Dennis Hopper Dennis Hopper

When does an octagon trump a pentagon? When the octagon is the mysterious Dharma logo from ABC's Lost and the Pentagon is the setting for early TV-season time-slot rival E-Ring. Such was the unfortunate (if unsurprising) fate that befell NBC's new Wednesday-night military drama, which bowed strong but dropped 1.7 million samplers in its second week. Luckily, NBC quickly reappointed E-Ring to the 8 pm/ET hour, where it has reclaimed a full million of those, um, "lost" viewers — especially good news for film-turned-series star Dennis Hopper, who plays Colonel McNulty to Benjamin Bratt's U.S. army major.

"We premiered against Lost, which obviously won [the Best Drama Emmy] last year, so we had a struggle," Hopper recounts for "We've [since] dropped to [The Apprentice:] Martha Stewart's time slot, so we'll see how that works. [But in our first week] we went up."

Hopper's command of TV-ratings lingo and strategizing is impressive for a man who never imagined himself calling the tube home. "When I was [starting out in 1955], I didn't want to play in a series as a regular," he recalls. "I just did guest-star parts because I didn't think anyone would come out of television and have a film career. Of course, I was wrong about that — Clint Eastwood, Steve McQueen and Jim Garner all [did it]."

Luckily for film fans, Hopper did focus on a movie career first, all but kicking it off with no less than a role in Rebel Without a Cause, opposite a man he cites as one of his life's biggest influences. "James Dean was the best actor I ever saw," he declares. "He had something no other actor had. He studied dance a lot, and expressed himself with his body better than probably any actor I've ever seen. The way he paced off the land in Giant, or the way he danced in the oil, was remarkable."

Asked by to liken any of today's actors to Dean, Hopper replies, "I can't really put anyone in that space." That said, he offers, "Sean Penn is doing great, emotional work, and Jack Nicholson through the years has been so great and entertaining. James, though, had that edge."

It would take a while before Hopper opted to fully embrace episodic television. The road to the Pentagon began with his extended arc as master bad guy Victor Drazen during the premiere season of Fox's 24 (which he did as a favor to pal Kiefer Sutherland). Hopper would later pop up on NBC's Las Vegas in early 2004, playing the New Orleans Montecito counterpart to James Caan, another film-to-TV convert. That conspicuously splashy one-shot, replete with moody bayou set pieces and his own butt-kickin' (female) sidekick, led this reporter to suspect that at the time, Hopper was being groomed for his own Vegas spin-off. Wouldn't you know it, he confirms, "There was talk of that, but it just didn't happen." In retrospect, of course, "going to New Orleans would have been bad," he notes, "but it would have been an interesting show."

Instead, he is hanging his hat at the Pentagon, aka the nation's ultimate fortress. In the late-November sweeps weeks ahead, amidst E-Ring's usual action, look for some light to be shed on Hopper's gruff colonel. "I just did a really incredible episode going into my backstory of how I was a prisoner of war for four years in Vietnam, when I was with the Green Berets," he previews. "A lot of our backstories are really interesting. The writing has been terrific and each episode keeps getting better and better. I'm having a great time."