Dennis Hopper will be best remembered as the director and star of one of Hollywood's most influential films, Easy Rider (1969), which defined a generation of 'hippie' culture and attitude, the film's hallucinogenic imagery backed by a driving rock soundtrack.
He also achieved notoriety as a hell-raiser who made headlines with his unconventional behaviour, violent temperament and bouts with drugs and alcohol. Holder of a black belt in karate, he once kicked out a windshield in fury and broke his wife's nose with a quick chop.
But he was also a well regarded painter, photographer and leading collector or pop art. One of his earliest films was Rebel Without a Cause (1955), and he was profoundly influenced by the late actor James Dean, once stating, 'I imitated Jimmy Dean's style in art and life. He was a guerrilla artist who attacked all restrictions on his sensibility.' Shunned by Hollywood for many years after a disastrous follow-up to Easy Rider, he eventually returned to the screen as a respected character actor in such films as Apocalypse Now, Blue Velvet and Speed. Married five times, he made headlines again during his final months by trying to finalise a divorce with his fifth wife, Victoria Duffy, who claimed he was trying to cut her out of her inheritance.
The son of a Kansas farm girl and a railroad mail guard, he was born Dennis Lee Hopper in Dodge City, Kansas, in 1936.He was largely raised by his grandparents on their alfalfa farm, where weekend visits to the cinema with his grandmother engendered an early fascination with acting. After his father returned from fighting in World War 11, he moved with his parents to San Diego, where he acted in Shakespeare at the Old Globe Theater while taking art instruction at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. While serving as an apprentice at the La Jolla Playhouse, his talent was noticed by actress Dorothy McGuire and her husband John Swope, who ran the theatre, and the couple sponsored his going to Hollywood with a letter of introduction to the casting director at the Hal Roach studios. He was immediately cast in an episode of the television series, Cavalcade of America, followed by an episode of The Loretta Young Show. He then auditioned for the part of a young epileptic in an episode of The Medic, starring Richard Boone, a role he won by suddenly falling to the floor and enacting his idea of an epileptic fit while in the casting director's office.
The show was broadcast in January, 1955, and the next day Hopper was offered a contract by Warners and cast in a small but flashy part in the crime film, I Died a Thousand Times (1955), as a teenager who suddenly grabs Lori Nelson at a party and dances with her. It prompted director Nicholas Ray to cast him as 'Goon', a gang member in a low-budget black-and-white movie about juvenile delinquency, Rebel Without a Cause, starring James Dean. Ten days into production the studio, impressed by the reaction to Dean's first starring movie, East of Eden, arranged for Ray to re-start filming from scratch, in CinemaScope and colour.
The shoot allegedly seethed with emotional tension, since director Ray was having an affair with actress Natalie Wood, who also began an affair with Hopper, while actor Sal Mineo later confessed that he was in love with Dean, who became very protective of the 16-year-old. Hopper recalled, 'I thought I was the best young actor in the world. I was very good, I had incredible technique. I was incredibly sensitive. I didn't think there was anyone to top me. Until I saw James Dean. He was like, so loose, creating all these wonderful things. I grabbed him during the chicken-run scene, and said, "I thought I was the best, and now I see you, and I know you're better, and I don't even know what you're doing." He said, "Well, you have to do things, not show them. Don't have any preconceived ideas. Approach something differently every time." That was the beginning of a lot of problems for me with directors.'
Ray became so irate when Hopper caused delays to the planetarium sequence that he tried to fire him, but was advised that he could not, as Hopper was a contract player. Instead, Ray gave all Hopper's lines to another actor, and he has no dialogue in the film after the planetarium scene. Hopper next played the son of Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson in the sprawling Giant (1956), James Dean's final film, then played outlaw Billy Clanton in Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957) and was wildly miscast as a brooding Napoleon in The Story of Mankind (1957). During the filming of From Hell To Texas (1958) his disagreement with director Henry Hathaway over interpretation resulted in over 80 takes on what should have been a simple line reading, after which he was effectively blackballed by the studios for eight years. Moving to New York, he studied for a time at the Actors' Studio, where he became friends with Warren Beatty, whose girl-friend Anna Maria Barraque later stated, 'I wasn't crazy about Dennis Hopper. He played up to Montgomery Clift and Roddy McDowell a lot. They were gay, and we all knew Dennis wasn't, but he wanted them to think that maybe he was too.'
Later Hopper provided an essay on Sal Mineo to accompany a photograph in one of McDowell's books, and Hopper's own photography included the cover art for the Ike and Tina Turner album, River Deep - Mountain High (1966). In 1965, Hathaway surprisingly cast Hopper in The Sons of Katie Elder (1965), after which he was Babalugats the bet taker in Cool Hand Luke (1967). He was set for a prominent role in Bonnie and Clyde (1967) when Warren Beatty cast him as C.W. Moss, a football player who formed a menage a trois with the outlaw couple. But when the script was revised so that Clyde was depicted as impotent rather than bisexual, Beatty cast another friend, Michael J. Pollard, as a quirkily engaging Moss. Hopper instead played roles in Hang 'Em High (1968) and True Grit (1969) before actor Peter Fonda asked him to direct, act in and co-write Easy Rider.
Though the pair fell out during its making - Fonda, who called him 'a little fascist freak', tried to fire him, then became so frightened that he hired a professional bodyguard and carried a gun at all times - the film caused a sensation. Made for less than $400,000, it took over $40 million worldwide, and shook the Hollywood establishment by becoming the anthem of counter-culture, with tremendous appeal to a youth audience.
It is credited with creating a climate that fostered other young directors such as Spielberg, Scorsese and Coppola. 'We're a new kind of human being,' said Hopper. 'We're taking on more freedom and risk. I think we're heroes. I want to make movies about us.' In Easy Rider, Fonda and Hopper were two pot-smoking, drug-dealing hippies on a motor-cycle trip through the South to attend the New Orleans Mardi Gras, picking up en route a drunken lawyer (Jack Nicholson). Before they can return home, they are murdered by Southern rednecks. 'Easy Rider was never a motor-cycle movie to me,' said Hopper. 'A lot of it was about politically what was going on in the country.'
The film's screenplay, by Fonda, Hopper and Terry Southern, was nominated for an Oscar, and it is included in the American Film Institute's list of the top 100 American films. Bob Dylan was one of the film's admirers, but he did not approve of the ending, suggesting that instead a helicopter should have swooped down and shot the rednecks, leaving the heroes alive. The film's great success prompted Universal Pictures to give Hopper a much larger budget for his next project, The Last Movie, about a Peruvian tribe corrupted by a film company, with Hopper playing a stunt man who is crucified by the villagers. Hopper took his large company and crew to Peru, where he was reported as losing control among rumours of drug-induced orgies.
After he spent nearly a year editing the material, using psychedelic drugs for inspiration, the film was released in 1971 to calamitous reviews and audience response. Hopper, who was said to be drinking as much as a gallon of rum a day, found himself totally cast out by the American film industry, and settled in a commune in New Mexico with a supply of rum, tequila and cocaine, occasionally acting in obscure European movies, though he surfaced as an appropriately drug-ridden press photographer in the Vietnam War epic, Apocalypse Now (1979). He announced that he was going to channel his compulsions into work after spending a period in a psychiatric ward of a Los Angeles hospital, and after joining Alcoholics Anonymous and quitting drugs he gradually rebuilt his career with such acclaimed roles as that of a gas-sniffing sadist Frank Booth in David Lynch's Blue Velvet (1986), a character that figures on several lists of top movie villains. 'I didn't have any problem understanding Frank,' he said. 'He was just your basic middle-class degenerate...I've been a middle-class degenerate most of my life.'
Hopper won an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of an alcoholic basketball coach in Hoosiers (1987), and the following year he directed a successful police thriller, Colors, starring Sean Penn and Gene Hackman. A book of his photographs, Out of the Sixties, was published in 1988, but a thriller he started to direct the same year, Backtrack, starring Jodie Foster, proved problematic, and after extensive re-editing, was released in 1991 as Catchfire, with the fictitious 'Alan Smithee' credited as director. In 1994 he was the villain plotting a freeway disaster in Speed.
Hopper's first wife was Brooke Hayward, the daughter of actress Margaret Sullavan and agent Leland Hayward, but after eight years she divorced him due to his 'drug-induced violence.' A marriage to Michelle Phillips of the group, the Mamas and the Papas, lasted eight days ('Seven of those days were pretty good. The eighth day was the bad one') and was followed by unions with actress Daria Helprin and dancer Katherine LaNasa. He married Victoria Duffy, 32 years his junior, in 1996.
Though terminally ill, Hopper was reported just four days ago to be working at his compound in Venice, California, helping curate an exhibition of his photographs at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. Recently he stated, 'I am just a middle-class farm boy from Dodge City and my grandparents were wheat farmers. I thought painting, acting, directing and photography was all part of being an artist. I have made my money that way. And I have had some fun. It's not been a bad life.'
Born: 17th May 1936, Dodge City, Kansas, US; Married: 1) 1961 Brooke Hayward, divorced 1969, one daughter 2) 1970 Michelle Phillips, divorced 1970 3) 1972 Daria Halprin, divorced 1976, one daughter 4) 1989 Katherine LaNasa, divorced 1992, one son 5) 1996 Victoria Duffy, one daughterReuse content