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Interview of the week: Dennis Hopper

By KAREN BUTLER, United Press International

While promoting his latest film "Knockaround Guys," Hollywood icon Dennis Hopper made a shocking claim about "Apocalypse Now," one of the most controversial, yet critically acclaimed films in history: real corpses were used in the Vietnam War epic.

"Well, the prop guys had gone in and gotten these -- I don't know about digging them up-- (they) went into the morgue and got them out and kept them in the refrigerator truck and kept hanging them up every day with fake bodies," the "Easy Rider" writer/director told reporters at a press junket earlier this month.

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"And, one day, Martin Sheen came down and went, 'Wow, it looks so real' and touched a toe and freaked out because it was real and then he freaked out about disease ... that's what I remember. But, I knew the prop guys were getting them because I was hanging out with the prop guys, and they were taking them out of the refrigerator thing and hanging them in the trees everyday," he continued.

Acknowledging that it might have been easier to just pretend they were real, Hopper argued: "Yeah, but you don't get a response out of Martin Sheen everyday like that. Come on."

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Hopper said that as far as he knows, nobody ever got in trouble for the incident.

"Nobody was arrested that I remember -- for that, anyway," recalled the man who has acted in 115 feature films and 140 television productions, and is a noted photographer and painter.

The 66-year-old actor/filmmaker, who has been candid about his battles with alcoholism and drug addiction earlier in his career, insisted he doesn't know who ordered the corpses to be used, where they came from or how effective they were in the long run.

"I didn't ask for these bodies and (some) say Francis (Ford Coppola) did," Hopper explained. "I don't know whether Francis did or not or if the prop men were just being very inventive, you know? Which might be the case, you know? But I don't know how they got in the trees. But there they were."

Loosely based on Joseph Conrad's novella, "Heart of Darkness," "Apocalypse Now" is a searing look at the horrific impact war can have on people's humanity. A major theme in the story and the film is the moral line human beings should never cross. Helmed by "Godfather" director Francis Ford Coppola and starring baby-faced actors Martin Sheen, Lawrence Fishburne and Harrison Ford, the 1979 film was re-released with more than 30 minutes of extra footage last year.

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"'Apocalypse Now' was an incredible film to work on," Hopper said. "I was only there four and a half months, but they were there two years, and they had every disaster known to man hit them from hurricanes to earthquakes to not being able to use the helicopters because they were out fighting the war. They had to leave things out for the guerillas to steal every night like shell casings or they couldn't shoot. There were all sorts of stuff going on there. So, it was really an interesting movie.

"And Francis was trying to be as real as possible," Hopper noted. Also, Francis was losing everything. The studio wasn't giving him any more money. He had to put his studio in hock. He had to put his vineyards and his home, everything was going. And so rather than getting anxious and saying, 'We have to hurry now and finish this movie,' he slowed down. He said, 'If I'm losing everything, we're going to make a great movie.' And he just slowed down and waited for the clouds to be right, waited for the helicopters to be right, waited for whatever, waited for Marlon (Brando) to finally get there, and then he shut down the movie for a couple of weeks with 900 people on the crew while he read Marlon 'The Heart of Darkness' and they rewrote the ending, and you know, we just settled down and made a movie, but there was a lot of like creative people on that movie doing their own thing. Whether Francis knew there were really bodies or not, I don't know. He may have, he may not have. There's a great possibility he didn't know either because there were a lot of bodies hanging in the trees."

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Hopper also took a moment during the round-table interview to address questions regarding the upcoming "Easy Rider 2," a follow-up to the classic 1969 film about two men on a quest to find the "real America," he directed and co-wrote and co-starred in with Peter Fonda.

"They came to me a couple years ago and they said they wanted to make a sequel to 'Easy Rider,' would I like to be involved and I said, 'no,'" said the 66-year-old auteur. "But, I understand they are going on and Peter (Fonda) is involved. I haven't spoken to him, so I don't know, but I assume he is involved."

Asked to describe his reservations about working on a sequel, Hopper replied: "Having to work with Peter is one of them and the other is I had a very good idea. I thought about how to approach a second film, but they were going in another direction, which didn't interest me at all."

Hopper even found time to talk about his latest film, "Knockaround Guys," a modern Brooklyn mob drama starring Vin Diesel ("The Fast and the Furious,") Barry Pepper ("The Green Mile") and Seth Green (from the "Austin Powers" trilogy) and directed by newcomers Brian Koppelman and David Levien.

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Although some actors might find working with two directors daunting, Hopper said the two men on this project were consummate professionals.

" I've had three experiences where they had two directors," he said. "The Coen brothers did my Gap commercial, and I think the Coen brothers are just wonderful. I love them as directors and writer. They're very successful. It's as if one person is talking to you, even though it might be two people. They're not coming to you with two different ideas. They're coming to you with the same ideas. It's like dealing with one with person.

"Brian and David were really wonderful -- similar to the way the Coen brothers are, as far as giving you direction that is never overloading you, knowing when to speak to you, when not to speak to you, really great. The other was on 'Super Mario Brothers,' which was a husband and wife team, and it was a nightmare because they were control freaks. It was just a nightmare. They weren't in synch at all."

As for the finished product, Hopper said he was very proud of the film and hopes people will go see it.

"Even though they shelved this movie for a long time, I'm so glad it's coming out. I think this is a wonderful movie. I think this is a terrific job that these two guys did on their first directorial job in film, and I wish them very well. I think this film will have legs. I hope it does anyway for them," he said.

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"Knockaround Guys" is in theaters now.

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