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Hopper: My complicated relationship with James Dean

May 30, 2010 | 12:25 pm

  James Dean Rebel
When the American Cinematheque’s Egyptian Theatre kicks off its "Widescreen Wednesdays" series this week with a terrific James Dean double bill, 1955's "East of Eden" and "Rebel Without a Cause," it will take on more poignancy because of the death of Dennis Hopper, who made his big-screen debut in "Rebel Without a Cause." 

Hopper, then 18, had received nice reviews in early 1955 after playing a young epileptic in the medical series “Medic" and was cast as one of the high school gang members who plagued Dean in “Rebel.” (As soon as “Rebel” wrapped, Hopper landed a much bigger role in “Giant,” Dean’s final film before this death.)

Although I never met Hopper, I talked to him on the phone a few times, including a decade ago when six surviving stars of "Rebel" reunited for a screening at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Hopper told me he thought he was “the best young actor around” until he saw Dean on the set of “Rebel. He told Dean: “I don’t have a clue what you are doing, but I know how great you are. What should I do? Should I stop my contract [at Warner Bros.] and go study with Lee Strasberg in New York?”

Dean took him aside and gave him advice: “He said you have got to start doing things and not showing them. He said don’t have any preconceived ideas about how the scene is going to play. Just go on a moment-to-moment reality level, and don’t presuppose anything.”

Hopper also related that Dean was standoffish toward him on “Rebel.” It wasn’t until “Giant” that they became friends.

"He was really into his work and acting,” Hopper recalled. “I was 18, and he was five years older. That is really a big difference. His whole life was acting. Some days, he would come in, and you would say ‘hello’ to him, and he’d walk right by you. He was totally concentrated on what he was doing. Other days, he was open and gracious."

-- Susan King

Photo: James Dean's knife-fight scene from "Rebel Without a Cause," with a young Dennis Hopper at the far right. Credit: Warner Bros. Inc.


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Back when LAUSD used to have a decent school system (mid-70's), these two pictures were shown in high school, for their dramatic appeal and the impact of youth, emotional and historical issues, and it's effects upon society.

Both movies were great "date" pictures, when I was at UCLA.

The cinematography in "Rebel Without a Cause," is outstanding and the use of Santa Monica High School, the Getty Mansion and the Griffith Observatory are landmarks most people will recognize and I am sure that those who are my age, rember hearing the audience go "Chief... Chief... Chief..." everytime Ed Platt (from the "Get Smart" TV series) appeared on screen. I still remember Jim Backus, in an apron and Backus and James Dean going at it. Excellent performances by Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo and the supporting cast still make this a classic.

"East of Eden," is a riveting tale by John Steinbeck of a son, who is given the short end of the stick by his father and the father's love and fvortitism for his brother. Dean's charcter, Cal Trask, is independent and inventive and in an effort to show that he is worthy of his father's love. Julie Harris turns in a great performance as Abra, the "femme fatale." Two years earlier, she turned in a grand performance in the motion picture, "Member of the Wedding." (1953)

I'd rather go see a classic, with people who really care about motion pictures, than fight the crowds to see a "First Run" picture. Besides, I'd tather take my date out for a steak with tme money I'd save; $14 for two tickets vs. $40, for a new picture.

Hopper said some days he'd speak to Dean and he would walk right past him? Hopper should have come to the set with a monkey wrench and smashed Deans skull if he didn't speak when spoken to.

Maybe Hopper's early problem with James Dean is that Dean was a closeted homosexual. Quite a few of the leading men who were in the movie "Giant" were/are either homosexual or bisexual.

Yeah, well it's too bad Hopper didn't take James Dean's "advice." If Hopper had spent less time self-obsessed, promoting himself, and whoring and drinking around there's always the chance that he would've discovered a life better spent repairing cars or farming. He was a pretty awful film actor as well as a pinhead and horse's arse off the set...


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