By Michael Heaton
Updated October 24, 1983 12:00 PM

The mega-success Easy Rider made Dennis Hopper, its director and co-star, a pop legend in 1969. Since then success has eluded him, but the legend endures. Fueled by alcohol and a pharmacopoeia of drugs, and irrepressible bad-boy behavior, he has become better known for his movie-set antics than for his movies. In his latest escapade six months ago, he was fired from the film Jungle Warriors in Mexico after he arrived drunk, stripped off all his clothes and ran amok in the mountain resort of Cuernavaca. He was found a day later 20 miles away in the custody of the local police. Two stunt-men had to escort him to the flight back to Los Angeles. Even then he tried to open the emergency exit during takeoff.

So when Hopper now insists that he is cleaning up his act after 30 years of hell-raising, it’s tempting to ask for a few grains of salt—and a shot of tequila. But he has been on the wagon since joining Alcoholics Anonymous last May in the wake of the Mexican eruption. And his career is on the upswing. His performance as the alcoholic father of Matt Dillon and Mickey Rourke in Francis Coppola’s Rumble Fish has sparked talk of an Oscar nomination. Later this fall he will be seen as a doctor in Sam Peckinpah’s The Osterman Weekend, and two weeks ago he started shooting a new Robert Altman movie. Can it be that at 47 Hopper is actually growing up?

“I’m enjoying reality for a change,” says Hopper, who, at his worst, was consuming a half gallon of rum, 27 beers and three grams of cocaine a day. “The toughest thing to handle is the boredom. I watch a lot of television.” Elen Archuletta, 27, Hopper’s live-in girlfriend for the last three years, rejoices that “he is a person entirely in control of everything around him now.” The bullet holes that pock their Taos, N.Mex. bedroom walls testify to another time. Along with drink and drugs, Hopper has renounced his fascination with guns. “What can I say?” he declares. “I was a fun guy.”

The fun began back in Dodge City, Kans., where he lived until he was 9. The elder of two sons of a post-office worker and a Red Cross swimming teacher, Dennis admits, “I was into the general gang stuff. Petty theft and a lot of misdemeanors.” The family moved first to Kansas City, Mo. and then to San Diego, while Dennis dreamed of escape. “I just wanted to know where the trains were going,” he says. “I could hardly wait to get away from home.” When he left, it was for Hollywood, and success came to him quickly. By age 18 he was under contract to Warner Bros. The next year he appeared in two James Dean movies, Rebel Without a Cause and Giant. And then, just as suddenly, came failure. “I wouldn’t take direction from anyone,” he recalls. “I got away with it for a while.” Until he was cast in a movie called From Hell to Texas. In a battle of wills with director Henry Hathaway, he went through 87 takes of a scene over three days before doing it Hathaway’s way. At 23, he was blackballed by the major studios and was out of film work for the next eight years.

Moving to New York, he made a living doing TV drama and studied acting with Lee Strasberg. While appearing in a short-lived Broadway play, Mandingo, he met actress Brooke (Haywire) Hayward, who became his wife. When Hopper’s old nemesis, Hathaway, heard of the marriage, he hired Dennis to act in a John Wayne Western, The Sons of Katie Elder, ending the Hollywood freeze-out. “He told me that he had heard that I had married Margaret Sullavan’s daughter and that she was a nice Irishwoman,” Dennis remembers. Through Brooke, he made another important connection: her childhood friend Peter Fonda. With Fonda, Hopper made Easy Rider, the biker movie that cost $450,000 and grossed $40 million. Its popularity put Hollywood execs into a tailspin. Suddenly, recalls Hopper, “they thought anybody who could ride a bike could direct a movie.”

On the strength of Easy Rider, Hopper was given $850,000 and carte blanche to direct The Last Movie, whose title was apt. With no firm script but counting on the aid of on-location drugs, Hopper brought his cast and crew to a remote Peruvian village. He spent more than a year editing the footage. It was a decade before he got the chance to direct again—a brutal family drama, Out of the Blue—and even that was an accident: Hired as an actor, he took over after the original director was fired early on. Most critics dismissed both films as wacky self-indulgence. Generally, Hopper’s movie roles have consisted of supporting bits—mostly of freaked-out characters such as the stoned photojournalist in Apocalypse Now.

These days, though, things are looking better. Having taken the pledge, Hopper blames the Cuernavaca nightmare on an LSD mickey that someone slipped into three shots of tequila that were waiting for him in his hotel room when he arrived. “I thought I was being attacked by snakes,” he recalls. “I wanted to die naked. I ran out in the middle of the night and I became a solar system. Never drink tequila that is set in your room, man.”

Hopper’s private life also has calmed down. His eight-year marriage to Hayward, which produced a daughter, Marin, 21, ended in divorce, as did his third marriage to actress Daria (Zabriskie Point) Halprin. (Their daughter, Ruthana, is 11.) In between, for eight days, he was married to singer Michelle Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas. Understandably, Dennis and Elen have shied away from wedlock, but their relationship is solid, they claim. They share a small, cluttered house in Taos, where Elen used to be Hopper’s neighbor. In middle age Hopper seems to have acquired a new optimism. “I never thought I would see 30,” he says. “When I hit 40 I was shocked, and now I’m looking at 50. I’m not going to be shocked when I hit 50. I’m probably going to live to be a very old man, very angry and very mean.”