This post may seem a little bit odd, but trust me, there is a Disney connection. When you work in the entertainment industry you’re sure to cross paths with a few celebrities. I’ve had more than my share. Here’s one you might find interesting. for a number of years, I’ve had this odd relationship with Hollywood bad-boy, Dennis Hopper. No, It’s not what you think. The former star of teen age rebel movies and counter culture films of the sixties eventually grew into a grizzled old timer and amazingly enough he managed to stick around for quite a few years. Dennis Hopper continued to appear in films and television commercials with his usual roguish charm. However, back in the fifties Dennis Hopper and I were just young kids having arrived in Hollywood to begin our careers in the film business. Hopper was a contract player at Warner Bros. and I was a young animation apprentice at the Walt Disney Studio. If you weren’t around during those days you probably wouldn’t know how it felt to be a kid in this crazy business. Because we were all pretty much the same age I truly identified with talented young kids like James Dean, Sal Mineo, Natalie Wood, Nick Adams and Dennis Hopper. Warner Bros. had just released, “Rebel Without a Cause,” and James Dean was quickly becoming a teen idol. However, young Dean seemed uncomfortable with the “movie star” label and I still remember the Burbank apartment where the reclusive actor lived during his early days in movie biz.
After James Dean’s tragic death in 1955, the young group of actors continued with their careers. Yet, it would appear that their colleague’s early demise would eventually haunt their lives as well. In the years that followed, each of them died tragically - and all of them died young. Even lesser known actors who had appeared in the fifties teen movies would have their careers cut short as well. Talented actors such as Tom Pittman and Corey Allen, the tough kid who fought Dean with a switchblade in Rebel Without a Cause, would meet an early end. It almost makes you wonder if these kids were somehow under a Hollywood curse. All were young and showed so much potential. Now, all were gone. All, except for Dennis Hopper.
I continued to follow the career of Dennis Hopper as we moved through our film careers. It’s almost as if our careers though very different, were somehow linked together. Back in the fifties, I lived in Los Angeles and I had to drive over Barham Blvd to the Disney Studios in Burbank. I assumed Dennis Hopper must have lived in Hollywood because he made the drive over the hill as well. I still remember Hopper driving his little sports car as we moved ever so slowly in the thick morning traffic. Since we made this trek day after day, Dennis Hopper would sometimes glance over at me as if he was thinking, “There’s that guy again!”
The sixties ushered in the Counter Culture and films like “Easy Rider” grabbed the attention of the moviegoing public. The teen rebels of the fifties may have been gone but protesting was just beginning. “Easy Rider” became a Hippie anthem as Peter Fonda, Jack Nicholson and Dennis Hopper stormed their choppers across America changing our perceptions forever. Dennis Hopper continued to work and even garnered glowing reviews from critics on occasion. Hopper seemed to enjoy playing weirdos and his turn in David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet” still makes my skin crawl.
By the early eighties, I was back working at Walt Disney and the studio had a new science fiction movie in production. The time travel special effects epic would take place in a local high school where a group of students would battle monsters, mutants and a T-Rex on the campus grounds. Their science instructor was a slightly spaced out former Hippie played by - you guessed it - Dennis Hopper. The writer/director, Jonathan Betuel must have had a sense of humor when casting Hopper as the burnout sixties science instructor, Bob Roberts. The freaky teacher even drove a hippie van with a peace symbol emblazoned on the side. Once again our paths had crossed and I headed out to stage three on the Walt Disney studio lot to see Dennis Hopper in action. Not surprisingly, Hopper glared at me and I was sure he was thinking, “There’s that guy again!”
With the passing of years, Dennis Hopper and I were soon old guys in our seventies. I’ve had the opportunity to meet a lot of actors in my career, yet I’ve never met Dennis Hopper. While I’ve seen him around town and on movie sets, I’m reluctant to engage the actor in conversation. As much as I admire Hopper as an actor, I’d hate to be seen as another annoying fan. Many of our colleagues have since passed on, yet Dennis Hopper and I continued to practice our craft. Both of us looked back on a long film career even though they had little in common. Yet, I still remember the fifties and the early morning drive over Barham Boulevard. A time when two kids in their twenties chased the perennial California dream. We knew if we worked long enough and hard enough we just might make it big in Hollywood. Though Dennis Hopper could be described as the “weirdest of weirdos” he’s always been kind of a hero to me. With his passing, Hopper will now become a Hollywood icon. Who can forget the image of Dennis Hopper, Jack Nicholson and Peter Fonda on their choppers with their long hair flowing in the wind. Dennis Hopper’s bold, brash motion picture forever changed Hollywood and a good portion of America as well.
Of course, our lives couldn’t have been more different. While Dennis Hopper’s journey was often self-destructive - marred by drugs and alcohol, I remained at my drawing board drawing cute princesses and bunny rabbits. When I received word that Dennis Hopper had suddenly passed away I realized I hadn’t even finished the piece I was writing on the actor. I had put the story aside because I didn’t have an ending. Sadly, now I do.