The much-loved American filmmaker and actor Dennis Hopper died Saturday at his home in Venice, Calif., seven months after his manager announced that he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. He was 74.
Early in his career, Hopper shared the screen with the likes of James Dean in 1955's Rebel Without a Cause and Elizabeth Taylor in the 1956 epic Giant; later he worked with Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke and John Wayne in the 1969 Western True Grit. And though he started out a long way from Hollywood — in Dodge City, Kan., where he was born in 1936 — metaphorically the movies were always with him.
'Easy Rider' Is 40; How Dennis Hopper's Celebrating
"I was raised at the end of the Dust Bowl, and I used to tell people the first light I saw was not from the sun but from the light of a movie projector," Hopper told Fresh Air host Terry Gross in a 1996 interview.
Hopper's directorial debut came in 1969, when fellow actor Peter Fonda came to him with an idea for a film.
"You direct, I'll produce, and we'll both ride and act in it," Fonda recalled telling Hopper. "You've got the passion, you understand framing. You go for it!"
Set in the wide-open spaces of the American Southwest, Easy Rider was about two freewheelers who ride their motorcycles from Los Angeles to New Orleans. It was all drugs and rock 'n' roll — and it made for a box-office hit. Hopper was intoxicated by the freedom that came with putting together a low-budget, self-made movie, and his directorial debut became a trailblazer for independent films in the 1970s.
In the wake of Easy Rider, and the best-screenplay Oscar nomination that came with it, Hollywood thought it had found its new golden-boy director. Money for Hopper's next project, The Last Movie, came rolling in — but the project didn't quite live up to expectations. In fact, it was a total failure: Addiction plagued Hopper during filming and post-production, says New York University film-studies professor Robert Sklar, and he soon lost himself in the editing of the picture.
"But it shaped his career, in a way," Sklar says. "He went from the top to the bottom in about the space of two years, and he spent a lot of time trying to come back."
Indeed, much of Hopper's story as an actor involves his trying to clean up, clear up and make a comeback.
"It's too easy to justify using drugs and drinking because you're an artist," he told Fresh Air's Terry Gross, in a conversation about his battles with addiction. "I can't cop to that excuse."
But Hopper did go on to enjoy a number of comebacks, and not just in film. Indeed, throughout his life, Hopper defined himself as more than just an actor. As a child, he took art lessons from the painter Thomas Hart Benton; he went on to make friends with art-world titans like Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol and David Hockney, and to become a serious painter, sculptor and collector himself.
At James Dean's urging, he'd taken up photography in his teens, and with his camera he documented everything from Berkeley hippie love-ins to the 1963 March on Washington. In his later years, he transformed vintage photos of his friends and colleagues — Paul Newman, Bill Cosby, pop artists and politicians — into billboard-size oil-on-vinyl paintings. Making pictures was a real passion for Hopper; when he played a crazed photojournalist in Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now, Peter Fonda noted that the character was remarkably similar to Hopper's real-life persona.
Countless other film projects followed, including The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986), Blue Velvet (1986), the notoriously expensive sci-fi flop Waterworld (1995) and the beloved sports drama Hoosiers (1986) — which won him another Oscar nomination, this time for best supporting actor.
"If we go back and look at his career, there are lots of interesting discoveries to be found," says NYU's Robert Sklar. "He isn't only Easy Rider, he isn't only Apocalypse Now, he isn't only Blue Velvet — there is so much more to think about."