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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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