Hopper Evolves From Rebel to Republican

By Kate O'Hare

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

12:02 PM PT

Back in the 1960s, when Dennis Hopper was directing his counterculture classic "Easy Rider," he could never have imagined himself playing a colonel and former Green Beret, which he does on NBC's Wednesday military drama "E-Ring," produced by Jerry Bruckheimer.

"People always say to me, 'Are you playing a bad guy?'" Hopper jokes, sitting in the living room of his industrial-modern house in Venice, Calif., an imposing corrugated-metal-sheathed structure filled with pieces from his large modern-art collection. "Somebody said the other night, '"From Easy Rider to E-Ring",' that should be the name of my autobiography.' It is a long way around."

But Hopper is still part of the counterculture -- only in liberal, Democratic Los Angeles, that means being a registered Republican.

"I've always been political," Hopper says, "but I haven't always been a Republican. I was with Martin Luther King [and] at the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley. I was a hippie. I was probably as Left as you could get without being a Communist."

Asked what happened, Hopper says, "I read too much Thomas Jefferson and decided that every 25 years you needed to have a change if you're really going to have a republic, and the Democrats had been in power too long."

This was about the time that Ronald Reagan was campaigning for the 1980 presidential election.

"I never cared for Reagan, very honestly," Hopper says. "I thought he was a bad actor. I never thought he was a great communicator, didn't think he was a great speaker.

"But the idea of changing the Congress, changing the Senate, getting the Democrats out, getting the Republicans in, also the idea of having less government -- which didn't seem to work out."

What began as a philosophy of political change turned into a change of political philosophy.

"The idea of less government," Hopper says, "more individual freedom, is something that I liked. I started believing it. So I started voting. I voted that time for Reagan, and I've voted on the straight Republican ticket ever since. I don't go to meetings, I don't go to things. I just go to the polls and do it."

He adds, "I think I just made the natural curve. You've got to start one place and go all the way around."

Hopper has discovered that, while many in Los Angeles pride themselves on their tolerance, some things still ruffle their feathers.

"The controversy about me," Hopper says, "I don't think it's going to stop me. However, a lot of people treat me differently, and they do bring it up. I'll be at a dinner party, and somebody will say, 'Well, you couldn't be thinking that ...' And then you realize that everybody at the table is looking at you, and they're like, 'You're kidding! You're not really for Bush.' And it goes around the table.

"It can only stop me from eating, not working. I think my job with Bruckheimer and the Pentagon is secure at the moment, knock on wood."

The father of a flaxen-haired toddler daughter, Hopper has set aside his wild past for family life, golf and other pursuits.

"My today is totally different than my life was in the '60s," he says. "I would say, maybe my life isn't that different than it was in the '60s, but the '70s, I could have done without. The '70s were dark for me.

"The drugs that were free suddenly weren't free anymore. Everybody was addicted. The party was over. I used to do cocaine just to sober up so I could drink again. I wonder how I got out so lucky. It's amazing."

Now 69, the blue-eyed Hopper looks lean and fit, with his largely gray hair cut military-short. He sees the role of McNulty -- a real-estate magnate lured out of retirement to run special ops out of the Pentagon -- as a tribute of sorts to his father.

"I never was in the military," he says. "I was an age group that was between the Korean War and the Vietnam War, and then the draft came. I was under contract to Warner Bros., and there was no war going on, so I did everything to get out, so I got out.

"But my father was in the OSS. He was in China, Burma, India. Anyway, I just felt, when I read the thing, this seems like a reasonable way to pay my dues."

Turns out McNulty has paid his dues as well, as revealed in an upcoming episode called "The Forgotten," currently set to air Wednesday, Nov. 23. According to Hopper, it's a story about a Navy SEAL believed dead and left behind for years in the Philippines.

The situation causes McNulty to reveal his past as a Vietnam POW who lost his wife, who believed he was dead, to another man. "I'm taking this personally," Hopper says.

Incidentally, Hopper reveals that he and a group of men had breakfast recently with Arizona Sen. John McCain, a former Vietnam POW whose name is often mentioned as a Republican candidate for president in 2008.

"We felt he could get some liberal help, some Democrats," Hopper says. "He said, 'I'm doing a lot of important things in the Senate right now. I'm not going to think about it until after the elections [in 2006].' He said also, 'I don't really think you can get that Democratic support to help me when they know that I'm pro-life.'

"He's so straightforward, so honest. That's the kind of guy I'd like to be president."