R.I.P. Dennis Hopper

Hopper as Frank Booth in Blue Velvet

Movies lost a true giant and a champion this weekend, when Dennis Hopper died of prostate cancer May 29. It would be difficult to overstate his impact on American movies, but I will always remember the influential actor/director/writer for borrowing a pen.

It was a tiny moment amid bigger, more serious stuff, but it was my personal brush with his greatness, and I’d like to recount it, since others far more qualified than myself will analyze the cultural repercussions of Easy Rider, Blue Velvet, Hoosiers and Waterworld.

I met Hopper at the Sundance Film Festival in 1996 when he was talking about two wildly diverse projects: Carried Away and the schlocky sci-fi flick Space Truckers (which was about…well, exactly what it sounded like it was about). To be fair, only Carried Away — a character piece about a middle-aged teacher who falls for a 17-year-old student — was entered at Sundance, and it earned some good buzz for Hopper and co-stars Amy Irving and Amy Locane. Clearly, there was a disconnect, and Hopper admitted the obvious: Doing one Space Truckers paid enough to allow him to do a year of personal projects like Carried Away.

After press conferences in those days, the stars actually milled about and chatted with the reporters. I found Hopper to be not just a “regular guy,” but exceedingly pleasant in conversation. Animated and friendly, he could not have been less like Blue Velvet’s creepy Frank Booth if he had tried. He seemed genuinely interested in talking to me, not just about Carried Away and the amazingly bad weather that year (It snowed a couple feet every day!) but also the rest of the festival and films in general. At one point I withdrew to give him a chance to speak with a few personal friends who had dropped in on him. I was working on my notes when I heard Hopper call out to me: “Hey, man, lemme use your pen.” I handed him the pen and some paper so he could write down a couple of phone numbers. (I know — pen and paper? No cell phones? How did we survive the close of the 20th century?) Yes, he did return the pen. And, no, I did not let anyone else use it. Heck, I barely used it after that.

And that was all there was to it: A tiny, human moment for a larger-than-life creative colossus. Dennis Hopper was as important a man as ever worked in Hollywood, and a seminal figure in independent cinema. And he wrote with a pen. My pen.

Oh, yeah? Sez you!

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