In real life as well as on-screen, Dennis Hopper was one of Hollywood’s most successful figures, an out-sized and sometimes outlandish character whose career covered the second half of the 20th century.
A friend and great admirer of James Dean, he once described the iconic star of “Rebel Without a Cause” (in which Hopper played a small part) as “a guerrilla artist who attacked all restrictions on his sensibility…. I imitated his style in art and in life. It got me in a lot of trouble.”
Trouble for Hopper, who died Saturday at his home in Los Angeles, took the form of drug and alcohol abuse as well as five failed marriages (one of which, to The Mamas & the Papas singer Michelle Phillips, lasted just eight days).
But though it stumbled from time to time, Hopper’s career had many high points.
He both directed and starred in (with Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson) “Easy Rider,” the 1969 low-budget film that was a box-office smash. Coming at a time when the Vietnam War was wrenching American politics and society and when the counter-culture was fully defining the 60s, its worldview stood for all that seemed to be troubling and disruptive at the time.
The film’s promotional poster read: “A man went looking for America. And couldn’t find it anywhere.”
“Easy Rider” was named best movie by a new director at the Cannes Film Festival.
"It was just a very special time when the lunatics really got to take over the asylum for a minute," Hopper told Reuters in 2008. "For a brief moment there, there really seemed to be an independent film movement. Then it was over."
Many of Hopper’s other best-known portrayals – in movies ranging from the manic photographer in “Apocalypse Now” to “Blue Velvet” to “Red Rock West” to the alcoholic assistant basketball coach in “Hoosiers” – expressed alienation, criminal insanity, and sometimes just weirdness.
"Dennis Hopper was part of that sort of misfit, rebel-persona generation where you just didn't hit your mark and say your lines and try to create a movie icon type of presence," said Monitor film critic Peter Rainer. "He was much more rough-hewn, rough-edged and intuitive as an actor, and this created a lot of problems early on."
Hopper, who studied at the Actors Studio with Lee Strasburg in New York, also performed on stage and in many TV appearances. He was also an accomplished photographer, painter, and sculptor.
Dennis Hopper, whose work won many awards and two Oscar nominations, made his last public appearance in March, when he was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard.