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Of course, he didn’t stay here. Most likely, you wouldn’t either, not if you were young and ambitious and living a two-hour drive up the freeway to get to Hollywood. Not if you’d grown up mostly fatherless on your grandparents’ farm outside Dodge City, Kansas, cherishing your Saturday visits to the movie house and the glimpses they provided of a world more magical than your own.

Most likely, if you had just finished four years of high school and had a note of introduction from an actress like Dorothy Maguire, you’d hightail it out of

San Diego, just the way Dennis Hopper did.

Even if he didn’t stay, he started here. He attended Helix High from 1950 to ’54, got himself voted most likely to succeed. And he began acting here — slipping under the shadow of Dorothy Maguire’s wing at the La Jolla Playhouse for The Postman Always Rings Twice, then moving on to Shakespeare at the Old Globe. So, in our small way, we get to claim him.

Just now, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles is finishing up a major exhibition of Hopper’s paintings and photography. But in June and July, we had our own tribute to the man, a collection of Hopperbilia spread across two walls of the Edgeware Gallery in Kensington. Sectioned-up photos of Hopper, plus a poster from Easy Rider — the first film he directed, and the one that made him famous. A plaster life mask hanging below a Warhol video of the actor putting his face through its paces. A mug shot, a photo from the Old Globe days, and a book in which you can write a line or two on the topic of “What did Dennis Hopper mean to you?”

That’s pretty much what I asked David Elliott, longtime film critic for the San Diego Union-Tribune. (Before that, he wrote for the Chicago Daily News and USA Today. After that, for the website San Diego News Network.) He gave me a sampling of Hopper films to watch: Rebel Without a Cause (1955), Easy Rider (1969), The Last Movie (1971), Out of the Blue (1980), Blue Velvet (1986), Hoosiers (1986), Paris Trout (1991), Speed (1994), and Carried Away (1996). Hardly comprehensive — Hopper loved to work and wasn’t overly discriminating — but covering a wide swath, timewise and otherwise. Then we started in discussing the man and his work. (Spoilers abound ahead.)

∗ ∗ ∗

Matthew Lickona: On the lobby walls of the Grossmont Healthcare District’s Dr. William C. Herrick Community Healthcare Library in La Mesa, you will find the East County Gallery of Honor. According to the brochure, the gallery serves to remind local residents of “the significant roles that our fellow citizens have played in shaping the world of today.” There are some locally famous names on those walls: Fletcher, Bancroft, etc. You’ve got your famous athletes (Bill Walton, Greg Louganis), your famous personalities (Regis Philbin, Ed Meese), and your innovators (Taylor guitars, Deering banjos). Then you’ve got Helix High graduate Dennis Hopper.

From the write-up under his smiling young face: “Best known for his work as both the director and performer in the 1969 motion picture Easy Rider, Lemon Grove’s Dennis Hopper has enjoyed five decades of stardom.” Enjoyed and stardom are both tricky words, to say nothing about the claim about which film he’s best known for (I sort of suspect that Speed occupies a bigger place than Easy Rider in the popular consciousness today). But maybe we can get into that later.

David Elliott: Why wait? Hopper’s stardom was always an ambiguous commodity, without a lot of market value. People came out of Easy Rider thinking about Jack Nicholson, as they had come out of Rebel Without a Cause thinking about James Dean. Nobody came from Giant thinking, “Wow, that was a great Dennis Hopper picture,” since the late Dean took the honors again and got his second Oscar nomination as a dead actor. John Wayne was a friend of his first wife’s family and later got Dennis back into movies with True Grit and The Sons of Katie Elder. But even then, a dozen years after Rebel, he was still a side-player. In Cool Hand Luke, he was overshadowed by Paul Newman, Strother Martin, George Kennedy, and Dean’s old colleague Jo Van Fleet.

Matthew Lickona: Maybe so, but the only names I recognize from that last list are Hopper and Newman. So there’s that.

David Elliott: Right. And in that way Hopper finally did rival Dean, in the sense that he kept coming back from career death. His drive to be associated with quality was lifelong. Did any other actor work with Dean, Brando, and Nicholson? Certainly none that also directed Sean Penn and Robert Duvall. Dennis wanted to avoid being stuck in the velvet casket of approved success with studio-tamed actors like Robert Wagner and Tab Hunter. Some were gay and feared exposure. Tony Perkins got so sick of the game that he fled to Broadway and then Europe. Dennis was more extreme: he burned the golden bridge by becoming a human torch, career-wise, and later this created a myth that paid off. He was a celebrity of recycling, and in time that took on luster. The fact that he could seem stoned even when he wasn’t certainly added to his mystique.

Matthew Lickona: We definitely have to get back to Dean, the brief candle to Hopper’s enduring shadow. But you mentioned seeming stoned, which means I need to finish my bit on the East County Gallery of Honor, even though it’s almost too easy a shot: God bless Hopper for getting clean and sober in the mid-’80s, but there’s still a certain deliciousness in seeing a man famous for spending so many years as a world-class abuser of various substances — both legal and illegal — being lauded on the wall of a health library. And there’s something even more delicious in seeing a man famous for films that depict (and sort of celebrate?) social upheaval, civil unrest, and generally deviant behavior being lauded on the wall of a government health library. I’m not sure who wins in such a situation: The Man, for subsuming Hopper into a toothless culture of celebrity? Or Hopper, for getting The Man to praise a guy like Dennis Hopper?

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steverupp Oct. 20, 2010 @ 3:50 p.m.

Forgotten in there memorable performances is the amazing vignettte in True Romance where he gives the full sacrafice on behalf of his wayware son. Artistry.


optimystic1 Oct. 20, 2010 @ 10:06 p.m.

I am from Lemon Grove and met and talked with Hopper's mother Marjorie many times in the 80's. Because of that I was a big Hopper fan and followed his career. His mom was a very nice lady. From her perspective, she seemed to portray that some of her son's tales of a troubled childhood were exaggerated. Apparently Dennis Hopper's dad was a postman, so i dont see how he was not around. Anyway, a great actor, a great art enthusiast, and great son of Lemon Grove.


MsGrant Oct. 21, 2010 @ 8:34 a.m.

I saw Paris Trout on HBO and was blown away. None of my friends or anyone I knew had watched the movie, so I had no one to discuss it with. I was really happy to see it included in your discussion. If anyone is a Hopper fan (or not) and has not watched this movie, do so and be prepared to be chilled to the bone. I have never forgotten this movie.


nan shartel Oct. 22, 2010 @ 10:53 a.m.

i went to one year of High School @ Helix with Dennis hopper...he was a crazy kid whose only interest was theatre..he went far!!


SurfPuppy619 Oct. 22, 2010 @ 11:45 a.m.

i went to one year of High School @ Helix with Dennis hopper...he was a crazy kid whose only interest was theatre..he went far!!

==================== Wow, that is cool nan!!! I never knew Hopper went to Helix. Did you know him or hang with him???

Anyone else become famous from Helix???

Cameron Crowe, the writer/director is from Point Loma High...


Jay Allen Sanford Oct. 22, 2010 @ 5:39 p.m.

Hopper – whose family lived for years at 3224 Massachusetts Ave in Lemon Grove - went to both Grossmont High AND Helix High. Other future celebs to come outta Helix include hoops master Bill Walton and NFL star Reggie Bush - you can see Famous Former Neighbors cartoons on them AND Hopper at http://www.sandiegoreader.com/photos/galleries/famous-former-neighbors/

SurfPuppy is incorrect about Crowe going to Point Loma High - he actually attended University of SD High, and he went undercover for his Fast Times book at Clairemont High. Yep, he’s been cartooned too -- actress Marion Ross and Manson Family member Sandra Good DID attend Point Loma High, though.

Other Famous Former Neighbors toons feature MLB player Barry Zito and actor David Leisure (Grossmont High), Joan Embrey and actress Kathy Najimy (both of Crawford High), Bobby Lee of MADtv and Tom DeLonge of blink 182 (both of Poway High), slugger Ted Williams and Ted Giannoulas aka the San Diego Chicken (both from Hoover High), Cleavon Little of Blazing Saddles and special FX whiz Phil Tippett and musician Michael Page AND Moby Grape’s Bob Mosley (all four from Kearny High), Frank Zappa and Matt Bush and Tawny Kittaen (all three of Mission Bay High), actor Mario Lopez (Chula Vista High), actor Adam Brody (Scripps Ranch High), Kingston Trio’s Nick Reynolds (Coronado High), actresses Priscilla Allen and Raquel Welch (both of La Jolla High), Art Linkletter (Woodrow Wilson High), skater Tony Hawk (Torrey Pines High), actress Denise Richards (El Camino High), actress Annette Bening (Patrick Henry High), actor Victor Buono (St. Augustine High), Eddie Vedder (San Dieguito High), footballer Terrell Davis (Lincoln High), Junior Seau (Oceanside High), musician Jake E. Lee (Mar Vista High), and silent film star Harold Lloyd (San Diego High).

And of course SD’s School of Creative and Performing arts has spawned a number of celebs, several with their own Reader toons as well –


MsGrant Oct. 22, 2010 @ 5:57 p.m.

Billy Fox and David Wells also both went to Point Loma High.


SurfPuppy619 Oct. 22, 2010 @ 9 p.m.

Oh David Wells, yes, I forgot about him!!!!!

Harold Wright went to SD High, that is cool!


nan shartel Oct. 23, 2010 @ 8:31 a.m.

Even tho Dennis live in what was officially Lemon Grove.. Massachusetts St comes down onto University Ave just a few blocks West of Helix...i lived on Pomona Ave just North of Helix High about 2 blocks

and no Puppy i was a lowly Freshman then and didn't hang with Denny as he was called then...i just saw him in the halls and such...he was a big man on campus theatre wise...and not nearly as important as the football players...hahahahahaha...he was a little guy..handsome as hell...and we were all buzzing about his role in "Rebel Without a Cause" later when it was him not James Dean who was dating Natalie Wood

actually i was more excited about Greg Peck who came from San Diego and Rock Hudson's special appearance at the Orpheum Theater downtown in "Taza Son of Cochise" 1954

Rock walked within 2 feet of me coming out of the theater and i've never seen a more beautiful man in my life


nan shartel Oct. 23, 2010 @ 8:39 a.m.

Victor Buono was in a play that had the male characters from St Augies and the female players from OLP..it played at both high schools..(about 1952)

now there was a superior actor..it was obvious even in his teens he was headed for Hollywood to be in Character parts..he really never achieved the kind if greatness he deserved..he was a marvel of theatrical expertise..i think he was i some Shakespeare things down at the Old Globe 2

Jay probably know more about that...eh Jay


nan shartel Oct. 23, 2010 @ 8:47 a.m.

my favorite role of Denny's was in "Apocalypse Now"


he was brilliant in that!!!


SurfPuppy619 Oct. 23, 2010 @ 12:27 p.m.

actually i was more excited about Greg Peck who came from San Diego...

Nan, I have a copy of the 1935 SDS College yearbook, and they have Eldred ("Gregory") Peck in it under the Epsilon Eta fratenrity members...........He looks like a 15 year old boy.

Peck didn't stay long at SDSC, he transferred to UC Berkley.


nan shartel Oct. 23, 2010 @ 1:27 p.m.

how very ubercool Puppy!!!..he was another beautiful laddie!!!


sailinsax Oct. 25, 2010 @ 11:46 a.m.

He was also in one of San Diego Junior Theatre's first productions, The Rose and the Ring, in 1952 when they were a wing of The Old Globe. Junior Theatre is still going strong and is the oldest continuing children's theatre program in the COUNTRY. Check out their website for a picture of him in the cast: http://www.juniortheatre.com/history/


nan shartel Nov. 7, 2010 @ 12:44 p.m.


i'm happy to hear it...i ushered at the Globe as a teen


SurfPuppy619 Nov. 7, 2010 @ 4:35 p.m.

He was also in one of San Diego Junior Theatre's first productions, The Rose and the Ring, in 1952 when they were a wing of The Old Globe. Junior Theatre is still going strong and is the oldest continuing children's theatre program in the COUNTRY. Check out their website for a picture of him in the cast: http://www.juniortheatre.com/history/


Wow, that is cool info, thanks for posting that!

You should update his Mr. Peck's wikipedia page with this info, since it is not in there yet, I am sure many others would be interested in knowing this;

. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gregory_Peck .


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