Revisiting Dennis Hopper’s “Russian Dynamite Death Chair Act”, 1983

By on May 17, 2015

On the occasion of remembering Dennis Hopper’s birthday today — he was born on May 17, 1936, in Dodge City, Kansas, and died on May 29, 2010 — we thought we’d revisit the time, in 1983, when he performed the Russian Dynamite Death Chair Act at the Big H speedway in Houston, Texas.


Dennis Hopper in 1983, at the Big H Speedway

According to what we’ve read, Hopper — sometime in the crazy late sixties — had witnessed a “performance piece” called “Bomb Drop” (during the Vietnam War we’re sure this had a special meaning). This was at a rodeo in Dodge City, Kansas, where Hopper says he saw a guy who called himself the “Human Stick Of Dynamite” get inside a circle of 20 sticks of dynamite, waved to the audience, and then the Human Stick “blew himself up.”

Hopper spoke about this performance piece once in a documentary interview — called Art, Acting, and the Suicide Chair — which was supposed to appear as a bonus interview with his movie Colors, but Orion Pictures didn’t want it included, so it ended up packaged with director Wim Wenders’ American Friend. The documentary, by the wya, was directed by George Hickenlooper, who among other films and documentaries also directed the Apocalypse Now documentary, Hearts Of Darkness (A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse).


Hopper and Manz in Out Of The Blue

According to an eye-witness account, taken down by a young college student-turned-writer named Christopher Dow, who was attending classes at Rice University in 1983, Hooper first gave the students a lecture on film on the college campus, at the Rice Media Center, then he screened the latest movie he’d just directed and starred in, Out Of The Blue, which just might be the ultimate 80’s dysfunctional junkie mom and ex-biker dad and punk rock daughter movie.

The daughter in the film is played by a very odd little actress named Linda Manz, who perhaps you’ll remember was the kid sister to Richard Gere’s migrant worker character in Terrence Malick’s amazing Days Of Heaven, the girl with those big moon-pie eyes and that strange no-chin neck.  She also did that film’s voiceover narration.

Out Of The Blue was only her second movie. She appeared in Harmony Korine’s strange Gummo, which came out in 1997, but has since retired. We digress.


Linda Manz in Out Of The Blue

Anyway, the Rice students watched this grim Hopper-directed movie and then they were bused out to the Big H speedway to watch Hopper’s “finale,” and according to Dow, Hopper was “too drunk and stoned to stand in front of the crowd, so he stayed in the projection booth, and then rambled on for 20 or 30 bizarre minutes.”

This video, such at is, was shot by filmmaker Brian Huberman, who later said: “The large guy making the sign of the cross is the writer Terry Southern and the jerk threatening to blow up my camera is the German filmmaker, Wim Wenders.”

Apologies for the recording, by the way, this clip comes to us as-is, unfortunately.


Hopper in Out Of The Blue

Dow also remembers that Hopper had originally wanted to blow himself up in the Rice University’s stadium parking lot, but Houston fire marshals wouldn’t let him set off the explosion, so that’s why they had to drive outside the city limits, north of Houston, “where he would be allowed to detonate in peace.”

There, on the track itself, along with a stunt coordinator and various others (probably even a priest giving Hopper his last rites), Dennis Hopper set up the Russian Dynamite Death Chair, which, according to Dow, “looked just like a big cardboard box covered with tin foil, but six sticks of dynamite make one heck of a whoopee cushion.”

They made some adjustments to the chair, and here’s what Dow said happened next: “Hopper crouched in the chair. The police pressed the rapt crowd back. Hopper lit a match, and the breezy air went silent with expectation. The wind blew out the match. He lit another, and it too went out. And another. It didn’t take much imagination to hear him cursing the damp, brisk air and cruddy matches. He struck the whole pack of them all at once. That did the trick. The sparked fuse sizzled for a moment, then abruptly blossomed into a brilliant flash. We were all slapped by an invisible hand, yelled at thunderously. Dennis Hopper, at one with the shock wave, was thrown headlong in a halo of fire. For a single, timeless instant he looked like Wile E. Coyote, frazzled and splayed by his own petard.”

We’re not so sure we would have gone as far as “splayed by his own petard,” but there you go.

The police couldn’t keep the crowd back as they rushed the track, past the expanding cloud of smoke. Everyone there on the outskirts of Houston that night were, as Dow puts it, “excited, apprehensive, and no less expectant than we had been before the explosion. Were we looking for Hopper or pieces we could take home as souvenirs?”

Hopper survived, obviously. He also said that it was weeks before he could hear again.


Dennis Hopper, according to one interview we’ve read, says he wanted to start off Easy Rider the same way: “I wanted that to be Captain America, Peter Fonda being the guy who gets blown up, and me being the assistant who does the plunger.” He says in the end they ran out of money and he had to abandon the idea. Perhaps he was kidding.

Hopper also said he wanted to finally do the stunt — something he’d been thinking about for years and years prior to actually doing it — because “I was convinced there was a hit out on me. If they were going to kill me, they would have to do it out in the open.”

Hopper described the events of that damp night in Houston this way (he was looking at a photograph of himself taken that evening, just like the one right above): “That’s me just before, kneeling, trying to get the charges together because if you put 20 charges of dynamite in a circle they won’t blow in on themselves: there’s a vacuum. If three don’t go off, you’re sucked out and killed. However, it worked and we did it.”

You see, that’s the “trick”: the setup of the dynamite chair involves placing similarly-sized sticks of TNT at precisely equal distances in a circle around a chair, wire them to explode simultaneously, and supposedly, if all of the dynamite sticks go off at the same time, the forces created by the TNT push against each other to equalize pressure in the middle of the circle, leaving the occupant alive.


A stuntman named Olie Anderson once wrote about the same stunt, giving a lot of details about how it’s accomplished, and here’s what he had to say about the Russian Dynamite Death Chair Act:

“Back in the old days, we saw an act they call the Coffin of Death, where a stuntman would blow up the coffin he was lying in. And we came up with the Russian Dynamite Death Chair after I picked up a magazine in a motel in Idaho that told how the White Russians would get rid of a political undesirable: they would invite him to dinner and actually blow him up while he was sitting there.

I thought that was kind of neat, and wondered how we could recreate it so that someone could actually walk away from it. Then one guy, kind of a drifter, showed up in the early ’50s and said, ‘I know how to do this stunt. I won’t do it, but I’ll tell you how.’ He told me what he knew and I thought about it over the years and finally tried it. I lost an eardrum on that one because I didn’t have it quite right. So, you know, you learn and sometimes your learning is costly.

The next time I got into the chair, I sat back and had a better knowledge of what to do and how to do it. From then on the stunt worked very well. You sit in a chair with four sticks of real dynamite on the legs and then you ignite it. We use 60-percent dynamite, which is called ditching powder. (The hard-rock miners use a lot of it to blow up what they can’t drill.) It’s an electric cap, you ignite it with a battery, and you actually blow the chair to bits. You’re in the eye of the hurricane. The dynamite blows to the point of least resistance and you need to be in that area of least resistance so that it will blow away from you instead of into you. You have to roll yourself up into a tight ball, in the position you’d take on an airplane if you were about to crash.

There are a lot of things that can make a difference: wet ground, if it has been raining, or if the humidity is high. These elements can contribute to the blast and make for a more severe concussion. The dynamite caps are backed up in case one malfunctions.

All the dynamite has to go off at the same time or it will blow your arm or leg off. The elements of risk are high. You ignite it yourself-so that no one else can take the blame for punching the button at the wrong time-and people can see you do it.

Then after the explosion when debris is all over the place they can see you there and they know that you haven’t crawled off into the sunset or something. We use a heavy cardboard type of material because wood could splinter and fly into the crowd. We take turns doing the act because after a while the concussion is just so great it will get to you.

You really can’t rehearse it. The explosion is so fast: You push the button and either you’re there or you’re not. We took some video and slowed it way down so we could see the tremendous fireball within the explosion. It’ll actually burn you if you’re not clothed right or sitting in the right position to protect your face.

I wear a hearing aid from doing it. But there’s not an insurance company in the world that’ll insure a man who’s gonna sit on four sticks of dynamite.”

(the above from a conversation with Jean Stein that we once found online).


We miss you, Mr. Hopper

About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.