The hellraising actor Dennis Hopper, who shot to fame after directing and starring in the cult 1969 dropout movie Easy Rider, died yesterday, following a long battle with prostate cancer, aged 74.
Renowned for his hard living and drug-taking – a reputation he kept to the very end – Hopper reportedly smoked two ounces of marijuana a week to ease the pain from his cancer, and divorced his wife only months before his death to ensure that Victoria Duffy, his fifth wife of nearly 14 years, received none of his fortune.
Hopper began acting in the 1950s, starring alongside James Dean in the classic teenage movie Rebel Without a Cause and Giant. But it was the counter-culture classic Easy Rider, which he co-wrote as well as starred in, beside Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson, that propelled him to international stardom. He won an Oscar for the screenplay with co-writer Peter Fonda. He was also named Best Supporting Actor in a rare, heart-warming turn as an alcoholic high-school basketball coach in the 1986 drama Hoosiers.
His screen persona was as an edgy, unhinged character in roles such as Frank Booth in David Lynch's 1986 film Blue Velvet and as a photojournalist in Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now in 1979.
Hopper was born in Dodge City, Kansas, in 1936. As a child, he attended art classes and continued to paint and sculpt throughout his life. He was also a collector of Pop Art.
A move to California with his parents at the age of 13 sparked an interest in acting, and he later trained at the renowned Actors Studio in New York, studying with Lee Strasberg.
Easy Rider, regarded as one of the seminal films of American cinema, helped usher in a new era in which the old Hollywood guard was forced to cede power to young film-makers such as Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese. The low-budget blockbuster, originally conceived by Fonda, introduced mainstream moviegoers to pot-smoking, cocaine-dealing and long-haired bikers.
"We'd gone through the whole Sixties and nobody had made a film about anybody smoking grass without going out and killing a bunch of nurses," Hopper told Entertainment Weekly in 2005. "I wanted Easy Rider to be a time capsule for people about that period."
Hopper and Fonda were joined on screen by a then unknown Jack Nicholson as an alcoholic lawyer, but it was not a harmonious cast. Hopper clashed violently with everyone, and Fonda later described him as a "little fascist freak". Their friendship was destroyed.
Hopper fell ill last September. He continued working almost to the very end, both on his cable TV series Crash and on a book showcasing his photography. His final months were also consumed by a bitter divorce from Victoria Duffy. Indeed, his private life was never dull. His marriages included an eight-day union in 1970 with Michelle Phillips of The Mamas & The Papas, who told Vanity Fair she was subjected to "excruciating" treatment. Hopper is survived by four children.