Actor and filmmaker Dennis Hopper, best known for such films as Easy Rider, Apocalypse Now and Blue Velvet, died May 29, seven months after his manager announced that he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. He was 74.
Hopper grew up in Dodge City, Kan. — far away from the Hollywood lights but not far away from the movies. When he was 5, the actor Errol Flynn came to town for the premiere of his epic Western, Dodge City. In a 1996 interview with Terry Gross, Hopper explained that seeing that premiere — and traveling to the matinee each week with his grandmother — started his long fascination with the film industry.
"We'd walk into town, [my grandmother would] sell [her] eggs at the poultry place and get the money, and we'd go and see a matinee. And I'd see the singing cowboys," he said. "Once in awhile, we'd see an Errol Flynn movie or a sword-buckling movie. ... I don't really remember what they were, but I knew I wanted to know where they were making these movies. And Kansas was a very flat place, so I wanted to know where the trains were going and, you know, what a mountain looked like, what a skyscraper looked like, what the ocean looked like."
At 18, Hopper moved to Los Angeles, where he got a contract with Warner Brothers. Within a short period of time, he was acting alongside James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause.
On set, Hopper approached Dean and asked him for help with his own acting work.
"He said, 'Don't worry about emotion. Learn how to do things: Smoke a cigarette, don't act smoking a cigarette. Knock on the door, then you see they have a gun in their hand, then you react.' Basically, don't indicate. Do something, don't show it. Don't anticipate," Hopper recalled. "He told me to get rid of my technique, stop the line readings and just let it come out."
But Hopper wasn't only an actor. In 1969, he made his directorial debut with the indie classic Easy Rider. Hopper starred alongside Peter Fonda in the film, about two motorcycle riders on a drug-fueled cross-country journey.
"I wanted to win the Cannes Film Festival," he said. "I wanted it to be an art film. The counterculture was becoming the culture at that time, so I thought I was making a film for everyone."
The film took in more than $40 million worldwide and started a wave of indie movies made throughout the '70s. But during the filming of Easy Rider, Hopper started drinking heavily. He also started using drugs.
Throughout the '70s, work was often stopped on his film projects because of his erratic behavior. When he played a manic photographer in Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 war epic Apocalypse Now, Coppola said that the character wasn't much different than Hopper in real life.
"At a certain point, it did go to, 'Which emotional roller coaster is he going to take us on?' " Hopper recalled. "And my personal life was in shambles. It didn't hurt what got on the screen, but it's the process of getting there that scared people."
Hopper entered rehab in 1983, where he got clean and went on to enjoy a comeback in the film industry. He played iconic villains in Blue Velvet, Speed and Waterworld and received an Oscar nomination for his role in Hoosiers. He also worked on his photography, exhibiting works at the MAK Center for Art and Architecture in Los Angeles and at galleries in Santa Monica and New York.
He told Terry Gross that he couldn't use his career as an artist to justify his drug use.
"I can't cop to that excuse. I can say, 'Yes, in the beginning, everything works — sex works, drugs work, everything works,'" he said. "If you go too far with it, it becomes less effective, and then you start working for it rather than it working for you. And some of the greatest artists of all time never drank and never took drugs. And that's a reality, as much as it is a reality that a lot of them did, and a lot of them died painfully stupid lives, which could have been avoided if they hadn't drank and taken drugs."
Portions of this interview were originally broadcast on Oct. 10, 1990 and April 1, 1996.