Dennis Hopper, who died Saturday at age 74 after a battle with prostate cancer, was always a fighter. Early in his career, the Dodge City, Kan., native fought tooth-and-nail against onscreen phoniness with a Method intensity he learned at the Actors Studio. In his second act, he revolutionized Hollywood with his 1969 directing debut Easy Rider — an existential road movie whose Harleys, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll message struck gold with an underserved counterculture audience. But Hopper, the newly minted hippie icon who was no stranger to career ups and down, burned out and faded away in a swirl of drugs and alcohol. The third act of Hopper’s life was one of repentance, recovery, and career rehabilitation, as the actor got clean and sober in the mid-1980s and spent the next three decades turning in a handful of brilliant performances, including his Oscar-nominated turn as an alcoholic basketball coach in 1986’s Hoosiers. But the fighter ultimately lost his toughest battle when he passed away from cancer.
Whether playing leading men or supporting parts, oddballs or villains, Hopper was always a welcome presence on film. He gave every movie he graced a spark of unpredictability — you never knew what he might do next. Hopper learned his raw, naturalistic technique with the best, sharing the screen with his idol James Dean in both 1955’s Rebel Without a Cause and 1956’s Giant. In the late ’60s, in the wake of the summer of love, Hopper and pals Peter Fonda, author Terry Southern, and an unknown actor named Jack Nicholson teamed up to make Easy Rider. They raised the $400,000 budget independently, shot the movie on the fly, and watched in amazement as the receipts rolled in. Easy Rider grossed $60 million and won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. The film’s success also opened the studio doors to a new generation of long-haired young film brats who would go on to re-energize American cinema in the ’70s. But Hopper will be remembered as much for what he accomplished onscreen as behind the camera. He leaves behind a string of indelible and daring performances in such films as Apocalypse Now, Blue Velvet, True Romance, and Speed.