When I heard that the great character actor Dennis Hopper had died – I think his character was to always play some version of himself – I immediately thought of his role in Hoosiers, the 1986 film about Indiana high school basketball. Hopper, the town drunk, was Gene Hackman’s assistant coach for the fictional Hickory Huskies. The climax of the movie, of course, is the tiny town’s triumph in the state championship over the big school from South Bend.
Hoosiers is the best basketball movie ever and one of the best sports films ever made. I admit that I always tear up when Hackman leads his small town team into the cavernous Butler Fieldhouse in Indianapolis where they will soon play for the state championship. It’s one of the great scenes in sports filmdom when the coach has his players measure the foul line and the distance from the floor to the rim. He was making the point that the dimensions in the huge, big city arena were just the same as in the dinky little gym back home.
Hopper had a lot of famous roles, of course, Easy Rider, Apocalypse Now and Blue Velvet, among them, but Hoosiers was as good as anything he ever did.
Angleo Pizzo wrote and directed the movie and told Indianapolis Star columnist Kyle Neddenriep that Hopper’s role was central to the movie and the actor on his own came up with the line about not getting “caught watchin’ the paint dry.”
“(Hopper) had an interesting way of rehearsing and memorizing lines — he didn’t,” Pizzo said. “We’d written something else completely, which I don’t remember exactly. If you watch the first take, all of the players are laughing because they’d never heard that before in rehearsal. We liked it so much — even though we weren’t sure what it meant — that we left it in.”
It strikes me as a good line for any basketball player and for life. Hopper was saying, “don’t get caught standing around – move!”
Hoosiers was on Turner Classic Movies last night. It is a classic.