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05 June, 2010

Tribute to Dennis Hopper (1936-2010)

Tribute to Dennis Hopper (1936-2010)

Dennis Hopper was the epitome of the 1960's rebel with a cause. During a decade of an unpopular war in Vietnam and the hey-day of the hippies and the drug culture, he brought to life the angst of living outside the box. When moviegoers think of the bad boy of the 60's free-style thinking, his name easily pops to mind.

Dennis Lee Hopper was born in Dodge City, Kansas, and at the age of 13, moved with his family to San Diego, CA where he discovered an interest in acting while in high school. He studied at the Old Globe Theater in San Diego and the Actors Studio in New York City. While in New York, he struck up a friendship with actor Vincent Price whose passion for the art greatly influenced Hopper.

Hopper made his film debut in James Dean's film, REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (1955) and also appeared with Dean in the actor’s last movie, GIANT (1956). Hopper claims Dean was the finest actor he had ever worked with and Dean's 1955 death in an auto accident deeply moved Hopper. During shooting for FROM HELL TO TEXAS, he fought with veteran director Henry Hathaway with Hopper refusing shooting directions for the next several days, gaining the reputation of being a difficult actor with whom to work. Studios shied away from hiring him and he found himself playing mostly one-shot TV shows for the next several years.

Moved by Hopper's claim to be Margaret Sullivan's son-in-law, John Wayne helped Hopper get hired for the role of Dave Hastings in 1965 SONS OF KATIE ELDER. In a 1994 interview on the Charlie Rose Show, Hopper credits John Wayne with saving his career and acknowledges that his insolent behavior made it difficult for him to find work for several years. However, Hopper was mostly confined to westerns usually playing the villain.

Hopper's next big break came in 1967 when he was cast with Peter Fonda and Susan Strasberg as the LSD-pushing Max in THE TRIP (1967). Contrary to the roles Fonda and Hopper would play in EASY RIDER (1969), it's Fonda who plays the role up-tight while Hopper is calm and under self-control. This would be Hopper's introduction to American International Pictures (AIP) and director Roger Corman. The film was to be one of America's first peeks at the hippie counter-culture of body painting, black lights and premarital and extra-marital sex. The film was wildly profitable and, made on a budget of $450,000, has made $10 million (Jan. 1970) at the box office and $5 million on rentals to date. The phenomenal success of EASY RIDER caused studios to jump on the counter-culture bandwagon with movies about hippies, drugs, draft dodgers and motorcycle gangs.

COOL HAND LUKE (1967) was next on Hopper's agenda, playing egg-eating contest bet-taker Babalugats. However, it would be later that year that Hopper would make the movie that made him an American icon... EASY RIDER. Hopper again teamed up with Peter Fonda and with Terry Southern and Jack Nicholson. With EASY RIDER, Hopper won critical acclaim for his directorial debut. However, Hopper's behavior alienated co-stars Fonda and Nicholson and Hopper's increasing drug use, his refusal to leave the writer's desk and his divorce from Brooke Hayward caused delay after delay in the shooting schedule. Hopper began experimenting heavily with drugs and alcohol both on an off the set. The final Hopper-edited version of EASY RIDER ran nearly three hours. The film was nominated for two Academy Awards. (A bit of trivia—Rip Torn was originally chosen for Jack Nicholson's role of George Hanson. However, before shooting began, Hopper pulled a knife on Torn. Hopper later claimed Torn pulled the knife on him. Rip Torn later sued for defamation and won.)

His bad-boy reputation preceding him, Hopper found it more and more difficult to find work. Limping from one small role in mostly European films to the next, his drug and alcohol problems increased and began to affect the quality of his work. He also married and divorced four times during this period, including an eight-day marriage to Mamas and Papas singer, Michelle Phillips. After staging a 'suicide attempt' in a coffin with 17 sticks of dynamite, Hopper disappeared into the Mexican desert. However, after several extravagant drug and alcohol benders, his career in tatters, he checked into a rehab center in 1983.

The Eighties saw a resurgence of interest in Hopper who by then had exorcized his demons of alcohol and drug abuse. His talent once again able to shine, he returned to the thought-provoking roles and stellar performances for which he was once known. He turned in a memorable performance as the pot-smoking photographer in Coppola's APOCALYPSE NOW (1979) and was superb in RUMBLE FISH (1983).

Hopper returned to directing with the controversial gang film COLORS (1988). However, acting was his first love and he once again returned to the front of the camera in SUPER MARIO BROTHERS (1993), SPEED (1994) and WATERWORLD (1995). In the new century, Hopper also returned to the small screen with on-going roles in FLATLAND, 24, E-RING and, at the time of his death from prostate cancer at age 74, was starring in CRASH.

During his career, he was a life-long fixture in Hollywood and his resume included some of the best and well-remembered roles of the five decades. He is recognized as one of the true enfant terribles of Hollywood. He fought with, and overcame, his own personal demons both in private and in public. With his death drawing nearer, Hollywood honored him on May 26, 2010 with a Walk of Fame star. His old friends Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson were at his side to honor him. Three days later, Dennis Hopper was dead. Rest in peace, Easy Rider. You earned it.


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