Dennis Hopper’s ludicrous time on the set of ‘Apocalypse Now’

Often affectionately called ‘Hollywood’s Original Hell-Raiser’, Dennis Hopper lived a truly remarkable and outrageous life. A key figure in the counterculture movement, Hopper significantly influenced the New Hollywood movement through films like Easy Rider, which inspired multiple generations of artists to question contemporary sociopolitical conditions and to fully engage with a higher form of artistic and political freedom.

Ranging from Nicholas Ray to Wim Wenders, Hopper worked with some of the most accomplished filmmakers on projects that are still revered by film fans around the world. However, one of the most interesting roles of his career actually came in the form of a cameo in Francis Ford Coppola’s pioneering adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness – Apocalypse Now. Although it was a notoriously difficult production, the masterpiece changed American cinema forever.

For his interpretation of Conrad’s seminal text, Coppola recontextualised the narrative within the highly specific framework of the Vietnam War. Hopper was fantastic as a whacky American journalist who lives in the middle of a hostile forest as a disciple of Kurtz (played by the intimidating Marlon Brando). While both of them delivered strangely powerful performances, they did not get along at all during the production of the film.

During an interview, Hopper later revealed that Brando was particularly annoyed with him and even refused to work with him. According to the actor, they got around this dilemma by shooting their scenes separately since Brando did not want to be on the set at the same time as Hopper. He recalled: “We had a lot of problems together. He refused to be on the set the same time I was. I like to think he was doing me a favour, honestly…”

The actor added: “I didn’t know this, but Francis had been on him for not reading the book, Heart of Darkness (which the film was based on), and we have to do a story conference, and there’s no ending. And I say to Brando, sitting across from him at dinner, I bet you haven’t read the book. And he thinks I am talking about Heart of Darkness, but I don’t know this at the time. He gets up and says, ‘I don’t have to listen to this! I don’t have to take this!’ And he is screaming and yelling, ‘Why do I have to hear it from him? I have to hear it from this punk!’ And he storms out of the house.”

In addition to the constant conflicts with Brando, Hopper was difficult to work with because he was always high on the set. In fact, the actor even tried to land the most unconventional contract in the history of Hollywood. When Coppola asked him what he wanted to play the unique role in Apocalypse Now, Hopper demanded to be paid in cocaine instead of money.

In George Hickenlooper’s documentary about the production, he elaborated on the story: “Dennis recounted the story to me that Francis came to him and said, ‘What can I do to help you play this role?’ Dennis said, ‘About an ounce of cocaine.’ So he was being supplied by the film production drugs that he could use while he was shooting.”

Watch a footage of Hopper stoned on the set below.

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