Once relishing in his image as a drug-addled rebel of the 1960s counterculture, Dennis Hopper overcame years of substance abuse and a string of mediocre films to cement his reputation as one of Hollywood’s most prolific and unpredictable actors. Following his screen debut alongside the original Hollywood bad boy, mentor James Dean, in “Rebel Without a Cause” (1955), Hopper nearly shot his career in the foot because of his penchant for being difficult on set. When he returned to Los Angeles after a stint making television in New York, Hopper scored a critical and commercial success as the director, writer and one of the stars of “Easy Rider” (1969), perhaps one of the most culturally impactful film ever made. But his subsequent descent into self-indulgence, drugs and alcohol derailed his career yet again and served as a lively cautionary tale about the excesses of 1970s Hollywood. Finally reaching sobriety in the early 1980s, Hopper re-emerged as a sober, hard-working, middle-aged character actor who made a stunning comeback with standout performances in “Blue Velvet” (1986), “Rivers Edge” (1987) and “True Romance” (1993), all of which transformed the once-reckless rebel into a well-respected veteran of the silver screen.
Born on May 17, 1936 in Dodge City, KS, Hopper was raised on a farm by his father, Jay Millard, a World War II veteran who moved the family to San Diego, CA in 1950, where he managed a post office, while Hopper’s mother, Marjorie Mae, became a lifeguard instructor. Not an engaged student by any stretch, Hopper did excel in the drama department and debate at Helix High School in La Mesa, where he was dubbed “most likely to succeed,” despite being on the verge of flunking out. Nonetheless, he earned a scholarship to San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre, where he delved into the plays of William Shakespeare, among other works. After graduating high school, Hopper moved to Los Angeles and began performing at the Pasadena Playhouse, while making his television debut as an epileptic on an episode of “Medic” (NBC, 1954-56). Because of his realistic portrayal, Hollywood stood up and took notice of the young actor, leading to auditions all around town. But when Columbia Pictures chieftain Harry Cohn told him to drop his Shakespearean pretensions, Hopper told the feared studio head to “F*ck off.” Cohn responded by throwing him off the lot.
Despite being banned from Columbia, Hopper was picked up by Warner Bros., who gave him his first film break as a stand-in for James Dean and an onscreen role as an anonymous goon in “Rebel Without A Cause” (1955). Dean immediately became a mentor to Hopper, becoming a major influence on the younger player’s acting. Though not necessarily friends away from set, Hopper and Dean developed a strong relationship as student and teacher, respectively. Meanwhile, as “Rebel” became a clarion call for a generation revolting against middle-class American respectability, Dean was suddenly and tragically killed on U.S. Route 466 in Cholame, CA, leaving a nation in mourning and young Hopper devastated for many years. The loss of his mentor meant that Hopper – consciously or not – was to carry on the rebel image as his career progressed. He was seen in “Giant” (1955), Dean’s posthumously-released final feature, then appeared in several Westerns, including “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral” (1957) and “From Hell to Texas” (1958). On the latter, director Henry Hathaway broke Hopper’s spirit for improvising by making him do over 80 takes of a scene in the course of 15 hours, leaving the actor in tears and with a warning he might never work again.
For a spell, it appeared that Hathaway’s prediction would hold true. Hopper was dropped by Warner Bros., which prompted the actor to leave for New York City and study method acting with Lee Strasberg for the next five years. His Manhattan sojourn led to several appearances in television projects, including episodes of “The Rifleman” (ABC, 1958-1963), “The Twilight Zone” (CBS, 1959-1964) and “Bonanza” (NBC, 1959-1973), while he took on a secondary career as a photographer which included doing the cover art for one of Ike and Tina Turner’s albums. Meanwhile, Hopper’s first starring role came in a little-known indie mood piece, “Night Tide” (1963), written and directed by former avant-garde filmmaker, Curtis Harrington. Hopper next turned up in “Tarzan and Jane Regained. . . Sort of” (1964), an experimental 16mm film by famed pop artist Andy Warhol. Eventually, a better-behaved Hopper returned to Hollywood and began landing features again, including a role in the John Wayne-Dean Martin vehicle “The Sons of Katie Elder” (1965). Hopper’s career seemed back on track after he earned several positive notices for playing the weak-willed son of the villain (James Gregory) behind the murder of a local sheriff (Paul Fix).
Hopper joined forces with director Harrington once again, playing a doomed astronaut in an entertaining low-budget sci-fi flick entitled “Queen of Blood” (1966). Hopper enhanced his counter-culture credentials with appearances in Roger Corman’s fondly remembered druggy exploitation movie “The Trip” (1967) and Bob Rafelson’s “Head” (1968), a zany vehicle for The Monkees co-scripted by Jack Nicholson. Additional supporting roles in Westerns followed – “Hang ‘Em High” (1968) and “True Grit” (1969) – before his anti-establishment reputation was written in stone when he directed the iconic “Easy Rider” (1969). A road movie on motorcycles through reactionary America -a trip in more than one sense – the film featured a notorious psychedelic sequence, shot in a cemetery in New Orleans. In shooting the bizarre 16mm sequence, Hopper famously convinced fellow actor Peter Fonda to talk to a statue of the Lady Madonna as if it were his own mother who had committed suicide when Fonda was 10 years old. Upon its debut at the Cannes Film Festival, “Easy Rider” was hailed by critics before becoming a huge box office hit in the United States, where it helped usher in a new generation of filmmakers that overthrew Hollywood’s old guard and created a second golden age.
Thanks to “Easy Rider,” Hopper found himself at the pinnacle of his career – for the time being. Almost as soon as he was hoisted upon the shoulders of the Hippie generation, Hopper was almost buried forever by an avalanche of booze, drugs and his own unyielding hubris. The first signs of disaster came with his eight day marriage to Michele Phillips, one of the members of The Mamas & the Papas, in 1970. Phillips claimed that during their brief time together, Hopper kept her in handcuffs and randomly fired guns throughout the house. Meanwhile, he directed his second film, “The Last Movie” (1971), an experimental film shot in Peru about the travails of a film crew making an American Western in a remote location. Hallucinatory to a fault, the movie’s constant flashbacks, flash-forwards, missing frames and other stylistic tricks convinced many – particularly the studio executives that gave Hopper full artistic control – that “The Last Movie” was nothing more than a drug-addled mess. Still, the film did earn the top prize at the Venice Film Festival, though it subsequently died a fast, ignominious death at the box office. It would be another 16 years before another studio would allow him to step behind the camera again.
To make matters worse, Hopper documented the long, arduous making of “The Last Movie” with the documentary “American Dreamer” (1971), a sordid account that depicted Hopper doing drugs, engaging in group sex and walking the streets of Taos, NM naked while spending the better part of a year editing his movie. Meanwhile, the acting offers became fewer and farther between, while Hopper began to fade into obscurity as the 1970s progressed. He starred as an Australian gold-digger forced into a life of crime in “Mad Dog” (1976), then played a Vietnam veteran traveling the United States in an increasingly rabid state of paranoia in “Tracks” (1976). After “The American Friend” (1977), directed by Wim Wenders, which helped initiate the process of his rehabilitation as a talent, Hopper traveled to West Germany to make “Couleur chair” (1977); then to France for “The Apprentice Sorcerers” (1977) and “L’Ordre et la Securite du Monde” (1978).
By the late 1970s, Hopper’s drug habits – which included massive amounts of cocaine to keep him upright enough to continue drinking – and erratic behavior had virtually sent him into exile, though at the time, he seemed to revel in the role of the ugly American. He did, however, manage to make one of his more memorable appearances in years with “Apocalypse Now” (1979), playing a flipped-out, rhapsodizing photojournalist living in the camp of the infamous Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando), who attaches himself to the military operative (Martin Sheen) sent to kill Kurtz. Despite Hopper’s amusingly manic performance, there was no way to ignore the fact that he was on the verge of an incredible downfall. While acting in “Out of the Blue” (1980), a Canadian film shot in the U.S., Hopper managed to sneak back behind the camera and took over direction of the film in mid-production. After managing to complete roles in “Rumble Fish” (1983) and “The Osterman Weekend” (1983), Hopper finally hit rock bottom. In 1983, a strung out and hallucinating Hopper stumbled naked along a Mexican highway, as weird visions of space ships and World War III consumed his mind. He was eventually picked up by the police, sent back to the United States and institutionalized.
Hopper checked himself into rehab and began to sober up. Though often associated with drugs, Hopper’s main addiction was to alcohol. Meanwhile, he began his second career revival in earnest with a mesmerizing performance as the sociopathic, ether-addicted criminal Frank Booth in David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet” (1986). Next, Hopper was cast as a recovering alcoholic and assistant basketball coach in the bathetic “Hoosiers” (1986). The actor seemed to find a perfect vehicle to proclaim his newfound sobriety, while receiving an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his efforts. He followed up with another strong performance as a depraved ex-biker with a missing leg and a predilection for blow-up dolls in “River’s Edge” (1987). His rehabilitation seemed complete in a triumphant return to the director’s chair with “Colors” (1988), a stark urban drama about two anti-gang cops (Robert Duvall and Sean Penn) dealing with a raging war between The Bloods and The Crips in South Central Los Angeles. Hopper quickly followed with two more directing projects, “The Hot Spot” (1990), an erotic film noir starring Don Johnson and Virginia Madsen, and “Backtrack” (1990), a crime thriller that depicted him as an assassin on the hunt for a witness to a mob killing (Jodie Foster).
By the time the 1990s rolled around, Hopper had replaced his old image as the drug-crazed maniac with the profile of a regularly employed character lead in film and television, effortlessly segueing from drama to comedy; from big-budget spectacular to low-budget indies. In 1991, he appeared in Sean Penn’s directorial debut, “The Indian Runner,” and two made-for-cable movies, “Paris Trout” (Showtime) and “Doublecrossed” (HBO). In “Boiling Point” (1993), a lukewarm attempt to recreate a 1950s-styled crime flick, Hopper played a rather likeable loser whose desire to stay alive causes many deaths. Then in “Super Mario Brothers” (1993), based on the once-popular Nintendo video game, Hopper played a live-action version of reptilian villain King Koopa. Following a turn as a smarmy, psychotic hit man in John Dahl’s “Red Rock West” (1993), Hopper delivered on of his better roles – which included one of his favorite scenes – in Tony Scott’s “True Romance” (1993). As the generally sympathetic former cop father of a comic book store clerk (Christian Slater) on the run from the mob, Hopper gets tortured by the head gangster (Christopher Walken) before launching into an unforgettable Quentin Tarantino-scripted speech about the ancestry of Sicilians. Hopper also made a stir in a series of Nike commercials by playing an obsessive fan posing as an NFL referee who routinely imposes himself on various players like Bruce Smith and Sterling Sharpe. It was projects like these that made Hopper – now in his mid-fifties – an arbiter of cool among even younger audiences who had no memory of his past triumphs and travails.
By the mid-1990s, Hopper had become a reliable villain for such special effects-driven blockbusters as “Speed” (1994) and “Waterworld” (1995), while still appearing in such low-profile efforts as the comedy “Search and Destroy” (1995), playing a late-night cable guru and novelist, and the documentary “Who Is Henry Jaglom?” (1995). The nearly 60-year-old Hopper starred in the romantic melodrama “Carried Away” (1996), convincingly playing a forty-something school teacher who cares for his invalid mother and juggles a long-term, low-intensity relationship with another teacher (Amy Irving) as well as a passionate affair with a 17-year-old student (Amy Locane). It was during this film that the man who had spent a good part of his younger, drugged out days naked in public, suddenly shied away from doing a nude scene. After playing a European art dealer in Julian Schnabel’s biopic “Basquiat” (1996), Hopper had starring roles in lesser features like “Space Trucker” (1997), “Meet the Deedles” (1998) and “Bad City Blues” (1999). Also in 1999, Hopper was cast as Hank, the father of Matthew McConaughey’s character Ed in the comedy feature, “EdTV.” Making the jump back to series television, he made a guest-starring appearance on “24″ (Fox, 2001- ), playing a Balkan mercenary who hatches a personal vendetta against agent Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) and presidential candidate, Senator David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert).
In 2002, he joined Vin Diesel and John Malkovich for the Brian Koppelman and David Levien comedy “Knockaround Guys,” then played a corrupt accountant being protected from a notorious crime lord (Simon Majiba) in “The Target” (2002). Continuing to appear in just about anything that came his way, Hopper had starring roles in the romantic comedy “All the Way” (2003), the crime thriller “Out of Season” (2004), and the coming-of-age drama “Americano” (2005). Hopper landed a rare regular series role on television, playing a colonel in the Joints Chief of Staff at the Pentagon in the short-lived military drama, “E-Ring” (NBC, 2005-06). Back to features, he had supporting roles in “Land of the Dead” (2005) and “The Crow: Wicked Prayer” (2005), then appeared in the little-seen psychological thriller “Memory” (2007). Following a cameo in “Entourage” (HBO, 2004- ), Hopper returned to another regular series role, starring in the small screen adaptation of Paul Haggis’ “Crash” (Starz, 2008- ), which examined how racial and social issues intersected in various power struggles in Los Angeles. Hopper played lewd record producer Ben Cendars, a self-destructive man struggling to get back on top of his game. It was not long after his move to television that Hopper revealed to the public that he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. A brief rush to the hospital from “flu-like symptoms” in late 2009 made headlines, but he appeared to recover quickly before disappearing from the public eye. In January 2010, amidst rumors that his health was declining rapidly, he filed for divorce from his fifth wife, Victoria Duffy, after 18 years of marriage and received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He passed away from prostate cancer on May 29, 2010.
Dennis Hopper movies
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