Dennis Hopper

Dennis Hopper died today, aged 74. The grizzled star passed away at his home in Venice, California, reportedly due to complications that arose from prostate cancer.

Hopper led a tumultuous career in Hollywood that spanned more than half a century, beginning alongside James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and culminating in yet to be released features The Last Film Festival and Alpha and Omega. He will be best remembered for his roles in Apocalypse Now (1979), Blue Velvet (1986) and the seminal stoner classic Easy Rider (1969), which he also directed.

More recently Hopper chipped in screen-chewing performances in director Jan de Bont’s 1994 action blockbuster Speed (“pop quiz hot shot!”) and veteran spookster George Romero’s zombie movie Land of the Dead (2005). He also had the starring role in the outback Australian action/drama Mad Dog Morgan (1976).

Hopper was notoriously difficult to work with, his personality often described using words such as “bully,” “paranoid,” “maniacal” and “drug addict.” Many of his (well documented) outbursts on and off set became the stuff of legend. Read just about any analysis of his professional or personal life and you’ll quickly find barely believable anecdotes, such as those in this snippet from Hopper’s Wikipedia page:

After staging a “suicide attempt” (really more of a daredevil act) in a coffin using 17 sticks of dynamite during an “art happening” at the Rice University Media Center (reportedly filmed by film professor Brian Huberman) and later disappearing into the Mexican desert during a particularly extravagant bender, Hopper entered a drug rehabilitation program in 1983. During this period, he gave critically-acclaimed performances in Rumble Fish (1983) and The Osterman Weekend (1983).

Author Peter Biskend’s terrific book Easy Riders Raging Bulls detailed the bad blood spilt during the making of Hopper’s most revered feature, Easy Rider. During this time he and co-star Peter Fonda became mortal enemies. One evening Hopper reportedly interrupted a dinner party and threatened actor Rip Torn with a steak knife, holding it around five inches from his face. During the filming of a hallucinogenic cemetery scene in which Fonda’s character confronts a statue of the Madonna, Hopper insisted that Fonda relive memories of his recently deceased mother, who committed suicide.

Wrote Biskend:

“Here’s what I want you to do, man,” said Hopper, who by that time, late in the day, had had a generous helping of speed, wine and weed. “I want you to get up there, man, I want you to sit on that, that’s the Italian statue of liberty, man, I want you to go up and sit on her lap, man, I want you to ask your mother why she copped out on you.”

During another famous confrontation John Wayne, packing heat, chased Hopper around a film set because he blamed “that pinko Hopper” for exposing his daughter to bad language.

Sadly, Hopper’s personal life was rocky until the very end. On his deathbed he filed for divorce against his fifth wife, Victoria Duffy. They were married for almost 14 years.

However, like every artist Dennis Hopper’s career deserves to be judged not by the content of his character – essentially intangible to general audiences – but by the quality of his work. There’s no denying the level of intensity Hopper brought to his characters, who were frequently gruff, belligerent and wickedly entertaining. Not unlike the man himself.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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