Dennis Hopper was always a fighter. During the first half of his long, strange trip of a career, he was an angry young man in the mold of his idol, James Dean, defiantly warring against old-guard studios and onscreen artifice. In the second half, he clawed his way back into Hollywood’s good graces after burning bridges with his substance abuse and mad Method intensity. But neither of those battles compared to the actor’s final, valiant fight against prostate cancer — a fight he lost on May 29 at age 74.
Hopper will be remembered as a wild man and a merry prankster, an intense presence in front of the camera and a revolutionary figure behind it. After all, it was his directorial debut, 1969’s Easy Rider, that single-handedly ushered in a new generation of hip rebel filmmakers. As with all great highs, though, Hopper’s triumph led to a fall. Despite his flashes of brilliance in films like Apocalypse Now, the ’70s were a whirlwind of drugs and alcohol. But in the mid-’80s came recovery, repentance, and ultimately respectability, as the actor discovered sobriety and, with Blue Velvet and Hoosiers, turned in two of the best performances of his — or anyone’s — career.
Back on top, Hopper seemed to enjoy acting in a way that only a man who took it for granted the first time around could. He remained a welcome sight — never boring, always honest. He was a true American original. A fighter until the last flickering frame.
FROM REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE TO CRASH, 10 GREAT PERFORMANCES
Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
Hopper was 19 and fresh out of Dodge City, Kan., when he shared the screen with James Dean. Nicholas Ray’s teen-angst classic about a misunderstood hell-raiser came out a month after Dean’s shocking death in a car accident. Hopper was crushed by the tragedy but determined to carry his smoldering costar’s raw, Method-acting mantle into the next decade.
Easy Rider (1969)
Here is the moment when the counterculture stormed the conservative gates of Old Hollywood. Hopper teamed up with his pal Peter Fonda, author Terry Southern, and a relatively unknown actor named Jack Nicholson to mine the sex, drugs, and rock & roll generation and strap its ethos onto the back of a Harley. Hopper directed the film and gave it a wayfaring existentialism that defined an era. Easy Rider cost $400,000 and grossed $60 million. And just like that, the outsiders were the New Establishment.
The American Friend (1977)
Wim Wenders’ loose adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s noirish novel Ripley’s Game soars thanks to Hopper’s wonderfully strange performance as an art dealer who cons a dying man (Bruno Ganz) into committing murder. An underseen arthouse gem from the ’70s.
Apocalypse Now (1979)
Director Francis Ford Coppola’s baroque journey into the heart of darkness is an epic of gonzo excess. Just take a look at Hopper’s babbling photojournalist in Kurtz’s whacked-out jungle court. Every bit of speed-freak dialogue that ricochets from his addled brain is pure lunatic poetry.
Blue Velvet (1986)
After years of offscreen indulgence, Hopper got clean and sober in the ’80s, kicking off the second act of his career with his terrifying, indelible turn as a gas-huffing, psychosexual monster named Frank Booth.
Mirroring his own struggles with substance abuse (and redemption), Hopper got a Best Supporting Actor nod for playing an alcoholic who overcomes his demons for the good of his son’s basketball team. An absolute tearjerker.
River’s Edge (1987)
Hopper’s résumé had no shortage of hair-trigger weirdos, but his performance as Feck, a small-town drug dealer to a group of burnout teens, is one of his most harrowing. A small film that still packs a huge punch.
True Romance (1993)
Any list of the best movie moments of the ’90s has to include the interrogation scene between Hopper and Christopher Walken. As Hopper is being grilled, knowing full well he’s about to be killed, the look on his face shifts from defiance to regret to, ultimately, resignation. This is what acting is all about.
Pop quiz, hotshot! Who was the most memorable psycho baddie of the ’90s? Hopper’s Howard Payne has to be in the running. The actor takes what could have easily been a two-dimensional villain and fleshes him out with a fiendish wit in one of the smartest blockbusters of the decade.
In this ambitious cable spin-off of Paul Haggis’ Oscar-winning 2005 film, Hopper delivered a winking, self-aware swan song as an L.A. record producer with a debauched past and an arsenal of hip, world-weary one-liners…in other words, a guy not unlike the one who played him.