Dennis Hopper’s long career was studded with brilliant high points, disturbing low points and plenty of controversy. He’s probably best known for the latter (including five marriages, legal battles and run-ins with the law); no doubt his quick, wild grin and the dangerous glint in his eye help maintain the bad boy image. He started out as a child actor in the theater, and was working in television before he was out of his teens. His feature film debut was the landmark youth movie Rebel Without a Cause (1955); a year later, he appeared again with James Dean in Giant before going on to costar in a number of westerns.
But after allegedly clashing with director Henry Hathaway on the set of From Hell to Texas (1958) – and, according to the actor himself, being blacklisted from Hollywood productions for eight years – Hopper moved to New York to study with famed acting teacher Lee Strasberg, and became involved with the city’s art world, hanging out with Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns and Roy Lichtenstein and appearing in some of Warhol’s short films as well as embarking on a photography career of his own.
He returned to Hollywood in the late ’60s, where he continued his counter-culture collaboration, acting in Roger Corman’s acid-laced cult film The Trip (1967) and in Jack Nicholson and Bob Rafelson’s Monkees movie, Head. And then in 1969, working with Peter Fonda and Terry Southern, Hopper created one of the most iconic films of the decade: Easy Rider. The cynical story of two long-haired bikers riding across the country and encountering both hippie idylls and middle-American prejudice, it won awards at the Cannes Film Festival and garnered Oscar nominations both for the screenplay and for Jack Nicholson’s supporting performance.
Flush with success, Hopper began work on The Last Movie, a surreal film about Peruvian villagers who begin to imitate the actions of a film crew without realizing the on-camera deaths are fake. Generally regarded as a self-indulgent exercise, the film drew much criticism and Hopper decided to leave Hollywood and make films in Europe. His return to stateside success came with Francis Ford Coppola’s searing, powerful Apocalypse Now (1979), and he has remained in the spotlight ever since. While he is probably best known for his creepily insane characters, such as Blue Velvet’s gas-huffing Frank Booth and Speed’s energized terrorist Howard Payne, he also garnered acclaim for his performances in such diverse films as Hoosiers, Paris Trout, True Romance, Basquiat and Jesus’ Son. Meanwhile, his photographic talents have not been forgotten; his work has been exhibited in Los Angeles, Amsterdam and Tokyo, and he was also a dedicated art collector, showing he’s much more than his onscreen image implies.
Dennis Hopper died in 2010 at the age of 74 after a long battle with prostate cancer.