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GUY RAZ, host:

Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

The actor Dennis Hopper died today at his home in Venice, California. He was 74 and had been diagnosed with prostate cancer last fall.

Hopper rose to fame opposite James Dean in the films "Rebel Without a Cause" and "Giant." And in the 1960s, he helped define a generation in "Easy Rider." He also played a series of indelible bad guys in movies ranging from "Blue Velvet" to "Speed." But his life offscreen was at times even more dramatic.

Jesse Baker has this remembrance.

JESSE BAKER: Dennis Hopper started out a long way from Hollywood. He grew up in Dodge City, Kansas in the 1930s.

Mr. DENNIS HOPPER (Actor/Producer): Well, I mean, I was raised at the end of the Dust Bowl, so I used to tell people the first light that I really saw was not from the sun but it was from a movie projector.

BAKER: That was Dennis Hopper on WHYY's FRESH AIR in 1996.

Dennis Hopper had a film career that stretched back to a 1950s Hollywood where studios still bound actors to contracts. And that's exactly the Hollywood scene Dennis Hopper wanted to be free off.

(Soundbite of song, "Born to be Wild")

BAKER: The year was 1969 and Hopper's friend and fellow actor Peter Fonda had an idea. He wanted to make a movie about two freewheelers who ride their motorcycle from Los Angeles to New Orleans. So Fonda called Hopper.

Mr. PETER FONDA (Actor/Director): And he said, well, that's cool. What do want to do? And I said, well, you direct and I'll produce it. We'll both ride and act and then we can save some money. And he said, you want me to direct? I said, absolutely. You've got the passion, you understand framing. You go for it.

BAKER: The film's settings were the wide open spaces of the Southwest. The soundtrack was 100 percent rock 'n' roll. And the script, well, let's just say it was drug-inspired.

(Soundbite of movie, "Easy Rider")

Mr. HOPPER: (As Billy) I don't know, man. Like, hey, man. Wow. I was watching this object, man. Like the satellite that we saw the other night, man? And like, it was just going right across the sky, man. And then, I mean, it just suddenly - it just changed direction and went whizzing right off, man.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BAKER: Hopper and Fonda discovered a newfound freedom in this low budget self-made movie. "Easy Rider" became a trailblazer for independent films in the 1970s, and it was a huge box office hit. Money backing Hopper's next film came rolling in, as Hollywood hoped it had found its new golden boy director.

But Hopper's next production titled "The Last Movie," would prove otherwise.

Professor ROBERT SKLAR (Film Studies, New York University): It's very hard to look at "The Last Movie" now.

BAKER: Robert Sklar is a professor of cinema at New York University, and he says "The Last Movie" was a failure. Hopper lost himself in the editing of the film.

Prof. SKLAR: But it shaped his career, in a way. He went from the top to the bottom in the space of about two years. And then he spent a lot of time trying to come back.

BAKER: Addictions plagued Dennis Hopper on the set of "The Last Movie" and the year he spent trying to edit the film.

Much of Hopper's legend as an actor is one of him trying to clean up, clear up and make a comeback, as he said on FRESH AIR.

Mr. HOPPER: Being an alcoholic and a drug addict, it was so easy for me to point that because I'm an artist after all. It's okay for me to drink and take drugs because I have an excuse and I can cop to that excuse.

BAKER: One of several comeback attempts for Dennis Hopper came in 1979. Francis Ford Coppola offered him some redemption as the photojournalist in "Apocalypse Now." Peter Fonda said Hopper's role in the film and the real life Dennis Hopper had a lot in common.

Mr. FONDA: He's intense. He could be very funny, can be very wild and unpredictable.

BAKER: And he largely played himself in "Apocalypse Now."

(Soundbite of movie, "Apocalypse Now")

Mr. MARTIN SHEEN (Actor): (As Captain Benjamin L. Willard) Who are you?

Mr. HOPPER: (As Photojournalist) Hmm. Who are you?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HOPPER: (As Photojournalist) I'm a photojournalist. I've covered the war since '64. I've been in Laos, Cambodia, 'Nam...

BAKER: As a photographer, Dennis Hopper documented everything from hippie love-ins during the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley to the 1963 March on Washington.

As an actor, Dennis Hopper seemed most at ease as the outsider and at his best when he was playing the villain. His work in films spans a lifetime but was far from an easy ride.

For NPR News, I'm Jesse Baker.

RAZ: And you can see a photo gallery of Dennis Hopper's roles at our Website, npr.org.

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