The Hippie and the Duke: How John Wayne and Henry Hathaway Saved Dennis Hopper’s Career

John Wayne and Dennis Hopper (r.) in The Sons of Katie Elder.

Easy Rider, the 1969 film starring Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda, and Jack Nicholson, cemented Hopper’s lasting Hollywood image as the ultimate industry iconoclast, the ageless bohemian, the stick-it-to-the-man actor-director who met life head on and did things his way--or not at all. And while there was some element of truth to that reputation, Hopper was also a connoisseur of fine art, a photographer and sculptor, a dedicated family man, and a serious director. Even more surprising to many, Hopper was a Republican (but voted for Obama in 2012). But back in the 1950s, when he was just starting out and Method acting was all the rage, he once tried to buck the system at the exact wrong time in his burgeoning career.

It was in 1958, on the set of a Western, From Hell To Texas, directed by no-nonsense Henry Hathaway. The director had a notion of what he wanted from Hopper. Hopper had a notion of how the scene should be played. But in a mano a mano between actor and director, the director usually wins. Such proved to be true in this case. As Hopper himself recalled in a 1986 oral history recorded and archived by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA), they began filming the scene at 10 a.m. Twelve hours later, deep into the night, they were still filming. On the 85th take, Hopper continued to insist on doing the scene his way. After the 86th take, exhausted and frustrated, he broke down in tears. On the 87th take, he did it the way Hathaway had requested that morning. They wrapped for the night, but the story of that incident soon spread throughout Hollywood. Despite Hopper’s earlier success as an actor in Rebel Without A Cause and Giant, he was washed up in the business. No one wanted to work with him.

“Eight years later,” Hopper said during an interview, “Henry [Hathaway] phoned and said, ‘Duke [Wayne] and I have talked this over, and you’ve married a nice Irish woman’s daughter, Margaret Sullavan’s daughter, and we understand that you have a daughter, so we’re going to give you a job here because you’re a wonderful actor.’ I said, ‘Henry, I would just love to work for you.’ He said, ‘The only thing is, Duke doesn’t like this Method s**t.’ I said, ‘Don’t worry, you just tell me what to do.’ I arrive in Durango, Mexico, to do my first scene with Duke. Henry gives me every line reading, every gesture to do. I did it first take. He comes up, he’s crying and smoking a cigarette. I don’t think the man ever cried. ‘That was great, kid. That was great. That was just great.’ And I said, ‘You see, Henry, I’m a much better actor now than I was eight years ago.’ And he said, ‘You weren’t a bad actor, kid, you weren’t bad. You’re just smarter.’”

That movie, of course, was The Sons of Katie Elder. Hopper went on to perform with Wayne and Hathaway one more time, four years later, in True Grit. During the filming of the latter, Hopper and Wayne bonded even more, becoming friends for the rest of their lives. And the rest is movie history.

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