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New Dennis Hopper Bio: A Labor of Love

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By Mary Daily

Published Apr 1, 2012 8:00 AM


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Photo courtesy of The Los Angeles Times.

Readers of Peter Winkler's new biography of the late actor and artist Dennis Hopper may not realize what a labor of love it represents. Winkler '78 suffers from rheumatoid arthritis and cannot reach his fingers to the keyboard of his computer. Yet he was determined to write Dennis Hopper: The Wild Ride of a Hollywood Rebel, so he tapped it out one letter at a time, using a red plastic chopstick to press the keys. Not even Winkler's agent knew about the tedious process the author was forced to use.

The result is the first biography to cover Hopper's entire life and career. The meticulously researched account follows him from a lonely childhood in Kansas through his days as a Hollywood bad boy, later reformed, to his rise as a notable visual artist. The story ends when Hopper loses his battle with prostate cancer following a roller coaster life of triumphs and failures. When Winkler pitched the idea of the biography to his agent, he described Hopper as "a one-man Hollywood Babylon."

Like Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson, Hopper was an iconic survivor of the counterculture depicted in his early, iconic film, Easy Rider. Along the way, he spent several drug-fueled years in Taos, N.M., and later recovered, shifted his political views toward the right and made a comeback in Blue Velvet.

Although this book is Winkler's first, he has written film reviews and articles for many years, including a piece for Playboy on the 50th anniversary of the death of James Dean. He chose to write about Hopper, he says, because of the actor's "rich, eventful life" and "passion for art and artists." He already knew a lot about the Hollywood icon before he started researching the book near the end of Hopper's life.

Winkler's sister helped him conduct research, driving him to the library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to copy clippings collected throughout Hopper's career. Then at home, in bed, the author, who has been described as "a genuine Hollywood historian and that rarity, a James Dean fan with a triple-digit IQ," painstakingly pecked out the story he was so eager to tell.

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