Dennis Hopper, who embodied the quintessential Hollywood rebel for more than half a century, died May 29, 2010, at his home in Venice, California. Hopper, who was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2009, was 74.
An actor and sometime director whose prodigious talent was often undermined by a self-destructive streak, Hopper got his start during the height of the Hollywood studio system with roles in classic 1950s films like Rebel Without a Cause and Giant, and ushered in a new era with the triumph of the 1969 release Easy Rider, which he directed, co-wrote and starred in.
Born May 17, 1936, in Dodge City, Kansas, Hopper and his family moved to San Diego when he was 13. He began acting in his teens and went on to appear in more than 100 films.
Although he is best known for his movie work, Hopper began in television, with roles in such series as Cavalcade of America, Medic and The Public Defender. His film career began auspiciously when he scored a supporting role in Rebel Without a Cause, starring James Dean, with whom he became close friends.
When his film career stalled in the late 1950s after earning being branded “difficult” following run-ins with director Henry Hathaway on the set of From Hell to Texas, he moved for a time to New York City. There he studied with vaunted acting teacher Lee Strasberg and continued to work in television. He eventually found supporting roles in movies like The Sons of Katie Elder, with John Wayne, Cool Hand Luke, with Paul Newman, and Hang ’Em High, with Clint Eastwood.
Another role opposite Wayne, in the Oscar-winning western True Grit, came in 1969 — the same year as Easy Rider, which shattered many of the Hollywood conventions associated with a mainstream star like Wayne and his mainstream body of work.
A counterculture classic about a pair of motorcycle-riding iconoclasts who head across the U.S. on their bikes following a drug deal, Easy Rider was made for a reported $350,000 and went on to earn as much as $40 million. In addition to the film’s unexpected financial success, it won the prize for best first film at the 1969 Cannes Film Festival and earned Oscar nominations for Hopper, Fonda and Terry Southern’s screenplay and the then unknown Jack Nicholson for his supporting performance as a lawyer who befriends the road-tripping bikers during their journey.
Easy Rider spawned a spate of youth-targeted films, and gave Hopper the clout to make the portentously titled The Last Movie. The disjointed story of a film shoot in Peru that goes awry when an actor is killed in a stunt, it spiraled out of control amid reports of unhinged behavior by Hopper, and failed at the box office when it was released in 1971. He would not direct again until 1980, on the film Out of the Blue, which he took over when the film’s original director left the production.
For the next few years Hopper took mostly smaller roles until his appearance in the sprawling Vietnam epic Apocalypse Now, released in 1979. His riveting performance as a Kipling- and Eliot-quoting photojournalist who has fallen under the spell of the depraved Col. Kurtz, played by Marlon Brando, reminded audiences — and Hollywood — of Hopper’s gifts, and led to steady work thereafter.
His career rebound was also aided by the fact that, after many years of alcohol and drug abuse, he achieved sobriety and was able to devote himself to his work with greater focus and dedication.
The following years were busy for Hopper, and included some of his most respected performances, two of which came in 1986. In Blue Velvet, David Lynch’s disturbing examination of the sordid underbelly of a seemingly idyllic North Carolina town, Hopper garnered critical acclaim as Frank Booth, a deranged criminal whose violent nature and deep psychological scars imbue every scene in which he appears with a sense of tension and dread. In Hoosiers, a sports drama about an Indiana basketball team’s pursuit of a state championship, Hopper earned an Oscar nomination for his performance as Shooter, a drunken parent who becomes an assistant to head coach Norman Dale, played by Gene Hackman.
Other noteworthy Hopper films in the ensuing years include True Romance, Speed, Waterworld and Basquiat.
More recently, he began to appear more frequently on television, and had regular roles on the 2005 series E-Ring and the 2009-10 series Crash. He also appeared in the first season of 24 and made numerous commercials for products ranging from athletic apparel to financial services.
Overall, he appeared in more than 140 television episodes, including such shows as Gunsmoke, Bonanza, Petticoat Junction, The Twilight Zone, The Barbara Stanwyck Show, The Defenders, The Investigators, The Big Valley, The Rifleman and Combat!
Apart from his work as an actor, writer and director, Hopper had a flourishing career as a visual artist and art collector. He created works as a painter, sculptor and photographer, and his works were collected in books and displayed in galleries.
Early in his career, at the encouragement of actor Vincent Price, Hopper began collecting art, and during his years in New York began purchasing works by Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Liechtenstein and others who went on to achieve worldwide acclaim and helped Hopper to amass a large fortune.
Hopper was married five times. His first wife, Brooke Hayward, was the daughter of actress Margaret Sullavan and agent Leland Hayward, a lineage that helped him early in his career. His second marriage, to Michelle Phillips, of the singing group the Mamas and the Papas, lasted just eight days. His other wives included Katharine La Nasa, Daria Halprin and Victoria Duffy, from whom he was estranged and in the process of divorcing at the time of his death.
On March 26 of this year, Hopper received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. At the ceremony he was accompanied by close friends, including Jack Nicholson and David Lynch.
He is survived by four children: Marin Hopper, his daughter by Hayward; Ruthanna Hopper, his daughter by Halprin; Henry Lee Hopper, his son by La Nasa; and Galen, his daughter by Duffy.