Dennis Hopper, best known as the director and star of Easy Rider and for his roles in Hoosiers, Blue Velvet and Apocalypse Now, died on Saturday in Venice, California of prostate cancer. He turned 74 two weeks ago. He was also a great friend of the late Vincent Price, sharing not only two film credits (1957's Story of Mankind and 1993's Heart of Justice) but also a life-long passion for collecting art.
Born May 17, 1936 in Dodge City, Kansas, Hopper was a life-long fixture in Hollywood. His long career included roles in some of the best or most well-known films from each decade of the last half-century. In the '50s he appeared in two of James Dean's three films; as one of the goons, troubling Dean's Jim Stark in 1955's Rebel Without a Cause, then as Jordan Benedict III in Giant. Hopper became friends with Dean, who died in a car accident in September of 1955, as his star was on the rise.
Hopper spent much of the '60s on television, usually playing a nervous, fidgety criminal but Hopper ended the decade with a triumph. He directed and starred in Easy Rider, a film made on a shoestring that became a nation-wide phenomenon and that helped define the hippie generation (at least for people who weren't really of that generation). Hopper played Billy, half of an iconic duo, looking for America with Wyatt (aka Captain America), played by Peter Fonda (who also co-wrote the film). The memorable third act line from Wyatt, "You know Billy, we blew it" would bedevil critics as they hounded both actors for the meaning of the line for the next forty years. Nevertheless the film was nominated for an Academy Award for the script and neither men ever essentially divulged what that line truly meant.
The film made so much money that Hopper was allowed to indulge in his whims and darker demons through the next thirteen years, first directing the bizarre The Last Movie and thereafter cementing his reputation as an erratic, difficult person to be around and to employ.
The '70s included Hopper's underrated turn as Tom Ripley in Wim Wenders's The American Friend and as a photographer-turned-high-priest proselytizing for Marlon Brando's jungle-god Kurtz in Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now.
Hopper's rumored drug addictions and abusive demeanor while high were part of his mystique until 1983 when a nearly catatonic Hopper was found wandering in the woods in Mexico naked. He entered rehab shortly after which then resulted in a rumored 30-year-dedication to sobriety and another one of his comebacks.
1986 was a particularly kind year to Hopper as Blue Velvet and Hoosiers (and a minor role in River's Edge) put him back on Hollywood's radar. The role in Hooseers, of an alcoholic who struggles to become an assistant basketball coach, earned him an Oscar nomination. But it was his completely creepy turn as Frank Booth, sucking from an air tank in David Lynch's disturbing, great Blue Velvet that stuck with people and gave Pabst Blue Ribbon a reason to celebrate.
The '90s included great roles in John Dahl's noir-western Red Rock West ('93) and Tony Scott's True Romance ('93) and another chance to prove what a true villain looked and felt like in Jan De Bont's Speed.
Hopper was married five times, including a week long marriage to Michelle Phillips in 1970, and, lastly, to Victoria Duffy. Hopper landed in the tabloids again as earlier this month, ailing badly, he filed for divorce from Duffy, citing irreconcilable differences. Rumors swirled that the divorce was in truth prompted by Hopper's oldest daughter, Marin, and was principally inspired by a dispute over Hopper's estate.
Hopper is survived by four children, including Galen, a six-year old whom he had with Duffy.