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How Dennis Hopper Got the Psycho Frank Booth Role in Blue Velvet

Guns, motorcycles, mug shots, drugs, paintings, madness. Even by Hollywood standards, Dennis Hopper led an extraordinary life. Just his youthful friendships—with James Dean, Elvis Presley, and Vincent Price—and his drug-addled contributions to counterculture flicks like Easy Rider and The Last Movie would be enough for most biographies. But then there's his role in Apocalypse Now, his career-defining moments as a psychopathic gas-snuffer in Blue Velvet, and his respectable art-world side career.

Journalist Tom Folsom structures Hopper, his book about the man, in a time-bending, sensational style reminiscent of Hopper's most out-there projects, with guest appearances by everyone from Orson Welles and John Wayne to Andy Warhol and Ice T. It's a compilation of scenes, both cultural and cinematic. The following is an excerpt from the biography (out March 5), which captures the birth of Hopper's demonic Frank Booth character.

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Frank Booth wriggled out from the darkest recesses of the mind, the embodiment of the ugly evil reality lurking under the gingham-print of small-town America. Envisioning his villain, director David Lynch realized Hopper might just be the perfect one to play Frank Booth. Besides Apocalypse Now, Hopper hadn't really played a defining role in his career yet, and none of his previous bad guy roles stood out in Lynch's mind. But he just had a feeling about Hopper as Frank.

Lynch felt it was very important that Hopper came from Kansas. The place had a completely different feel from the rest of the country, in a way Hollywood's flip side as Dorothy's home in The Wizard of Oz, with undercurrents that were perhaps felt but unseen. For Lynch, Hopper seemed to say something about the art life in a country way—in a very cool, quintessentially American way, as a rebel who was fighting against the bullshit.

"No way, you can't work with him," the casting people told Lynch. So the script for Blue Velvet was sent to another road-weary Hollywood outlaw, Harry Dean Stanton. Only Harry Dean didn't want to do Frank Booth at the time because, even as a character, he didn't want to kill people. It was just the particular pacifist state he was in. Harry Dean had played a lot of bad guys in his day, back when he was pissed off, at least as many as Hopper. Harry'd go into auditions with his surly attitude and the casting directors knew they had the right bad guy. Then one time Jack Nicholson, back in the Corman hell days, wrote the part for Harry Dean of one-eyed Blind Dick Reilly in a low-budget Western.

"Harry, I got this part for you, but I don't want you to do anything. Let the wardrobe do the character."

That's when Harry Dean realized that all he had to do was be Harry Dean, plus an eye patch. From then on he played himself, with each new role becoming more personal and linked to his own experience, his childhood, his parents, even his grandparents and the rugged settlers before them. But he didn't right now feel like digging into the violent side of himself. He just wasn't Frank Booth.

The phone rang. David Lynch picked up and pressed the receiver to his ear. "I have to play Frank Booth," said Hopper, "because I am Frank Booth."

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It was a terrifying confession. Frank Booth was a masochistic killer who shows up in the movie to beat the object of his warped desire, the sultry lounge singer Dorothy Vallens cloaked in blue velvet, heating up the little white-picket-fenced town of Lumberton to a boiling point. Hopper was only two months out of rehab, and Lynch first wanted it confirmed from Hopper's manager that Dennis was now clean and sober. Just in case, he called Dean Stockwell, whom he'd cast for the part of Ben, Frank Booth's creepy pimp drug-dealer friend. Lynch wanted to make sure playing Frank wouldn't send Hopper back to the bottle or the booby hatch.

"Can Hopper do this?"

"Are you kidding? Of course he can do it! He's a professional. Get him. Fast as you can," said Dean, who knew how far Dennis would take this role.

So Frank Booth prepared for his entrance. Before smacking Dorothy around, Frank Booth was to pull a vinyl mask out of his pocket and inhale, sucking in the gas, all part of a well-choreographed, twisted sex ritual. While writing the screenplay, Lynch had imagined the gas would be helium and give Frank Booth a high-pitched, squeaky voice like an evil carny.

But Dennis had a better idea. "David, you know? I thought of this as nitric oxide or amyl nitrate."

"What's that?"

There in Dorothy Vallens's cheap boardinghouse room, Hopper stormed in wearing a slick, black, ass-kicking leather jacket, a getup Jimmy might've chosen for himself had he lived to see forty-nine, like Hopper.

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"Hello, baybee," said Dorothy sweetly and a bit vapidly, welcoming him to her maroon cocoon.

"Shut up. It's Daddy, you shithead. Where's my bourbon?"

Taking a mean sip of his highball, Frank Booth sat before Isabella Rossellini, luxuriously matronly in her thick blue velvet robe. "Spread your legs," said Hopper. "Show it to me."

She spread her legs and exposed herself. ("Whew, that was a shock," said Hopper. "Because she really did and nobody could see it but me.")

Frank pulled a vinyl mask out of his pocket, mashed it against his nose, and took a deep connoisseur's whiff. Snifffff

Her legs spread before him, her robe enveloping him in glinting pool blue, Mommy coaxed her little boy to wriggle back in and take the plunge, facefirst. Diving into the blue, Hopper submerged himself into his emotional depths. He threw himself on Isabella Rossellini like a fiend from the fiery depths of hell. Mommmmmmeeeeeeeeeeee????
Baby
Want s t a

Fucccckkkkk

"When people ask what I was inhaling in the mask," said Hopper, "I say it was Lee Strasberg." David Lynch watched the character he'd dreamed up become terrifyingly real.

"Cut!"

—Timothy Hodler

• • •

Also on Details.com:
Rethinking the Scream Queen
Willem Dafoe on Wes Anderson's Technique, Working with Prada and Mercedes-Benz, and Marina Abramovic's Dirty Jokes
What Do James Franco's Doodles Tell Us About Him?

Photos: "Rebel Without a Cause" courtesy of Archivio GBB-CONTRASTO; Hopper mugshot courtesy of Eyevine-Redux; "The Last Movie" courtesy of Camera Press
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