The odyssey of Dennis Hopper was one of Hollywood's longest, strangest trips. A onetime teen performer, he went through a series of career metamorphoses -- studio pariah, rebel filmmaker, drug casualty, and comeback kid -- before finally settling comfortably into the role of character actor par excellence, with a rogues' gallery of killers and freaks unmatched in psychotic intensity and demented glee. Along the way, Hopper defined a generation, documenting the shining hopes and bitter disappointments of the hippie counterculture and bringing their message to movie screens everywhere. By extension, he spearheaded a revolt in the motion picture industry, forcing the studio establishment to acknowledge a youth market they'd long done their best to deny.
Born May 17, 1936 in Dodge City, Kansas, Hopper began acting during his teen years, and made his professional debut on the TV series Medic. In 1955 he made a legendary collaboration with the director Nicholas Ray in the classic Rebel Without a Cause, appearing as a young tough opposite James Dean. Hopper and Dean became close friends during filming, and also worked together on 1956's Giant. After Dean's tragic death, it was often remarked that Hopper attempted to fill his friend's shoes by borrowing much of his persona, absorbing the late icon's famously defiant attitude and becoming so temperamental that his once-bright career quickly began to wane.
Seeking roles far removed from the stereotypical 'troubled teens' which previously dotted his resume, Hopper began training with the Actors Studio. However, on the set of Henry Hathaway's From Hell to Texas he so incensed cast and crew with his insistence upon multiple takes for his improvisational techniques -- the reshoots sometimes numbering upwards of 100 -- that he found himself a Hollywood exile. He spent much of the next decade mired in "B"-movies, if he was lucky enough to work at all. Producers considered him such a risk that upon completing 1960's Key Witness he did not reappear on-screen for another three years. With a noteworthy role in Hathaway's 1965 John Wayne western The Sons of Katie Elder, Hopper made tentative steps towards a comeback. He then appeared in a number of psychedelic films, including 1967's The Trip and the following year's Monkees feature Head, and earned a new audience among anti-establishment viewers.
With friends Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson in front of the camera, Hopper decided to direct his own movie, and secured over $400,000 in financing to begin filming a screenplay written by novelist Terry Southern. The result was 1969's Easy Rider, a sprawling, drug-fueled journey through an America torn apart by the conflict in Vietnam. Initially rejected by producer Roger Corman, the film became a countercultural touchstone, grossing millions at the box office and proving to Hollywood executives that the ever-expanding youth market and their considerable spending capital would indeed react to films targeted to their issues and concerns, spawning a cottage industry of like-minded films. Long a pariah, Hopper was suddenly hailed as a major new filmmaker, and his success became so great that in 1971 he appeared in an autobiographical documentary, American Dreamer, exploring his life and times.
The true follow-up to Easy Rider, however, was 1971's The Last Movie, an excessive, self-indulgent mess that, while acclaimed by jurors at the Venice Film Festival, was otherwise savaged by critics and snubbed by audiences. Once again Hopper was left picking up the pieces of his career; he appeared only sporadically in films throughout the 1970s, most of them made well outside of Hollywood. His personal life a shambles -- his marriage to singer/actress Michelle Phillips lasted just eight days -- Hopper spent much of the decade in a haze, earning a notorious reputation as an unhinged wild man. An appearance as a disturbed photojournalist in Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now did little to repair most perceptions of his sanity.
Then in 1980, Hopper traveled to Canada to appear in a small film titled Out of the Blue. At the outset of the production he was also asked to take over as director, and to the surprise of many, the picture appeared on schedule and to decent reviews. Slowly he began to restake his territory in American films, accepting roles in diverse fare ranging from 1983's teen drama Rumble Fish to the 1985 comedy My Science Project. In 1986 Hopper returned to prominence with a vengeance. His role as the feral, psychopathic Frank Booth in David Lynch's masterpiece Blue Velvet was among the most stunning supporting turns in recent memory, while his touching performance as an alcoholic assistant coach in the basketball drama Hoosiers earned an Academy Award nomination.
While acclaimed turns in subsequent films like 1987's The River's Edge threatened to typecast Hopper, there was no doubting his return to Hollywood's hot list, and in 1988 he directed Colors, a charged police drama starring Sean Penn and Robert Duvall. While subsequent directorial efforts like 1989's Chattahoochee and 1990's film noir The Hot Spot failed to create the same kind of box office returns as Easy Rider over two decades earlier, his improbable comeback continued throughout the 1990s with roles in such acclaimed, quirky films as 1993's True Romance and 1996's Basquiat. Hopper was also the villain-du-jour in a number of Hollywood blockbusters, including 1994's Speed and the following year's Waterworld, and was even a pitchman for Nike athletic wear. He also did a number of largely forgettable films such asRon Howard's EdTV (1999). In addition, he also played writer and Beat extraordinaire William S. Burroughs in a 1999 documentary called The Source with Johnny Depp as Jack Kerouac and John Turturro as Allen Ginsberg. In 1997 Hopper was awarded the distinction of appearing 87th in Empire Magazine's list of "The Top 100 Movie Stars of All Time."
Hopper contracted prostate cancer in the early 2000s, and died of related complications in Venice, CA, in late May 2010. He was 74 years old.