It’s become a standard Hollywood story: an actor gets burnt out by the scene and decides that they need to get out of L.A. for a little. They disappear to Marfa, or Capri, or Burning Man only to make a public re-immersion a month or so later, capped off by an interview about how “refreshing” their sabbatical was. Even vacations are punctuated by press releases these days.
The roots of these restorative respites can be traced back to Dennis Hopper, who in 1970 decamped to Taos, New Mexico. Unlike his contemporaries Hopper was driven not by his public image, but by a genuine desire to escape. After fifteen years on the silver screen – beginning with Rebel Without a Cause and concluding with his period-defining masterpiece, Easy Rider, Hopper was in need of a change of scenery. When he had arrived in Hollywood in 1955, he was a straight-laced, baby-faced kid that hadn’t even reached his twentieth birthday yet. In his polo shirts, traddy suits, and slim ties, Hopper had the clean-cut look that execs were looking for, but unfortunately, so did countless other young actors just like him.
What Hopper had though, was raw talent, along with a genuine desire to develop this talent, leading him to study method acting at The Actor’s Studio in New York. Hopper approached acting as an artform, but along with this came all the baggage of being an artist. Throughout much of his early career, work wasn’t exactly easy for Hopper to come by, but drugs were. By the time Easy Rider hit theaters in 1969, Hopper was as much of a freedom-seeking, drug-taking revolutionary as the characters he had filmed.
To say that Hopper was merely caught up in the atmosphere of the sixties would be grossly unfair. His appetite for the open-road and fascination with all things spiritual were both certainly amplified by the time period, but they had always been present within his mind. Easy Rider ushered in a new, less-restricted cinematic sensibility, but by that point, Hopper was already mentally checked out of Hollywood. While exploring America during the filming of Easy Rider, Hopper had come upon Taos, New Mexico, a picturesque southwestern enclave that had enchanted artists of all sorts for decades. Following in the footsteps of Georgia O’Keeffe, D.H. Lawrence, Ansel Adams, and Millicent Rogers, Hopper arrived back in Taos at the close of the sixties.
In 1970, he moved into the former home of Mabel Dodge Luhan, a patron of the arts who had first established Taos as a creative hotspot in the 1920’s. Hopper traded cinematic success for spiritual fulfillment, becoming like a Luhan for a new generation by reestablishing an artist colony for his friends and creative colleagues. Over the next decade or so, Hopper’s film career faltered as he happily fell deeper into his own little world in Northern New Mexico. Eventually, though the trip had to conclude. His home was becoming overrun by freeloaders that he didn’t even know, his drug habit was bordering on self-destruction, and his true talents were wasting away. So in 1983, Hopper got clean, and three years later reclaimed his rightful place at the top of the Hollywood hierarchy with a starring role in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. Even so, when Hopper passed away in 2010, he asked to be buried not in Hollywood, nor in his native Kansas, but in Taos, the place where he felt most at home.