Southern Discomfort

Page 7 of 8

In 1997 a Los Angeles jury ruled that Dennis Hopper was a liar. Three years earlier, Hopper had gone on The Tonight Show and told Jay Leno that there had indeed been another actor up for the role of ACLU lawyer George Hanson, played in the film by Jack Nicholson. Hopper said it had been Rip Torn, but that Torn had been fired from the film because "at dinner [Torn] pulled a knife on me."

Torn, in the midst of much critical acclaim over his role as Artie on HBO's The Larry Sanders Show, was furious. After all, he had once before been blackballed from the industry, he says now, because of his extensive involvement in the civil-rights movement. A once-promising film career stalled out in a quagmire of B-movie roles. Hopper wasn't gonna screw that up again.

The way Torn tells it, it was Hopper who pulled a knife on him. Hopper had made some remark about how "all Texans are assholes," and Torn told him, "You can't judge all Texans by me." This outraged Hopper, who grabbed a knife off the dinner table and lunged at Torn--a former military policeman--who then turned the weapon on his attacker, forcing Hopper to drop it.

In August 1994, not long after The Tonight Show aired, Torn sued Hopper for defamation and asked Southern, a witness to the knife incident, to give a deposition documenting what really went on behind the scenes of Easy Rider. In his deposition, Southern swore he was the sole writer of the film, which Hopper would claim at trial wasn't true. Hopper testified he wrote the film by himself and told Torn's attorney that he didn't have the script because no script actually existed. At this point, the lawyer presented Hopper with the 55th Street script. Case closed.

The jury found that Hopper had lied and forced him to pay $475,000 in damages. Early last year, the California Court of Appeals upheld the verdict.

"The reason they had to destroy me--or Hopper figured he did--was because I was the witness to a great crime--the way Terry was robbed of his just deserts," says Torn, who delivered a eulogy at Southern's memorial service in New York. "But Terry was too much a gentleman. I never knew why he wouldn't fight for his own work, particularly Easy Rider. The story [Hopper] put out was that Terry never finished anything. They put him out of writing, said he was undependable, that he never finished anything and he walked off [projects]. The sad thing is, when Terry died, People magazine, instead of letting me help place him in his proper position, went to Hopper instead. I thought that was obscene for him to say he never finished anything. He finished so much."

In June 1998, The New Yorker ran a lengthy story by Mark Singer about the battle over Easy Rider. It contained a letter Southern sent to Hopper in 1970.

"Dear Den: I'm very sorry to bug you, Den, but I'm in a terrible bind--completely strapped, an inch, maybe less, from disasterville. If I were alone, I would never hit on you (Not my style, Den) like this, but I have Nile and Carol to take care of--in the face of recent monstro financial reverses, and no relief in sight. In view of such circumstances, and of our (yours and mine) solid ancient friendship, and of great success of ER, could you please put a single point of its action my way?...Please consider it, Den--I'm in very bad trouble."

According to Singer's article, Hopper insists he can't remember getting the letter and, "in any case, [Hopper] never gave Southern a share."

Terry, it seemed, had one bad habit that would be the ruin of him: He didn't much care for paying taxes. By 1970, the IRS came after him, claiming Southern owed more than $100,000 in back taxes. By then, with all his money blown, Terry couldn't even afford to hire an accountant to assist him with the government. If only he had some of that Easy Rider scratch. That might well have saved him.

But the IRS began docking money from his paychecks and royalties, even seizing money from the penny-ante gigs he would take just to stay afloat. Terry's second wife, Gail, began teaching ballet lessons at five bucks a pop to help put food on the table and pay the bills--despite Terry's habit of picking up expensive checks whenever he went out. Josh Friedman recalls that one night in New York, Southern insisted on paying a $200 bill and getting all their cab rides. He wouldn't let his friend's son fork over a cent.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky