Dennis Hopper, who had an eclectic, wide-ranging career that spanned six decades, died Saturday in Venice, Calif., of prostate cancer. He was 74.
The actor appeared frail and gaunt at the March 26 unveiling of his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He had been hospitalized in January after receiving treatment for the illness, which he said was first diagnosed a decade earlier.
Hopper had at least three distinct career phases.
First, he was the talented young thesp who made a splash in a 1955 episode of “Medic” and on the bigscreen in “Rebel Without a Cause.”
Second, after his bad-boy reputation caused speed bumps in his acting career, he re-emerged as director, co-star and co-writer of the 1969 “Easy Rider,” which challenged Hollywood’s old-fashioned filmmaking methods and caused Hopper to be lionized as a groundbreaker in the maverick indie movement.
Third, after personal problems kept him out of Hollywood for a decade, he returned in the 1979 “Apocalypse Now” and, though never becoming part of the Hollywood establishment, found steady work as a character actor and a reputation as a witty, poetry-writing, painter/photographer/art-collector.
Hopper was born in Dodge City, Kan., later moving to Kansas City and eventually San Diego. An avid debater in high school, he won several contests and appeared on Art Linkletter’s TV show. He began acting in summer stock and, after graduating high school won a scholarship to the Old Globe theater in San Diego. He was championed by La Jolla Playhouse’s Dorothy McGuire and husband John Swope, who introduced him to Hollywood.
Although he was considered for a contract at Columbia, an early run-in with studio head Harry Cohn scotched that. Instead, he was signed by Warner Bros. and made his official film debut in “I Died a Thousand Times” in 1955 with Shelley Winters and Jack Palance. His first significant role was in “Rebel,” as a member of the gang that antagonized James Dean. He starred in Dean’s last film, “Giant,” as the son of Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor. Other early roles included “The Steel Jungle” and the “Story of Mankind.”
By the time he starred in “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral” in 1957, his reputation as a hothead and all-around rebel was well established, and he feuded bitterly with director Henry Hathaway on “From Hell to Texas.” He was relieved of his WB contract for refusing to play Billy the Kid in a television series.
Hopper moved to New York where he studied with Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio and worked intermittently in such low-grade feature productions as “Night Tide” and “Key Witness.” He also appeared in a slew of TV shows ranging from “The Rifleman” (in the pilot penned by Sam Peckinpah) to “The Twilight Zone” to “Petticoat Junction.”
Ironically, the movie that brought him back into the Hollywood fold was “The Sons of Katie Elder” in 1965, directed by Hathaway. Other A-list credits at the time included “Hang ’em High,” “True Grit” and “Cool Hand Luke.” But the B work continued in “Planet of Blood,” “Glory Stompers” and “The Trip,” where he met Peter Fonda and helped film acid trip sequences.
With Fonda, he raised $400,000 to make the low-budget biker movie “Easy Rider” in which both starred. And when Rip Torn dropped out of the film, they hired Jack Nicholson in a supporting role. The movie wound up grossing $40 million worldwide (half of that in the U.S.). in which they took the American Intl. genre of biker movies and added a layer of allegory about the loss of the American Dream. The low-budget film dealt with drugs, sex and rock ‘n’ roll in a way that Hollywood hadn’t experienced, and the ripple effects on the motion picture industry were enormous.
“Easy Rider,” which was a major hit and earned Hopper, Fonda and Terry Southern an Oscar nom for original screenplay, spawned an endless series of imitators, transforming Hollywood into a youth-obsessed industry.
Flummoxed studio execs immediately greenlit movies they thought would attract the young audiences they found elusive. The flurry of films about disenfranchised youth, pot-smoking and student protests cost the studios a fortune, and generally just proved a reminder of how out of touch these execs were; young auds avoided the films with a vengeance.
If Hollywood had trouble figuring out a followup to “Easy Rider,” so did Hopper. After making an autobiographical doc, “American Dreamer,” in 1971, he persuaded U to give him $850,000 for “The Last Movie” (shot in Peru), a kind of drug-induced egomaniacal auteurist piece that won him praise in Venice (where “Easy Rider” had won best pic a few years earlier), but did little to endear him in the U.S.
By the early 1970s, he was living in Taos, N.M., and addicted to alcohol and drugs. He made movies working with directors like Wim Wenders (“The American Friend”) and, at the end of the ’70s, Francis Ford Coppola (“Apocalypse Now”).
He took over the director’s reins on 1980’s “Out of the Blue,” which was nicely received, and worked more regularly in films like “Osterman Weekend,” “Rumble Fish,” and “Riders of the Storm.”
In 1986, he hit his stride with strong perfs in “River’s Edge,” the basketball drama “Hoosiers” in a sympathetic role and David Lynch’s nightmarish “Blue Velvet” as a villain. He was Oscar-nommed as supporting actor for “Hoosiers.”
Having cleaned up his act in his personal life, Hopper continued to be wacked-out and demonic in films such as “Red Rock West,” “True Romance” and especially “Speed” (1994) and “Waterworld” (1995) throughout the ’90s.
In the meantime, he had returned to directing, delivering a powerful and professional “Colors” (1988) in which he co-starred with Sean Penn. But his next film, “Backtrack,” was taken away from him, and the directing credit went to the infamous Alan Smithee. His last feature directorial efforts were little-noticed: crime thriller “The Hot Spot” and road picture “Chasers.” More recently, he starred as a meglomanic music mogul in the Starz drama series “Crash,” an adaptation of the 2005 feature film.
“He was one of a kind — a true original and the last of the Hollywood rebels,” said Starz entertainment prexy and COO Bill Myers.
A major figure on the L.A. art scene, he had an important collection of California artists, though he lost many of his pop art works in a 1961 Bel-Air fire. He started rebuilding his collection and his Venice home became a veritable fortress of contempo art. A retrospective of his work, organized by Julian Schnabel, will open at L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art on July 11.
Hopper was married several times, first to Brooke Hayward, the daughter of Margaret Sullavan and Leland Hayward, by whom he had a daughter, Marin. He was briefly married to singer-actress Michelle Phillips; then to actress Daria Halprin, with whom he had a daughter, Ruthana; Katherine LaNasa, with whom he had a son, Henry; and, finally, to model Victoria Duffy, by whom he had a daughter, Galen. Hopper filed for divorce from Duffy in January.
Survivors include Duffy; a son, three daughters; one grandchild and a brother.
(Timothy M. Gray contributed to this report.)