Dennis Hopper Remembered – Alice O’Neill

When I heard that Dennis Hopper had died, my first thought was, “We won’t see his likes again.”dennishopper1

 Much has been written about Dennis (meet him for five minutes and he insists on first names), but what hasn’t been said is how genuine and kind he was.

 It was early 2004 and we had met, unexpectedly, at Ago, the trendy restaurant on L.A.’s Melrose Avenue.  The restaurant was crowded, noisy, and vibrating with energy of the celebrities, who were at home in the place owned by a consortium which included Robert DeNiro.

 Suddenly, I recognized a familiar voice. I turned and there was Dennis Hopper at the next table, close enough to touch. “Hey Dennis,” I said. “How’s it going?” I had spoken to him at many Hollywood events and he always greeted me as if he remembered every time.

Photo of Mr. Hopper by: Alice O’Neill

 “Great,” he said. “How about you?”

“Same here,” I said and reminded him that I was still Alice O’Neill, and still writing the syndicated column, Hollywood Behind-The-Scenes. 

 Dennis smiled, saying, “I know. I’ve read it. You’re good!”

  I was with a man and his wife, who’d bought the Hollywood trip I annually donated as a fundraiser for Chicago institutions, DePaul University’s Theatre School and The Joffrey Ballet. We ordered drinks and toasted an exciting day in Hollywood. We talked about the Joffrey, the couple’s work in supporting the Chicago dance company, and my work interviewing and writing about the stars. I had married a Chicago businessman and moved from L.A. to live in Winnetka, IL. The marriage meant I had to do a good bit of traveling to keep up with happenings in the movie industry.

 I introduced the couple, explaining their “angels in the industry” status, a designation of people who pay money to support the arts.

 Dennis’ eyes lit up as he stood and shook hands and introduced his adult daughter Marin (a full-figured woman with an American accent), and his wife, Victoria (very fine-boned and slender, despite being seven months pregnant). Victoria, who had a distinct British accent, seemed too young      to be the mother of Marin. I made a note but never got around to asking who was Marin’s mother. I later learned it was Brooke Hayward, Dennis’ first wife.

 I ordered a round of drinks and Dennis led an animated discussion about the Joffrey, internationally known for its excellent dancers, superb choreography, and innovative programs. “I love Chicago,” Dennis said. “What a city, and what great people.” He spread his arms to indicate the couple as if they were royalty. They beamed. You could tell that they were in a moment they’d keep as a special memory all their lives.

 And it didn’t stop there. Dennis and Victoria both thanked me for also supporting the arts. “So, you donated a Hollywood trip?” Dennis said, appreciation evident as his eyes twinkled and he stroked his white goatee.  “You’re good, Alice!”

 “What are you working on?” I asked, remembering that actors need publicity to get out information to fans, to sell movie tickets, and to give columnists new material.

 “Well, The Last Ride is ready for release in a few months,” he said, adding that it wasn’t very good but that he enjoyed some parts of it.  “I play an ex-con who recruits his grandson to help get revenge on the cop who sent him off to prison.”

 “Sounds interesting,” I said.

 “Yeah,” he agreed. “I figured that would be interesting to explore. It was, but not enough to save the picture.” His shrug said he couldn’t win ’em all.

 “Hey,” he added, “I’m working on another film that promises to be better, Land of the Dead, written and directed by George Romero. “It’s a horror flick, science fiction, probably be out next year (2005),” he explained, adding that costars were John Leguizamo and Simon Baker.

 “Why do you think it’s good?” I asked, thinking it sounded like a war movie.

 “It’s a really good zombie movie, about the living dead taking over the world,” he said.

 At my raised brow he quickly added, “No, no. Really. It’s got a lot of heavy psychology entwined with the action.” His trademark smirky smile gave no hint of whether he was serious or not.  I scribbled a note, nonetheless.

 Well, as it turned out, he was not exaggerating. The film has since gained cult status as one of the best horror/sci-fi films of all time. His Easy Rider with Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson stands as the dominant film that defines a generation. And his brilliant portrayal of a drugged-out photographer in Appocalypse Now stands as a defining character in a film that is part of Hollywood history. His work in those films as well as his early work opposite James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause and Giant solidify his place in the story of Hollywood filmmaking at its best.

Rest in peace, Dennis Hopper. Your total honesty, kind heart and prodigious talent make you unforgettable.

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