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Authors: Illeana Douglas

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BOOK: I Blame Dennis Hopper
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“Oh,” he said, “did you spill breakfast on me?”

I blame Dennis Hopper for never being able to take advantage of the free buffet at a premiere again.

It was inevitable that with the impact that Dennis Hopper had had on making my life like a movie, I would return the favor by being in a movie with Dennis Hopper. It was called
Search and Destroy
—how appropriate. Once he was cast—Dennis Hopper playing my father-figure lover—I couldn't wait to meet him, tell him how he'd ruined my life, and ask for all the money I believed that he owed me. The movie was set in New York, and on the way to the set of this very low-budget film, the overworked, underpaid production assistant who was driving me in the production van fainted—just as I had at Saks—and smashed into the back of another car, causing a three-car pileup on Park Avenue South. If you're counting, this was my second van accident thanks to Dennis Hopper, by the way. I hadn't been in the van long enough to even put on my seat belt, and my head slammed into the dashboard. That woke the assistant up! It turns out the production hadn't provided us with walkie-talkies—they were expensive, and the movie was poor—so, head throbbing, I staggered down Park Avenue South to the armory where we were shooting while the assistant stayed with the police. By the time I arrived on the set, I was dizzy as hell so I lay down on the marble floor of the lobby. With my eyes closed I explained to the first assistant director and the producer that we'd been in a car accident, and the producer asked me, “Are you going to be able to work today?”

I said, “I don't know. I mean my head really hurts.”

Then I closed my eyes again to stop the spinning. Everyone was talking at once. I heard one of the producers trying to motivate me by saying “It's just a bump on the head, right? We have a hundred extras in there. I mean, I flew in the Israeli Army. With helicopters. This is nothing…”

I felt like I was going to sleep, and then one voice cut through the static in my brain.

The voice said, “Are you OK?”

I recognized that voice. It was my father. How did my father get here? Oh, my God, I thought, I'm dying and my Dennis Hopper–like life is flashing before my eyes! Then I realized, Wait, that
is
Dennis Hopper. The
real
Dennis Hopper. Dennis Hopper the iconic figure from
Easy Rider
who had changed my life and now had caused this poor bastard production assistant to have a three-car pileup.

I opened my eyes but could make out only his silhouette, bathed in white light, above me.

“Are you OK?” he repeated.

I said, “I'm fine, I just can't look at the light,” and then I started to cry, and I could not stop crying.

And Dennis Hopper said, “Don't cry. You're going to be OK.”

And I said, “No, I'm crying because my father saw
Easy Rider
when I was a kid and it changed his life and now we're in a movie together and it's a miracle!”

And Dennis Hopper knelt beside me, put his hand on my shoulder, and said, “Illeana, you've had a concussion. You know what that means? It means your brain moved inside your head. It's not supposed to do that.”

He may have even said “man.” I'm not sure. I was still crying, but I started laughing, too. Concussion aside, it
was
a miracle to meet the man who had changed my father's destiny, and thus my own. My father's image melded with that of the real Dennis Hopper standing over me, and in that moment, I felt like I was the child of Dennis Hopper. In that moment I felt like we were
all
the children of Dennis Hopper.

I looked up at Dennis Hopper, all bathed in white light, and I had a revelation. Dennis Hopper hadn't ruined my life. Dennis Hopper had saved my life. I ended up with the better life after all. As Dennis Hopper cradled my head, I reached up and touched his cheek and whispered, “This is what it's all about, man.” I was hallucinating, of course. Just as Dennis had diagnosed, my brain had moved inside my head, and it's not supposed to do that. Still, it was a miracle. I thought about everything that had led me to this moment: Because my father had seen the movie
Easy Rider
, I did grow up poor, but if I had grown up rich, I probably wouldn't have become an actress. I would probably be working in advertising, which is what my guidance counselor advised me to do because she said I seemed “creative.” I thought about the time when I was a struggling and poor actress in New York. I had gone to the bank to withdraw my last twenty bucks, and I found a full bag of groceries that someone had left behind. It was filled with food I never could have afforded. That was a miracle.

I thought about the time I was walking to acting school, wondering where the next dollar would come from, and I found a
hundred-
dollar bill on the street where the prostitutes turned tricks. I looked down, and there it was. A crisp hundred-dollar bill. Just lying on the sidewalk. I wanted to do something special with the john's money, so I bought two tickets to
Dreamgirls
for my roommate and me. I still remember that night. How wonderful it felt to spend money. Dennis Hopper would do something like that—maybe not the
Dreamgirls
part but something with prostitutes.

I thought about how my mother could always get four sandwiches out of one can of tuna. Four sandwiches! I mean how did she do that? It was a miracle! I thought about The Studio, and how many of its positive ideals—the search for meaning in our lives; the need to feel free, really free, to express yourself as an artist; the ability not to judge others but to accept their life choices as a journey—they are all alive within me. (Though I'm not so sure about the goats.) It took courage for my father to shake things up, and
Easy Rider
gave him that courage. Sure, he completely screwed up my life, but I appreciate it now, and that is definitely a miracle!

Somewhere in our attic is the wrinkled poster of Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda riding their choppers in
Easy Rider
. Dennis Hopper's eyes have been poked out. Peter Fonda's are still intact. I have had the honor of working with them both. People tell me I'm a bit of a rebel. It's true. I challenge the system. I question authority. Every day I tell myself, This is what it's all about, man.

Don't blame me. Blame Dennis Hopper.

 

CHAPTER TWO

They Came from Within: Love and Romance at the Drive-In

Everything I learned about life, love, and men was from my ever-present position next to Grandpa. Here I'm waiting for him to be done so we could go for a spin in his '59 Mercedes convertible, seen in the background.

The first movie star who had an impact on my life was Dennis Hopper. The second was my grandfather. When I think of my grandfather Melvyn Douglas I don't first think of him as the acclaimed stage and screen actor. His amazing career spanned more than sixty years, through the studio system—with hits such as
Ninotchka
and
Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House—
to his later diverse character roles onstage in
The Best Man,
for which he won a Tony Award, and in films such as
The Candidate
,
I Never Sang For My Father
,
Hud,
and
Being There
. For the latter two, he won Academy Awards.

Instead, I think of the quiet moments over breakfast. There I had him all to myself. I could watch him as if I were watching a movie. I recall the mornings sitting across from him while he ate his buttered toast and marmalade—looking every inch the movie star in his Sulka robe and pajamas—before I knew that he actually
was
a movie star. Every summer we would drive to my grandparents' summerhouse on a lake in Vermont. There, other cousins, uncles, nieces and nephews, a slew of visiting friends, and sometimes dignitaries such as Gloria Steinem and the actress and now dear friend Diane Baker would join us. I was shy around my family, but for some reason I lit up for my grandfather. I would entertain him with my little adventures, most of them involving animals I had rescued. There was the cat that was hit by a car, the mallard duck I kept in the dining room. I had found a red-tailed hawk, for instance, that I had managed to train to eat chicken off my head. This feat had landed me my first television appearance on a local program called
The Ranger Andy Show
. My grandfather's bemused expression at my account of Aquarius the hawk was my first encouragement that I was a born actress, even if no one else thought so.

But he could be intimidating. When I was a child, he and my grandmother gave a dinner party for the playwrights Sam and Bella Spewack. I asked if I could sit at the grown-ups' table rather than in the kitchen with the staff, and my grandfather said, “When you're interesting you can sit at the grown-ups' table.” I vowed to become interesting! It was hard to understand that my grandfather was both my grandfather and a movie star. In his apartment on Riverside Drive in New York City, I would trace my hand over—and over and over—the many photographs of his life in films. He kept his many awards in a closet in his bedroom. I remember once secretly taking them all out and photographing them. There was no doubt in my mind that I was going to be an actress, but he seemed to wince every time I mentioned it. I would be mumbling some rambling anecdote or describing my future career as an actress when he would interrupt and lecture me rather sternly. “Illeana,” he would say, “If you want to be an actress you had better learn to
enunciate
.” He would then wait for me to say, in a clear, loud voice, “Yes!” before I could continue. My grandfather abhorred the use of the word
yea
in conversation. I'm often told that I have a very unusual way of saying
yes
. It comes out as “Yeah. Yes! Yas!” The first two of the three words combine my forgetting to say
yes
; the third awkwardly combines the previous two to form a new word:
Yas
!

Of course, I was saddened that my grandfather didn't live long enough to see me become a working actress who enunciates and says
Yes!
But, that's what dreams are for. The last page of my journal from 1994 reads: “Last night I had an amazing dream. It was like I fell through twilight. I dreamed I saw Grandpa. He was on a movie set about to shoot a scene. I knew in my mind that he wasn't alive anymore, that somehow I had managed to go back in time. I wasn't supposed to be there, but I had to tell him that I was coming from the future, so I decided I would sneak up to him before anyone saw me. He turned around, and I whispered to him, you don't know me, but I am your granddaughter all grown up. It's me, Illeana. I'm an actress now, and I've made it. He smiled with that twinkle he always had in his eyes, happy that his legacy would continue. We looked around. No one had seen us. It would be our secret.”

But let's go to the past again: the magical summer of drive-ins, fast cars, and movie stars. The summer after my parents saw
Easy Rider
, my family was on our annual vacation to visit my grandparents at their Vermont country house, called Cliff Mull. We arrived in our poormobile—aka the Volkswagen—dirty and barefoot, in full hippie attire, with my father looking very much like Dennis Hopper. We had even managed to fit our mutt Gunther in the car. The first night Gunther chased my aunt's beloved cat across the dinner table and was banned from the house after that. Poor Gunther. Even our pets were outsiders.

Cliff Mull was a beautiful yellow turn-of-the-century house on a lake that always reminded me of something out of a Chekhov story. It was surrounded by gardens and stone walkways. I would hold my grandmother's hand, and we would pick flowers or imitate the birds. I could spend hours watching my grandfather play Scrabble or gin rummy, running to refill his glass with scotch when he needed me to. I liked being his helper. It gave me a chance to go to the kitchen, where I could always find some fresh cherries or local strawberries. Everyone else always stayed down by the lake, boating or water-skiing, but I hadn't learned how to swim and was afraid of the water, so I was content to stay with my grandparents. One afternoon, I heard a commotion of footsteps and voices coming up from the lake.

After a day of swimming and lounging around the dock someone must have decided it would be a great idea to go to the local drive-in to see a movie. All of a sudden there were contingents of families and friends and cousins running down stairs and loading kids into backseats of cars and driving away. Before I knew what was happening and before I could get anyone's attention, everyone was gone and I was alone in the driveway. I didn't know what a drive-in was, but everyone seemed pretty excited by it, and I certainly didn't like the idea of being left behind. Being the youngest, I always seemed to be brushed aside or forgotten by the older kids, and I started to cry after watching the parade of cars pass me by. My grandfather scooped me up in his arms and assured me that I was certainly not being left behind. I would be going with
him
to the drive-in.

BOOK: I Blame Dennis Hopper
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