Published May 29, 2010
LOS ANGELES -- Dennis Hopper, the high-flying Hollywood wild man whose memorable and erratic career included an early turn in "Rebel Without a Cause," an improbable smash with "Easy Rider" and a classic character role in "Blue Velvet," has died. He was 74.
Hopper died Saturday at his home in the Los Angeles beach community of Venice, surrounded by family and friends, family friend Alex Hitz said. Hopper's manager announced in October 2009 that he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer.
The success of "Easy Rider," and the spectacular failure of his next film, "The Last Movie," fit the pattern for the talented but sometimes uncontrollable actor-director, who also had parts in such favorites as "Apocalypse Now" and "Hoosiers." He was a two-time Academy Award nominee, and in March 2010, was honored with a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame.
After a promising start that included roles in two James Dean films, Hopper's acting career had languished as he developed a reputation for throwing tantrums and abusing alcohol and drugs. On the set of "True Grit," Hopper so angered John Wayne that the star reportedly chased Hopper with a loaded gun.
Tributes were posted Saturday on celebrities' websites and Twitter feeds.
Actress Marlee Matlin called Hopper a "maverick, a wonderful actor. You always got something unexpected from him."
Guitarist Slash tweeted, "You take the great ones for granted until they're gone. RIP Dennis Hopper."
He married five times and led a dramatic life right to the end. In January 2010, Hopper filed to end his 14-year marriage to Victoria Hopper, who stated in court filings that the actor was seeking to cut her out of her inheritance, a claim Hopper denied.
"Much of Hollywood," wrote critic-historian David Thomson, "found Hopper a pain in the neck."
All was forgiven, at least for a moment, when he collaborated with another struggling actor, Peter Fonda, on a script about two pot-smoking, drug-dealing hippies on a motorcycle trip through the Southwest and South to take in the New Orleans Mardi Gras.
On the way, Hopper and Fonda befriend a drunken young lawyer (Jack Nicholson, whom Hopper had resisted casting, in a breakout role), but arouse the enmity of Southern rednecks and are murdered before they can return home.
"'Easy Rider' was never a motorcycle movie to me," Hopper said in 2009. "A lot of it was about politically what was going on in the country."
Fonda produced "Easy Rider" and Hopper directed it for a meager $380,000. It went on to gross $40 million worldwide, a substantial sum for its time. The film caught on despite tension between Hopper and Fonda and between Hopper and the original choice for Nicholson's part, Rip Torn, who quit after a bitter argument with the director.
The film was a hit at Cannes, netted a best-screenplay Oscar nomination for Hopper, Fonda and Terry Southern, and has since been listed on the American Film Institute's ranking of the top 100 American films. The establishment gave official blessing in 1998 when "Easy Rider" was included in the United States National Film Registry for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."
Its success prompted studio heads to schedule a new kind of movie: low cost, with inventive photography and themes about a young, restive baby boom generation. With Hopper hailed as a brilliant filmmaker, Universal Pictures lavished $850,000 on his next project, "The Last Movie."
The title was prescient. Hopper took a large cast and crew to a village in Peru to film the tale of a Peruvian tribe corrupted by a movie company. Trouble on the set developed almost immediately, as Peruvian authorities pestered the company, drug-induced orgies were reported and Hopper seemed out of control.
When he finally completed filming, he retired to his home in Taos, N.M., to piece together the film, a process that took almost a year, in part because he was using psychedelic drugs for editing inspiration.
When it was released, "The Last Movie" was such a crashing failure that it made Hopper unwanted in Hollywood for a decade. At the same time, his drug and alcohol use was increasing to the point where he was said to be consuming as much as a gallon of rum a day.
Shunned by the Hollywood studios, he found work in European films that were rarely seen in the United States. But, again, he made a remarkable comeback, starting with a memorable performance as a drugged-out journalist in Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 Vietnam War epic, "Apocalypse Now," a spectacularly long and troubled film to shoot. Hopper was drugged-out off camera, too, and his rambling chatter was worked into the final cut.
He went on to appear in several films in the early 1980s, including the well regarded "Rumblefish" and "The Osterman Weekend," as well as the campy "My Science Project" and "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2."
But alcohol and drugs continued to interfere with his work. Treatment at a detox clinic helped him stop drinking but he still used cocaine, and at one point he became so hallucinatory that he was committed to the psychiatric ward of a Los Angeles hospital.
Upon his release, Hopper joined Alcoholics Anonymous, quit drugs and launched yet another comeback. It began in 1986 when he played an alcoholic ex-basketball star in "Hoosiers," which brought him an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor.
His role as a wild druggie in "Blue Velvet," also in 1986, won him more acclaim, and years later the character wound up No. 36 on the AFI's list of top 50 movie villains.
He returned to directing, with "Colors," "The Hot Spot" and "Chasers."
"So long Dennis," tweeted actress Virginia Madsen, who starred in "The Hot Spot." "U taught me so much."
From that point on, Hopper maintained a frantic work pace, appearing in many forgettable movies and a few memorable ones, including 1993's "True Romance," where he played a well-meaning ex-cop trying to protect his son from a gangster played by Christopher Walken.
"No better scene in the movies than his showdown with Walken in 'True Romance'," actress Elizabeth Banks tweeted Saturday. "A cinematic Ali v. Frazier."
Hopper made it to the top of the box office in the 1994 hit "Speed," in which he played the maniacal plotter of a freeway disaster. In the 2000s, he was featured in the television series "Crash" and such films as "Elegy" and "Hell Ride."
Jocko Sims, who starred opposite Hopper in "Crash," called him a "legend."
"What he did for me was to give me the confidence to feel like I was doing it right," said Sims, 29. "He wouldn't hold back with his positive re-enforcement. And what else would you need as an actor but to be validated by Dennis Hopper!"
"Work is fun to me," he told a reporter in 1991. "All those years of being an actor and a director and not being able to get a job -- two weeks is too long to not know what my next job will be."
For years he lived in Los Angeles' bohemian beach community of Venice, in a house designed by acclaimed architect Frank Gehry.
In later years he picked up some income by becoming a pitchman for Ameriprise Financial, aiming ads at baby boomers looking ahead to retirement. His politics, like much of his life, were unpredictable. The old rebel contributed money to the Republican Party in recent years, but also voted for Democrat Barack Obama in 2008.
Hopper also tried his hand at a number of artistic pursuits including photography, sculpting and painting. His art, dating to a 1955 painting, is the subject of a show opening July 11 at the Museum of Contemporary Art's Geffen Contemporary space in downtown Los Angeles. The title of the exhibition, "Double Standard," is taken from a 1961 Hopper photograph of two Standard Oil signs seen through an automobile windshield on historic Route 66 in Los Angeles.
Dennis Lee Hopper was born in 1936, in Dodge City, Kan., and spent much of his youth on the nearby farm of his grandparents. He saw his first movie at 5 and became enthralled.
After moving to San Diego with his family, he played Shakespeare at the Old Globe Theater.
Scouted by the studios, Hopper was under contract to Columbia until he insulted the boss, Harry Cohn. From there he went to Warner Bros., where he made "Rebel Without a Cause" and "Giant" while in his late teens.
Later, he moved to New York to study at the Actors Studio, where Dean had learned his craft.
Hopper's first wife was Brooke Hayward, the daughter of actress Margaret Sullavan and agent Leland Hayward, and author of the best-selling memoir "Haywire." They had a daughter, Marin, before Hopper's drug-induced violence led to divorce after eight years.
His second marriage, to singer-actress Michelle Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas, lasted only eight days.
A union with actress Daria Halprin also ended in divorce after they had a daughter, Ruthana. Hopper and his fourth wife, dancer Katherine LaNasa, had a son, Henry, before divorcing.
He married his fifth wife, Victoria Duffy, who was 32 years his junior, in 1996, and they had a daughter, Galen Grier.