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Has born-to-be-wild Dennis Hopper gone mild?

Has born-to-be-wild Dennis Hopper gone mild? How the ’60s hippie icon got drafted to play a gruff Colonel in NBC’s new Pentagon drama

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Dennis Hopper — Mr. Easy Rider, icon of the ’60s counterculture, gonzo-est of the Hollywood gonzo — is pretty near the last man you’d expect to be leading an Army band through the halls of the Pentagon. And yet there he is, medals across his chest, waving his arms with wild-eyed glee and yelling ”Brromp! Bomp! Bomp!” like John Philip Sousa on speed. Donald Rumsfeld never imagined this in his weirdest dreams.

Hopper is not in the actual Pentagon, just a faithful re-creation of it on a Los Angeles soundstage, where he’s filming the third episode of NBC’s new drama E-Ring. In the series, executive-produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, Hopper plays Eli McNulty, a colonel in the Army’s special-ops department who helps the hotheaded Major J.T. Tisnewski (Benjamin Bratt) navigate Pentagon politics and resolve whatever geopolitical crises arise. ”McNulty’s a nasty piece of work,” says Hopper. ”He’s crusty and a bit mad, but his intentions are right on.”

Hopper’s 50-year, 119-movie career has been one of the strangest and most unpredictable in Hollywood history. In the public’s imagination — and in riveting performances in films like Apocalypse Now, Blue Velvet, and Speed — he’s been a visionary and a psycho, a hero and a punchline, a survivor and a drug casualty. The fact that he is now, at age 69, playing a decorated military man in a network series somehow seems both perfect and totally nuts. ”That’s the fun of it,” says Bruckheimer. ”You don’t expect Dennis to be there — and there he is.”

The latest turn in Hopper’s career started at an Academy Awards party early this year. Hopper struck up a conversation with director Taylor Hackford, who had helmed the Oscar-nominated Ray and was about to start work on E-Ring‘s pilot. ”Taylor said, ‘Wow, you look really good. Have you ever thought of doing episodic television?”’ Hopper recalls as he smokes a cigar on a Sunday afternoon at a Venice Beach restaurant. ”I said, ‘Absolutely f—ing not.”’

In fact, Hopper has done TV, most recently a 2002 stint on 24 as a favor to his friend Kiefer Sutherland. Early in his career he also appeared on shows like Wagon Train, The Twilight Zone, and The Rifleman — and he felt lucky to have broken into movies. ”Lots of people died in TV,” he says. The truth is, the medium doesn’t particularly appeal to him: ”My wife watches Desperate Housewives, Sex and the City, The Sopranos, whatever,” he says, referring to his fifth wife, Victoria Duffy, 37, with whom he has his fourth child, a 2-year-old girl. ”I’m a news nut and I watch sports. I watch The Golf Channel.”

But the relevance of E-Ring — and his mere 15-minute commute to the set — won Hopper over. And while the series has to face off against ABC’s juggernaut Lost, Hopper is optimistic about its prospects: ”I would think people would really want to know, especially at this period of time, how the Pentagon works. And this show isn’t pussyfooting. It’s going to be a real eye-opener for people.”