News has come through that legendary Hollywood hell-raiser Dennis Hopper has succumbed to prostate cancer, aged 74.
Like James Dean, with whom he appeared in both ‘Rebel without a cause’ and ‘Giant‘, Hopper was a product of the Actors Studio, studying with ‘method’ guru Lee Strasberg for 5 years. Like many people of my generation, I first became aware of Hopper via ‘Easy Rider’, the movie that transformed 60’s Hollywood. The movie became a cultural touchstone, even though as a UK native I was light years removed from the open freeways of that movie. ‘Easy Rider’ opened many doors for both Hopper and his co-star Peter Fonda, but somehow neither of them was able to capitalise on those opportunities – from those involved only Jack Nicholson really did.
Hopper’s success led him to the director’s chair for 1971’s ‘The Last Movie’ – also involving Fonda – an elaborate parable about the nature of cinematic violence, filmed on location in Peru through most of 1970. Universal were so keen to capitalise on the ‘youth market’ that they gave Hopper virtual ‘carte blanche’ and were apparently appalled by the final cut of the picture which utilised many techniques more often associated with experimental film, using many jump cuts and fracturing the narrative in a deliberate attempt to avoid a linear approach. Frequently derided as one of the worst movies of all time, ‘The Last Movie’ effectively put paid to Hopper’s Hollywood career for many years.
His rehabilitation came as an actor rather than a director when Francis Ford Coppola cast him as an apparently deranged photo-journalist in ‘Apocalypse Now’ (1979). He gained some critical acclaim when he returned to directing with 1988’s ‘Colors’, but it was as everyone’s psycho of choice that his reputation was further enhanced when David Lynch cast him as the psychopathic Frank Booth in 1986’s ‘Blue Velvet’. This was a character he revisited on several occasions, particularly in ‘ Boiling Point’ (1993), where he played a dandyish villain with a fatal weakness for ballroom dancing and in ‘Speed’ from the following year, then again in 1996’s ‘Waterworld’. Having cornered the market in left-field psychopaths, Hopper found that this apparently lucrative vein of roles was subject to the law of diminishing returns.
Dennis Hopper in ‘Apocalypse Now’ (1979)
Perhaps as a result, he turned to television, playing the villain Victor Drazen in Series 1 of the long-running ‘24′ thriller franchise. He also worked as a painter and photographer, with considerable success.
Married 5 times – including one marriage to ex-Mamas & Papas member Michelle Philllips that lasted only a week – Hopper continued to live out his image as a Hollywood bad boy par excellence. He had frequent run-ins with drugs and alcohol over the years and was allegedly possessed of an unholy temper.
And, whether he liked it or not, that will probably be his legacy. His raging appetite for his work and his life permitted little in the way of compromise. Even in later years, it would be hard to say with any conviction that he had become a mellower individual – in January of this year he filed for divorce from his fifth wife, accusing her of being ‘insane’, ‘inhuman’ and ‘volatile’.
Despite becoming an icon of the counter-culture in the 1960’s and 1970’s, it’s perhaps also worth noting that Hopper became a regular, if modest, contributor to the Republican Party in recent years.