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Actress Illeana Douglas Talks About Her Hartford Roots, Book On Hollywood

Special to The Courant
Actress Illeana Douglas: 'One of my favorite things to do is look at movies from a different context'

Illeana Douglas has written a Hollywood book that's about the majesty of movies, but she shies away from proclaiming herself one of its princesses.

"I Blame Dennis Hopper, and Other Stories From a Life Lived In and Out of the Movies," published in November by Flatiron Books, is a refreshingly low-key and ego-free endeavor. Douglas — an inveterate journal-keeper and autograph collector — presents herself as an observer of history, a gushing fan and an astute chronicler of the major changes that the movie industry underwent in the latter part of the 20th century.

Douglas is the granddaughter of the great film and stage actor Melvyn Douglas — her account of visiting him on the set of "Being There," where he reunited with his real-life army buddy Peter Sellers, is fascinating. But family connections are not how Illeana Douglas got her start in show business. Credit for that goes to two Connecticut institutions: a dodgy dinner theater called The Camelot and the Youth Theater program overseen by Clay Stevenson at Hartford Stage.

What's most remarkable about "I Blame Dennis Hopper" is how Douglas ignores the impulse to simply itemize her greatest hits and, instead, tells a range of anecdotes that more truthfully capture her life story. She returns to Connecticut this week to talk about her book on Wednesday, Jan. 13, at the Mark Twain House & Museum and at Barnes & Noble in West Hartford on Thursday, Jan. 14.

In Douglas' book, fairly obscure names are given prominence, and many whole films from her extensive resume aren't even mentioned. She spends one long, hilarious chapter detailing all the disasters that distinguished the making of the 1977 TV movie "Bella Mafia."

She's also not a gossip — she mentions Martin Scorsese when he is essential to a story (usually one about some other celebrity, such as Marlon Brando or Elia Kazan), but gives only the briefest mention of the end of their 10-year romantic relationship. She captures larger-than-life figures like Marlon Brando, Robert DeNiro, Roddy McDowall and director Hal Ashby in a different, natural light. She spends many pages on the singular experience of making "Grace of My Heart," the Alison Anders film that starred Douglas as a 1960s singer/songwriter. The point she drives home with that one is that she'd always wanted to work with a female director.

"One of my favorite things to do is look at movies from a different context. This isn't the usual Hollywood biography. These are the moments that stayed with me," Douglas says in a phone interview from her California home.

"I'm more interested in the poignancy of human behavior. There are plenty of things I dropped from the book because I thought, 'Well, they're funny, but they don't have a point.' I wanted the book to have a beginning, a middle and an end."

The beginning is in Connecticut, where Douglas' father sees the Dennis Hopper counterculture classic "Easy Rider" in 1969 and is inspired to quit his job and start a hippie commune. Her mother's mantra becomes, "We're poor now."

The Hartford Stage Youth Theater was open only to applicants from Hartford, so Douglas falsified an inner-city address, was accepted and stayed with the program for three summers.

"Because I'd faked my address, I then actually had to get an apartment in Hartford," she laughs. "I was 16." When not hosting parties for her castmates, she doggedly "learned the inner workings of the theater. Actors would come from New York to audition at Hartford Stage, and I would be up there hiding, watching the auditions."

"I've brought up that program so many times" in interviews and talks, Douglas says, crediting the theater with giving her "a lot of discipline. Without it, I don't know what would have happened to me."

What did happen to her was a decadeslong-and-still-going multifaceted film and TV career. She hosts screenings on the Turner Classic Movies cable channel. She produced and starred in a Web series set in (and sponsored by) IKEA stores. Now she's doing talks and book signings for "I Blame Dennis Hopper."

Besides Wednesday's appearance at the Mark Twain House — which is not far from that Hartford apartment she had as a teenager; "I would ride my bike past there every day!" — Douglas will be at the Barnes & Noble store in West Hartford's Blue Back Square for a book-signing event at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 14.

"It's close to where my mother and I had such great moviegoing experiences. Our favorite theaters were the Trinity theater [Cinestudio], the Capitol, the Palace, the Middletown Drive-In. ... If I had to tell the people of Hartford one thing, it's that they need more old movie theaters, not just the multiplexes like we have today. Places where you can sit with a lot of people and share these experiences."

Illeana Douglas is an ace at sharing her own moviegoing and moviemaking experiences. That empathy and enthusiasm is all hers; don't bring Dennis Hopper into it.

ILLEANA DOUGLAS will be at the Mark Twain House & Museum, 351 Farmington Ave., Hartford, on Wednesday, Jan. 13, at 7 p.m. Admission is free; 860-247-0998 and marktwainhouse.org.

On Thursday, Jan. 14, at 7 p.m., Douglas will be signing copies of "I Blame Dennis Hopper" at the Barnes & Noble bookstore at Blue Back Square, 60 Isham Road, West Hartford; 860-236-0900.

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