Dennis Hopper — actor (Rebel Without a Cause, Blue Velvet), director (Easy Rider, Colors), screenwriter, photographer, painter, hellraiser, raconteur, and no-bull Hollywood legend — died of prostate cancer at his house in Venice Beach, in Los Angeles today. He was 74.
Hopper may have had the surest hand on the zeitgeist of anyone in Hollywood, putting his fingerprints on a series of iconic, era-defining pictures. He played a supporting role in the ultimate ’50s teen drama, Rebel Without a Cause (1955); legitimized hippies on film (and in Hollywood’s power structure) with Easy Rider (1969); contributed a memorable cameo as a crazed journalist to Francis Ford Coppola’s New Hollywood apotheosis Apocalypse Now (1979); concocted one of the scariest of all screen villains as Frank Booth in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986); directed the gang drama Colors (1988) with its hit title track by Ice-T just as L.A.’s Bloods and Crips were making news; and completely stole the blockbuster Speed (1994) as the bad guy. Later in life he became a widely exhibited photographer and published collections of his images.
Hopper’s career is doubly impressive in light of the nearly two decades he was one of Hollywood’s most notorious drug addicts. He spent much of the ’70s and early ’80s as an outcast in a town he’d once owned, thanks to the surprising success of Easy Rider, one of the earliest salvos of the New Hollywood that artistically dominated the ’70s. Hopper is also notorious for his troubled relationships with women: Michelle Phillips, whom he married in 1970, divorced him after less than two weeks. Hopper was married five times total — he was undergoing a divorce from Victoria Duffy, his wife of 14 years, at the time of his death — and is survived by four children.
Hopper was born in Dodge City, Kansas, in 1936 and migrated with his family to San Diego at age 13. He began acting as a teenager, and would later study with Lee Strasberg at New York’s Actors Studio. Strasberg’s immersive technique, a.k.a. the Method, helped form Hopper’s intense style. His first film, at 19, was Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause, starring James Dean, Natalie Wood, and Sal Mineo — an immediate hit and an immediate legend in the wake of Dean’s death the same year. Hopper continued to find support work in both television and film, often appearing in Westerns, such as John Wayne’s Oscar-winner True Grit (1969).
Hopper co-starred, co-wrote, and directed Easy Rider, a road movie about a couple of hippie drug dealers on a cross-country motorcycle trip, in collaboration with producer-star Peter Fonda and co-writer Terry Southern, in improvisatory style and on a small budget (around $400,000). It grossed $60 million. The movie helped usher in a glut of similar pictures and opened Hollywood up to the concept of the “house hippie.” Hopper followed that hit with 1971’s expensive The Last Movie, which was savaged by critics as an incoherent mess and flopped at the box office. Hopper worked largely in Europe for most of the decade.
His visibility buoyed in 1979 when Coppola cast him in Apocalypse Now, and Hopper soon began directing again, with the little-seen but critically acclaimed family drama Out of the Blue, in which he also starred, in 1980. A string of supporting parts led to his being cast in David Lynch’s iconic Blue Velvet, in which Hopper played a madman so close to his heart he’d told Lynch that he, Hopper, was Frank Booth. In a surprising turn, Hopper was nominated the same year for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for a sweet portrayal of a town drunk in Hoosiers. He made Colors, with Sean Penn and Robert Duvall as L.A. cops dealing with the gangs whose stories were just beginning to be told in hip-hop.
Hopper spent the ’90s and ’00s in a reliable niche as a hipster emeritus, frequently appearing on talk shows and playing a wide range of roles, though in Blue Velvet‘s wake he was most frequently identified with villain roles. He made a memorable appearance on Gorillaz’s 2005 album Demon Days, narrating the ominous tale “Fire Coming Out of the Monkey’s Head” (watch him perform the track with the band live in New York below). “He’s always been a symbol for a certain type of expression and free speech that suited the track we were working on,” the band stated in an Uncut interview when the album arrived.
Hopper most recently appeared on the Starz adaptation of the movie Crash, portraying a drug-addled music producer. He was hospitalized in October 2009 for his prostate cancer, which he then revealed he’d been battling since 2002. He entered the hospital again in January 2010, but showed up at the unveiling of his star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame in March.