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Dennis Hopper, who personified Hollywood rebellion, both on screen and off, died Saturday at his home in Venice, Ca. after a long battle with prostate cancer. He was 74.
Having made his big screen debut in 1955’s iconic “Rebel Without a Cause,” opposite his friend James Dean, Hopper biked to fame as director/co-writer and finger-flashing cyclist, along with Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson, in 1969’s “Easy Rider.” That movie, which was embraced by the burgeoning youth culture, signaled a generational change in Hollywood and also earned Hopper a best original screenplay Oscar nomination, which he shared with Hopper and Terry Southern.
He was also nominated for an Oscar for his performance as an alcoholic high school basketball coach in 1986’s “Hoosiers.”
Hopper, like many of the characters he played early in his career, was known for his sometimes anarchic off-screen moves and drug use in the first half of his life. It cost him dearly in terms of his career, but later in life he straightened out and worked regularly in supporting roles both on TV and on the big screen.
In his early years, Hopper was most associated with glazed, crazed, and often diabolic characters, which in many ways reflected his bad-boy public persona, fueled by substance abuse and relationship problems. As well known for his private life, his marriage to Michelle Phillips in 1970 lasted only a few days.
He, self-admittedly, spent much of the ’70s cascading around in a drug-and-booze haze, until resurrecting by playing madman Frank Booth in David Lynch’s 1986 film “Blue Velvet.” He gave such a terrifying and mesmerizing performance as the menacing Booth that he soon became typecast in whacko roles, ranging from “Speed” to TV’s “24.” Along the way, he landed some plum parts, including his turn as the coach in “Hoosiers,” who must remain sober for the benefit of the team. “I am often cast as a nut and I do a good job,” he once said.
Since that time of personal revival in the mid 1980s, Hopper managed to reincarnate himself and re-vitalize his career, both as an actor and as a filmmaker. He was also an avid collector of modern art and has had his photography exhibited at museums in the United States, as well as in Japan.
He was born on May 17, 1936 in Dodge City, Kansas. As a child, he was told that his father was killed in a munitions accident. His grandparents helped out with his rearing and introduced him to movies. In addition, Hopper took art lessons from painter Thomas Hart Benton. Later, he was told that his father was really alive, but was an intelligence operative in China.
As he grew, he channeled his artistry into acting. In 1950, the family moved to San Diego and Hopper landed his first stage role, playing an urchin in “A Christmas Carol.” His first professional credit was at age 18 when he landed a guest spot on the TV show, “Medic.”
Fittingly, his first movie appearance was in Nicholas Ray’s “Rebel Without a Cause” (1955). He also appeared in “Giant” (1956), which also starred Dean, whom he regarded as a friend and mentor.
Hopper garnered larger parts working with Roger Corman on low budget movies in the late ’60s, including “The Trip” about LSD use. His method acting, idiosyncrasies and combative style soon branded him “difficult.” He was once forcibly removed from the MGM lot for going off at Louis B. Mayer, ridiculing the mogul’s reaction to Hopper’s suggestion that he should be given Shakespearean roles.
His “Easy Rider” breakthrough made Hopper and Fonda countercultural heroes in the late ’60s and ’70s. A critical and boxoffice phenomenon, the low-budget biker movie was a bellwether for the age of unrest and rebellion, particularly popular on college campuses across the country. A poster of Hopper atop a motorcycle giving the finger to, essentially, America, was a hot seller in campus poster shops. Hopper was an icon for the Vietnam War Protest movement during the era. He also joined in on many of the Civil Rights marches in the South.
With “Easy Rider,” Hopper was granted large creative leeway. Unfortunately, his follow up as a director, “The Last Movie,” was so self-indulgent and went so far over budget that he burned many professional bridges and personal friendships.
Hopper was involved in a number of brushes with the law as well as personal antagonisms, and his bad-boy image disintegrated to troubled, middle-aged egocentric. Nevertheless, he showed bursts of the raw talent, including a solid performance in Wim Wenders’ “The American Friend” (1977). Hopper followed up in 1979 in Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now,” but again he was so out of it due to use of drugs that his performance was considered an embarrassment.
Ostracized and depressed, Hopper went to live in New Mexico, seeking spiritual personal solace in the desert. His first wife, Brooke Hayward, gave him a camera and he became a noted photographer. His separation from Hollywood was mutual – the movie industry was not reaching out with any offers. By the early ’80s, he began to get his health and emotional equilibrium back. He made moves to renew his career, calling Lynch about “Blue Velvet” and telling him, “I am Frank Booth.”
Hopper also delivered eye-catching portrayals in “Hoosiers” and a stark-raving-mad tour de force in “River’s Edge.” All three films were released in 1986, and Hopper was back on Hollywood’s radar.
He went on to direct the L.A. police drama, “Colors” (1988), starring alongside Sean Penn, and directed “The Hot Spot” (1990), conveying a sizzling visual style and erotic mood. He also won acclaim by performing in smaller, independent films, including his Emmy-nominated lead performance in “Paris Trout” (1991) and “True Romance” (1993), where he played Christian Slater’s father. He was back in demand. His villainous image was put to best advantage in “Speed” (1994) where he played the crazed explosives man. Hopper also went on to play the heavy in Kevin Costner’s “Waterworld” (1995).
In his final years, Hopper played parts in the movies “Basquiat” (1996), “Space Truckers” (1996), “The Blackout” (1997) and “Meet the Deedles” (1998).
Hopper also starred in the 2005 TV series “E-Ring,” and played record producer Ben Cendars in the TV series “Crash” on the Starz network.
On March 18, a thin and obviously weak Hopper received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, surrounded by family and friends including Lynch, Nicholson, Viggo Mortensen and Michael Madsen.
Married five times, Hopper’s last wife was Victoria Cane Duffy, whom he wed in 1996, and with whom he had a daughter in 2003. During his fight with cancer, Hopper filed for divorce in January after 14 years of marriage. In early April, a L.A. Superior Court judge ruled that he had to pay $12,000 a month in spousal and child support, and allow his estranged wife and daughter to live on his Venice property while a settlement was worked out. Duffy agreed to remain at least 10 feet away from Hopper in their home. She also got $200,000 for legal fees but lost most of her rights to his estate following his death.
Hopper is survived by three other grown children and two grandchildren.
Alex Ben Block and the Associated Press contributed to this report.
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