When I heard that Dennis Hopper had died, my first thought was that we wouldn’t see his likes again in Hollywood. Fans of his film acting will remember him for his incredible acting talent. I will too. But I’ll also remember him for his great, generous spirit.
A few years ago he told me to call and he’d be glad to sit down for an in-depth interview. I told him I was busy with law school and might not be able to make the call. I still wrote my Hollywood Behind-The-Scenes column, but law school took more time than I had anticipated when I enrolled the previous year. But this iconic star made sure I got my interview.
Here’s how it happened. It was early 2004 and I was entertaining a couple from Chicago. I knew they wanted to have the full Hollywood experience, so I took them to Ago, the trendy restaurant on L.A.’s Melrose Avenue. I annually donated a 3-day Hollywood trip as a fundraiser for deserving institutions since marrying and moving from L.A. to Chicago. DePaul’s Theatre School and the Joffrey Ballet were favorites. The man and his wife had bought the Hollywood trip to benefit the Joffrey, Chicago’s great dance company.
As the maitre d’ led us to our table, the wife grabbed my hand as she recognized actors she’d seen in commercials. We’d just been seated and ordered drinks when I saw Dennis and two women being escorted to the only table open, right beside us. The couple with me both bent toward me and whispered, “That’s Dennis Hopper.” I nodded and put a finger to my lips. I knew the stars wanted their privacy and I had a routine worked out. I’d let them do what they came for and then I’d make a low-keyed pitch for information for my nationally syndicated column.
We ate our meal, chatted 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 Winnetka, IL. This trip to Hollywood was typical of the travel my work required.
After Dennis and his party had finished their meal and the waiter had cleared the dishes, I leaned over (the tables were very close together) and introduced myself as Alice O’Neill, syndicated columnist of Hollywood Behind-The-Scenes. Dennis smiled, saying, “I’ve read it. You’re good!” I thanked him and asked what he was working on.
He said The Last Ride was ready for release in a few months. He said it wasn’t very good but he enjoyed some parts of it, saying he played an ex-con who recruits his grandson to help get revenge on the cop who sent him to prison. But he added that he was working on another film that promised 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,” he explained. Co-stars were John Leguizamo and Simon Baker. He said he thought it was a really good zombie movie, about the living dead taking over the world. “It’s got a lot of heavy psychology entwined with the action,” he said, his trademark smirky smile giving no hint of whether he was serious or not. I took him at his word and scribbled a note. The film has since gained cult status as one of the best horror/sci-fi films of all time. Dennis, with his analytical as well as artistic mind, correctly judged the merits of his film. I ended our brief dialogue by thanking him and saying I’d send a copy of my column to his publicist.
Then I introduced the couple, explaining their “angels in the industry” status, a designation of people who pay money to support the arts. Dennis got up and shook hands with both 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 didn’t ask who her mother was, but allowed Dennis to dominate the conversation as he interviewed the couple. An animated discussion followed about the Joffrey, internationally known for its excellent dancers, superb choreography, and innovative programs. “I love Chicago,” Dennis said. “What a city!”
Dennis and Victoria both knew the reputation of the Joffrey, and profusely thanked the couple for supporting the company. And they both thanked me for also supporting it. “So, you donate a Hollywood trip?” Dennis said, appreciation evident as his eyes twinkled and he stroked his white goatee. “You’re good!”
He posed for a special black and white photo for me. When we said goodbye he kissed me on the cheek and whispered, “Keep up the good work, Alice. You’re a credit to the industry.”
Rest in peace, Dennis Hopper. The world remembers you for your extraordinary talent and for genuine kindness to all who came your way.
– Alice O’Neill