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George Hickenlooper: The life and times of a director

Charles Ealy
Director George Hickenlooper was looking forward to Tuesday's elections because his cousin was running for Colorado governor.

The death of director George Hickenlooper this past weekend came as a shock to Austin film lovers. Hickenlooper, the 47-year-old director of the new movie "Casino Jack," was in town last week for the Austin Film Festival and was conducting interviews with the press, including the Statesman, the day before he left for Denver, where he was found dead.

Early obituaries detailed his career — especially his award-winning documentary "Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse," about the filming of Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now."

But few mentioned his long-standing ties to Texas. "My ties to Texas go way back," he said during the interview last week.

His ancestors were prominent residents of Galveston, but they left the city for St. Louis after the devastating hurricane of 1900. Although Hickenlooper didn't give details about his Galveston roots, one of his relatives was the famed performer Olga Samaroff, an international concert pianist, whose birth name was Lucy Jane Olga Hickenlooper.

The director also was friends with Texas author Larry McMurtry. Hickenlooper's documentary "Picture This" detailed the tumultuous filming of "The Last Picture Show," which was directed by Peter Bogdanovich and based on the McMurtry novel about growing up in a small, dying Texas town.

"I spent lots of time in Archer City," Hickenlooper said. "And the only place to eat was a Dairy Queen. I gained a lot of weight."

Hickenlooper said last week that he was headed to Denver to offer support to his first cousin, John Hickenlooper, the current mayor of Denver who was elected Colorado's next governor on Tuesday.

"The polls are closer than we had hoped," the director said last week.

Hickenlooper acknowledged that his family had an eclectic political history. His uncle was Bourke Hickenlooper, the longtime Iowa Republican who was elected lieutenant governor, then governor, then U.S. senator.

"I never could figure out why my uncle was so conservative and opposed civil rights," Hickenlooper said. "I mean, why would an Iowan be so opposed to civil rights (in the 1960s)?"

But political historians have suggested that the uncle was using the issue to gain power in the Senate. At the time, Bourke Hickenlooper was the main rival to U.S. Senate minority leader Everett Dirksen, a moderate Republican who was trying to help President Lyndon B. Johnson craft a bipartisan coalition in support of civil rights.

George Hickenlooper's parents also were involved in politics, especially after they moved to California, where his mother set up a guerrilla theater group.

"We'd have political people at our home every evening," Hickenlooper said. "Cesar Chavez stayed at our home. Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda were regular visitors."

Partly out of rebellion against his parents, Hickenlooper said, he became a conservative.

"At first I thought the neoconservative movement was responsible. And I supported Ronald Reagan and all of that," he said. "I saw neoconservatives as being the stewards of civilization. But I began to change after the movement helped inspire a culture of greed."

Hickenlooper's eclectic approach to politics is reflected in his movies.

He enraged many coastal elites with 2006's feature film "Factory Girl," which documented the rise and fall of socialite Edie Sedgwick, a member of artist Andy Warhol's arts collective.

"I think people didn't like the movie because it questioned Warhol and the way he treated Edie," Hickenlooper said. "But I think that Warhol has been a corrosive force in art, especially with all the pop culture cynicism that it involves."

Hickenlooper also directed last year's "Hick Town," which followed his cousin John's efforts to maintain order during the 2008 Democratic National Convention, which resulted in the nomination of Barack Obama for president.

Politics also permeate Hicklenlooper's last movie, "Casino Jack," which stars Kevin Spacey as the now-disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Set to be released later this year or early next year in Austin, the movie follows Abramoff's growing influence in the George W. Bush administration and his close ties to former U.S. House majority leader Tom DeLay of Texas.

Throughout the interview about "Casino Jack" last week, Hickenlooper showed no signs of being ill. Instead, he was animated and excited about the upcoming elections.

Hickenlooper was found dead Saturday morning, Denver police told the Associated Press. His cousin John Hickenlooper said he died of natural causes. Heart trouble is suspected in the death.

Hickenlooper is survived by his wife, Suzanne, and son, Charles, according to the statement from John Hickenlooper.

cealy@statesman.com; 445-3931