Henry Fonda wasn’t holding back. Not even a little.
It was October 1970, and the 65-year old Hollywood legend had recently watched his son Peter on The David Frost Show.
Peter wasn’t the problem. Fonda’s son had come out, shaken Frost’s hand, and taken his seat—like a goddamn normal person. No, the thing raising Fonda’s blood pressure was what happened next, when Peter’s friend, Dennis Hopper came on stage.
“Dennis came out floating,” Fonda later told a New York Times reporter. He demonstrated what he meant by flouncing about the living room of his Manhattan apartment with arms spread wide and head tossed backwards. “And every time Frost asked him a question, he began giggling… Dennis is stoned out of his mind. He’d have to be to act that way.”
“Put that in your story,” Fonda told the reporter. ‘This is not off the record. Dennis Hopper is an idiot. Spell that name right D-e-n-n-i-s H-o-p-p-e-r!”
Reached at his home in Taos, New Mexico, Hopper laughed when told about Fonda’s rant. “Henry Fonda said I was an idiot?” Hopper said. “Well, I guess it goes to show you what the establishment view of me is.”
Hopper could afford to be amused. After years of being regarded by much of the old guard as an ill-mannered, drug-addled lunatic, he was now possibly the hottest filmmaker in Hollywood. Easy Rider, which Hopper had made for less than half a million dollars, was the surprise smash of 1969, grossing $60 million and seemingly striking a death blow to the studio system that nourished the elder Fonda.
Hopper’s overnight transformation from unemployable fuckup to Wellesian genius was made exponentially more aggravating when Universal gave him total control over his next picture, on which he was currently in post-production: The Last Movie, which Hopper wrote, directed, starred in, and edited. He declared it “the first American art film.”
Hopper was keenly aware that the project would determine the course of his future, as he told the endless stream of reporters who visited him on the film’s set. “The Last Movie is the big one,” he told one writer. “If I foul up now, they’ll say Easy Rider was a fluke. But, I’ve got to take chances to do what I want.”
And, true to his word, that’s exactly what he did.
The idea for The Last Movie came to Hopper in 1965 at a wrap party for the John Wayne film The Sons of Katie Elder in Durango, Mexico, a popular location for Hollywood westerns.
Katie Elder was Hopper’s first Hollywood movie since the 1958 western From Hell to Texas, also directed by Henry Hathaway, who had effectively blacklisted the actor after his Method approach slowed down production. Things came to a head one night when Hopper turned the set into his own personal Actor’s Studio, trying every possible approach other than Hathaway’s for eighty-five takes before bursting into tears of frustration and begging the director to give him his line readings one last time. When they were done, Hathaway threw an arm around Hopper and said, “Kid, you’ll never work in this town again.”
For the next six years, Hopper didn’t appear in a single Hollywood film and struggled to find work even in television. But in late 1964, Hathaway and Wayne decided that the 28-year-old actor—who was then married to Brooke Hayward, the scion of a prominent Hollywood family, and had a young daughter to support—had suffered enough.
On his best behavior throughout the Katie Elder shoot, Hopper became fast friends with 22-year old actor Michael Anderson Jr. “We were the only two people under 100,” Anderson said. When the film wrapped, Hopper and Anderson attended a party thrown by a stuntman who’d rented a house in Durango. They spent the evening smoking pot and staring into an outdoor fireplace in relative silence, until Hopper turned to Anderson and said, “Hey man, I just had the best idea for a movie. It’s about making movies and the effect it has on people, and what they do when a movie company leaves town.”
Hopper teamed up with screenwriter Stewart Stern. Stern’s personal papers—containing everything from his high school academic records, correspondence with Joan Crawford and Paul Newman, and scripts for pictures like Rebel Without a Cause, his best-known movie (and Hopper’s film acting debut)—make up 22 boxes located in a special collections library at the University of Iowa. For years, only one of those boxes was unavailable for public view: Box 22, which contained the materials for The Last Movie and was placed under seal until after both Hopper and Stern were dead. Its contents tell a portion of the story of Stern’s collaboration with Hopper, which began when Hopper returned to Los Angeles and settled in at Stern’s house to write a treatment for what they were calling The Last Movie, or Boo Hoo in Tinseltown.
“The end,” Hopper said, “is far out.”