I went to school in the morning, so...

GROSS: Were there big-town scandals when you were growing up?

Mr. HOPPER: Hmm. Well, I mean Dodge City was - we were still trying to live up to the old days when Bat Masterson and Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp were there, you know? I just remember it was a dry state but if you were old enough to get your hand up on a bar they'd put a drink in it, so...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Really?

Mr. HOPPER: And fighting around the drive-in seemed to be a, I mean, not the drive-in movies but the drive-in hamburger joint seemed to be the big thing to do after football games. And I, you know, my mother managed a swimming pool in Dodge City, Kansas so I had an active swimming life as a child and my grandfather's a wheat farmer. So it was a good life.

GROSS: Was it fun to see movies about Dodge City living there?

Mr. HOPPER: Well, I remember Errol Flynn came to Dodge City when I was about five years old. That was a big time, for the premiere of, I think it was called "Dodge City," I think, or "Fort Dodge" or whatever it was. It was in a movie that Errol Flynn starred in with Olivia de Havilland. And anyway, they came there. That probably had a lot to do with me eventually wanting to be an actor, I think.

GROSS: Was that the only connection you saw between the movie world and your own life?

Mr. HOPPER: Well, I mean I was raised at the end of the Dust Bowl so I used to tell people the first light that I really saw was not from the sun but it was from a movie projector.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HOPPER: Yeah. My grandmother used to - she didn't drive a car so she used to fill her apron. We lived about five miles outside of Dodge and so my grandfather would go off to the farm in Garden City, which is 60 miles away. My grandmother would fill her eggs full of apron on Saturday mornings...

GROSS: Fill her apron full of eggs?

Mr. HOPPER: Yeah and we'd walk into town, she'd sell the eggs at the poultry place and get the money and we'd go see a matinee and I'd see the Singing Cowboys. Once in a while we'd see an Errol Flynn movie or a sword-fighting buckling - sword-buckling movie. That's about it. I don't really remember what they were. But I knew I wanted to know where they were making these movies. And Kansas was a very flat place so I wanted to know where the trains were going and, you know, what a mountain looked like, what a skyscraper looked like, what the ocean looked like.

And years later, I thought that I think it's one of the reasons I became so interested in the visual aspects of things because of that horizon line. When I finally saw the ocean when I was 13 years old, I saw my first mountain when I came to Colorado when I was 13 on the way to California. I was really disappointed. My mountains that I'd imagined were so much bigger. Then I got to California and I saw the ocean. It was the same horizon line that I'd seen on the wheat field and I thought wow, this is not what I'd imagined, you know? I don't know what I thought. I thought you could see all the way to China or something, or it looked different or it would be a different angle. But it was the same horizon line. And I think that - then I saw my first skyscraper and not as big as I'd imagined. I always thought that like my imagination had been developed quite...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HOPPER: ...was a little out of whack. You know, my buildings were bigger. My mountains were bigger and the ocean was bigger in my imagination than in reality, so...

GROSS: But when you started taking photographs did you want the size of buildings and the size of mountains to be as big as they had been in your memory from movies, or did you want them to be as real as reality was even though that was often disappointing?

Mr. HOPPER: Yeah. Well, you know, what I did was I became an actor when I was 18 years - I started acting at the Old Globe Theater in San Diego when I was 13 and doing Shakespeare and doing all that. So when I was 18 years old, I moved from San Diego to Los Angeles and in a short amount of time I got a contract at Warner Brothers. I was still 18 years old. I had just graduated from high school and I was now under contract to Warner Brothers and I was doing "Rebel Without a Cause" and when I was 19 I did "Giant" with Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean. So during that period of time everybody was photographing me. So when I started taking photographs, which is in this period of time, I'd already been a painter and I started taking photographs not of people but of walls and of things where I had no depth of field. I would shoot flat on so I had a painting surface, so I'd shoot flat on a wall or flat on something and it would become like the surface of a painting. So that was my early beginnings of photography in the early '50s.

And then I went through a Cartier-Bresson, "Decisive Moment" period when I came to study with Lee Strasberg in New York, which is where you catch something in action. Guy's throwing a ball, it's just before he catches the ball, or somebody's walking over a puddle, which the thing, he's got his foot up just before his foot hits the water or whatever. It's a moment where you see with a still camera when to push the shutter and when to catch that decisive moment that will make it a photograph.

GROSS: When you were going through your "Decisive Moment" period as a photographer...

Mr. HOPPER: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...what were a couple of the decisive moments that you clicked the shutter for?

Mr. HOPPER: Oh dear. Well, through the time of my career of taking photographs, I was at a lot of different places. I was at the free speech movement in Berkeley. I was at hippie love-ins. I was - I marched with Martin Luther King through the South. I was in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. And, you know, I was at the march on Washington and Selma to Montgomery and all those things. So I covered, in that "Decisive Moment" period I covered everything from attack dogs, you know, biting us to a flower being handed to Martin Luther King, you know, by a young girl.

GROSS: We're listening back to a 1996 interview with Dennis Hopper. He died Saturday. We'll hear more of the interview after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Let's get back to our 1996 interview with Dennis Hopper.

Now what was your first exposure to art? Was there any art around when you were growing up?

Mr. HOPPER: Yeah, I don't know. You know, I drew when I was a kid and I studied at the Nelson Art Gallery on weekends. They had an underprivileged children's art class.

GROSS: Were you an underprivileged child?

Mr. HOPPER: Well, I got in there. Yeah, I was, I slipped in. So at that time I was in a drawing class and I was doing a little watercolor like I'd learned in Dodge City and this man came up to me and he said, what are you doing? And I said, I'm painting this rock and river and so on. And he said well son, he said, I don't know how to tell you this but some day you're going to have to get tight and paint loose. And this man was - God, I'm trying to think of his name. God, I just slipped his name right out. But he was Jackson Pollock's teacher. He was, oh God, this is going to drive me crazy. Oh, Thomas Hart Benton. Thomas Hart Benton, yeah. He taught me. He taught Pollock. Anyway, I studied there and I found that I would go into the theater and draw the actors.

GROSS: The movie theater or stage theater?

Mr. HOPPER: Stage theater, where they were rehearsing plays and I'd sketch the actors and so on. So that was sort of my beginning of my art career. And when I arrived in Los Angeles, I had worked at La Jolla Playhouse and my friend who was my boss there, he was an interior designer and he was working with Mary Price, Vincent Price's wife, who was an interior designer. They had a kiln where they did tile work at Vincent's house and I went up there and made some tiles and that's where I saw - Vincent was an art collector - and that's where I saw my first Franz Kline, my first Jackson Pollacks, my first de Koonings and so on were at his house. And I'd been painting abstractly but I'd never really thought that anybody really painted abstractly until I saw these things. And so I started doing work and I started showing with the painters around at that time. As a matter of fact, Ed Kienholz was one of the artists that I worked with.

GROSS: Now it must've been interesting to be exposed to your first abstract art through somebody's private collection as opposed to through a museum.

Mr. HOPPER: Yeah.

GROSS: Did that in a way encourage you to later become a collector? I mean because it was part of how you were first exposed to it. I know you collect a lot of art.

Mr. HOPPER: Yeah. Well, Vincent gave me a painting actually when I was about, I was 19 or 20, Vincent gave me a small painting. I don't even remember who it was by now.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. HOPPER: And he said, I know that you're probably going to be a collector so let me start you off.

GROSS: Gee, how nice.

Mr. HOPPER: And then when I got my first money I did start collecting art and it's like a compulsion. I was thinking about it the other day, I think that, you know, I don't have a formula where I go to the right dealer and buy the right painting. I've been very fortunate to seem to have an eye. I bought Andy Warhol's first "Soup Can" painting, hand painted for $70.

GROSS: When was it?

Mr. HOPPER: It was like 1963, I believe.

GROSS: Why did you want it? What spoke to you about the painting? What did it...?

Mr. HOPPER: The first time America had an art form of its own was abstract expressionism. We'd always imitated the Europeans before that and rather than drawing a mountain and saying, I'm now going to draw a mountain or I'm going to draw a tree or I'm going draw this wonderful face of this person, abstract expressionist says we're going to use paint as paint. We're not going to draw anything. We're going to make a brushstroke and that's going to be the painting. And it's going to be action. It's going to be done with action so we're not going to have time to think and preconceive a lot of stuff. We're just going to use our motion and use the action of painting itself and make that become the design and the pattern and the motion of the canvas. And so this changed the whole way that everybody looked at art and America suddenly had its own art form.

And after you get into second and third generation, there's usually about 12 or 13 people who form the nucleus of a group - I mean in the abstract expressionists there was Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline and de Kooning and Gottlieb and I don't know, there's Motherwell and there are about 10 or 12 guys and women. That's sort of the way it's been through the history of art, through Dada and surrealism and they just suddenly crop up and all these people come, are suddenly painting abstractly. They didn't have a meeting somewhere and said let's all paint abstractly but for some reason they followed the history of art and the next step seems to have been obvious to them and they started doing it.

GROSS: As somebody who was so attracted to abstraction, what interested you in the idea of something representational of a real commercial object like the "Soup Can?" Yeah.

Mr. HOPPER: Well, yeah, that's what I'm really - I know I'm beating around the bush. That's what I'm trying to get to. So at a certain point if you're collecting art or involved in it, you suddenly see the third generation people are now imitating. It's like looking at Remington or Russell, the great Western painters and suddenly now you see Western artists imitating those things. It's not original anymore. It's just an imitation. But when you have an original art form like abstract expressionism, you get third-generation abstract expressionism imitating the first ones and trying to find their own way. The critics started talking about, what is the return to reality going to be? When are we going to return to reality?

Now at that time there was a bunch of - a group of painters in San Francisco called the Bay Area Figurative Painters and there was David Parks and Elmer Bischoff and Richard Diebenkorn and Nathan Oliviera, whatever. And they were using abstract expressionist terms and they were going back and using the figure. And I looked at this and I said no, this is good painting, but this has already been done. Soutine had done this before in France before abstract expressionism. This couldn't be the return to reality because they're using old forms to return to reality. It doesn't make sense to me.

So when I saw my first "Soup Can" painting and I saw my first, by Andy Warhol, and I saw my first cartoon paintings by Roy Lichtenstein and I saw the billboard paintings of Rosenquist and I saw Oldenburg's giant hamburgers and so on, I realized that this was a return to reality, that this was the comic book and the soup can and the Coca-Cola bottle of Jasper Johns and so on. Rauschenberg and these guys were coming to reality with a whole new set of things. I mean before pop art as we know it, popular art, commercial art came into being, the largest lithograph was just, you know, a two foot by three foot piece of paper. Then suddenly we could use - there was Rosenquist and suddenly we could do what commercial art could do. We can make lithographs the size of billboards and Ed Kienholz showed us that we could take things off the wall and we can make rooms and environment, and Rosenquist took the square and the rectangle and broke the surface for the first time in 1961, and suddenly we had different shaped canvases and suddenly there was hard edge, and it went on and on. And it was a wonderful, wonderful life I've had in art because I've seen so many different things happen and develop.

GROSS: You've been collecting art for a long time. I think it was like in 1961 that your home burned down in a fire?

Mr. HOPPER: In the Bel-Air fire.

GROSS: Yeah. Now did that discourage you from collecting? Because you lost, I don't know exactly what you lost, but I imagine just about everything you owned. Though I know your photographs had been touring, had been in an exhibition, so they were saved.

Mr. HOPPER: Saved. Yeah.

GROSS: But I think a lot of people would think, well, what's the point of collecting when objects you own can be so ephemeral.

Mr. HOPPER: Yeah. Well, I lost over 300 of my own paintings. I had a studio in the garage so it all burned down, so I lost all my paintings. I did have a photographic show that night that opened, so my negatives for my photographs were saved. In the house itself - I was married to Brooke Hayward. Well, all I had really at that time, my ex-wife Brooke lost all of her mother's, Margaret Sullivan's furniture that she had in the house. And my father had fought with Mao across China. He was in the OSS - Office of Strategic Services - and he had been one of the people that took the surrender from the Japanese in Peiping and then left them armed till Chiang Kai-shek could come and take over so that Mao didn't take the country so quickly.

However, he did collect some things when he had this three-month period of time that he was going back between Mao and the Japanese to get some artifacts out of China, and he brought these beautiful tapestries and things that he had brought back from the Second World War. Unfortunately, I lost all those in that fire. And when I came out of the thing, the only painting that my wife had at the time was a Milton Avery and the only thing that I saved out of the house was the Milton Avery. I carried it out on my back as the house was burning down. So it gave us an opportunity, you know, when something - when you lose everything, you have to start over again, and at that time is when I started collecting. I had some money to like start collecting and I started buying pop art. Well, I fell into it right at that moment.

I saw my first soup can painting. I saw my first Lichtensteins, and I bought a soup can and I bought an Ed Kienholz, which is, he's at the Whitney now, if anybody's interested in seeing his retrospective. But he was an assemblage artist and there was mannequin. It was called "The Quickie" and it was a mannequin - a woman's mannequin head on a roller skate and she had her arm up and she was picking her nose and it was called "The Quickie." And so I bought that and I bought that for $30 or something. And then I bought a big abstract wood relief - black and white relief that Kienholz had also done for - I think that was $75.

My agent came in and looked at these things, the soup can painting, this mannequin on a roller skate picking her nose and this big wood black and white construction abstract thing and he said, you're wasting your life. You're wasting your wife's money and your money and if you don't stop this foolishness you're going to have to look for another agent.

GROSS: Wow.

Mr. HOPPER: And that's when my agent and I parted.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HOPPER: And I went on collecting. So, it's funny now.

GROSS: We're listening back to a 1996 interview with Dennis Hopper. He died Saturday. We'll hear more of the interview after we take a short break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Let's get back to our 1996 interview with Dennis Hopper.

Now, Dennis Hopper, can I talk to you about music a little bit?

Mr. HOPPER: Sure.

GROSS: Has music played an important part in your life? Do you like music a lot - listen a lot?

Mr. HOPPER: Oh yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: Now, you grew up in your early years before rock 'n' roll. What did you listen to before rock 'n' roll?

Mr. HOPPER: (Singing) Marie, the dawn is breaking. Marie, my heart is aching.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HOPPER: You know, something like that.

GROSS: This is the era of The Four Freshmen.

Mr. HOPPER: Yeah, right.

GROSS: No. Who am I thinking of, The Four Aces - The Four Aces.

Mr. HOPPER: Right. Exactly.

GROSS: Perry Como, Patti Page.

Mr. HOPPER: God, that's right.

GROSS: Could you tell the good from the bad then? I mean was there a difference to you between say, you know, Patti Page and Ella Fitzgerald?

Mr. HOPPER: (Singing) It's a big wide wonderful world we're living in.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HOPPER: No, I could - I didn't know. Listen, I was having enough problems just trying to get through high school.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Was there anything you loved out of all that period of pre-rock 'n' roll pop?

Mr. HOPPER: Well, I was a big - when I got to Los Angeles when I was 18, this is like 1954, I got into jazz right away, so there was a period there before rock 'n' roll, I'm not sure of the years, but it was a period of time there where jazz was king and Miles Davis was the greatest act in the country. And Bob Rafelson said to me once, who was the curator - the creator of The Monkees and later went on to do "Five Easy Pieces" with Jack Nicholson, and so on, and make some wonderful films. But at the time he said if Miles Davis hadn't turned his back on the audience, the Beatles would never have been able to have invaded this country so easily.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HOPPER: But Miles would only blow at a certain point when he felt like it. And so he would go out and just stand there and not - maybe go through a whole concert. I've seen him go through whole concerts where he didn't blow at all and did make some fans angry. But I still love jazz. And rock 'n' roll was something that I listened to secretly on the radio. I had a - I would move it to the rock 'n' roll station. But even my wife, when she got in I would change it to classical or change it to popular or change it to something. I didn't want anybody to know that I was listening to rock 'n' roll, man.

GROSS: Why not?

Mr. HOPPER: It was like animal music. You're not supposed to be listening to it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HOPPER: And this was like, this was a condition that went on for some time and by - one time my wife got in the car and started the car before I changed the station and it was playing rock 'n' roll and she said, oh, I love rock 'n' roll. And I said, you do? You know, big surprise, huh? Oh wow.

GROSS: You might be one of the few adults who had to hide rock 'n' roll.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HOPPER: Yeah, well, it was strange, you know? It was a strange time. It's like, it's easy to accept pop art and it's easy to accept abstract expressionist art most places these days. But in the old days if you had an abstract painting, that was really weird. And if you had a soup can or a cartoon hanging in your house, I mean who were you? What kind of weird person? And listening to rock 'n' roll was like listening to the jungle or something. It just was unheard of. I mean it was not accepted.

GROSS: Now, television, as we mentioned, you were doing a lot of episodic television in the - I guess the late '50s, early '60s?

Mr. HOPPER: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

GROSS: When did television come into your life? Not as an actor but as a viewer.

Mr. HOPPER: Oh, as a viewer. I saw my first television show when I was 13.

GROSS: That's pretty old.

Mr. HOPPER: Same year as I saw the mountains. Yeah, well, I was like, let's see, I was, how old was I? What year would it have been? Forty. Would be about 1949. Something like that.

GROSS: So it was pretty early in TV's development.

Mr. HOPPER: Yeah.

GROSS: Were you shocked by it?

Mr. HOPPER: I wasn't shocked by it. It was a miracle.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. HOPPER: It was black and white and I think "Kukla, Fran and Ollie" was the big show of the day, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HOPPER: Pretty exciting stuff. It was in California when I went to visit my aunt in California, so...

GROSS: What about the best shows to do when you were acting in episodic television? I saw you in the pilot of "The Rifleman." You know, they were -maybe they still are rerunning it on the Family Channel.

Mr. HOPPER: Wow.

GROSS: It's a really great series, and the episode you're in, you're like the kind of kid gunslinger who comes into town and you're a real showoff in it.

Mr. HOPPER: You know who wrote that? Sam Peckinpah wrote the pilot for "The Rifleman."

GROSS: Yeah. Well, he wrote and directed a lot of them. Yeah.

Mr. HOPPER: Yeah. He didn't direct it but he wrote it. But he was there on the set telling me how to play the part, so - but Sam and I had known each other for years. He was the only guy I knew that smoked grass besides me. So we could hide together on the studio lots and smoke a joint every once in a while.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Just one question about marijuana and other drugs. Do you think that they affected your visual sensibility at all or, you know, your artistic interest?

Mr. HOPPER: Well, you know, I - first of all, I'm in these 12-step programs because I had a problem. I became a drug addict and an alcoholic, so I'm sort of torn with this question. I think that - I don't think anyone needs them to enhance their visual or intellectual capacities. Does it help? It might in the beginning clear - open up some doors, you know? But those doors rapidly close if you're a drug addict and it's not a way of seeing. It's a way of dying, and that's a reality.

As far as drinking, I mean, being an alcoholic and a drug addict, it was so easy for me to point that - because I'm an artist, after all, it's okay for me to drink and take drugs because I have an excuse, and being in total denial about the fact that you're an alcoholic and drug addict, because after all Van Gogh spent a whole summer of drinking to find that yellow.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HOPPER: And then at the end of it I say, well, yeah, he probably couldn't find the tube the yellow was in, he was so drunk, you know? But you justify all these things and it's too easy to justify using drugs and drinking because you're an artist, and I can't cop to that excuse. I can say yes, in the beginning everything works. Sex works. Drugs works. Everything works. If you go too far with it, it becomes less effective and then you start working for it rather than it working for you.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. HOPPER: And some of the greatest artists of all time never drank and never took drugs and that's a reality as much as it is a reality that a lot of them did and a lot of them died painfully stupid lives, which that could've been avoided if they hadn't drank and taken drugs.

GROSS: I really want to thank you a lot for talking with us about your new movie and about art and stuff.

Mr. HOPPER: Oh, it's always a pleasure. It's great listening to your show.

GROSS: Dennis Hopper recorded in 1996. He died Saturday at the age of 74.

Dennis Hopper, thank you for all the great characters you brought to life.

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