Hollywood iconoclast Dennis Hopper, known both for his brilliance onscreen and his wild, often irascible behavior on and off the set, passed away this morning at the age of 74 in Los Angeles. The actor, who is best known for his starring roles in Easy Rider and Blue Velvet, had been diagnosed with prostate cancer almost a year ago.
Hopper’s career in Hollywood in many ways paralleled the man himself: the talented but mercurial actor’s massive success as Billy in Easy Rider, which he also directed, was followed by a resounding failure with his next feature film, The Last Movie, whose production was derailed by Hopper’s experimentation with hallucinogens and other drugs.
Hopper got his start in Hollywood at 19 with a role in the 1955 James Dean movie Rebel Without a Cause, but was soon virtually blacklisted by directors for his uncontrollable behavior and refusal to take direction. For the next several years his career languished while he worked bit parts in various television dramas.
After a small role in the classic Paul Newman movie Cool Hand Luke, Hopper teamed up with Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson in 1969 to make Easy Rider, a huge box office and critical success. Hopper won praise for his experimental directorial methods and his creative editing, but the film’s production was marked by Hopper’s increasingly antagonistic relationship with Fonda and his accelerating drug use. It was also at this time that Hopper’s marriage to Brooke Hayward fell apart; he would go on to marry and divorce four more times throughout his life.
After The Last Movie flopped, Hopper made ends meet by leveraging his celebrity in a number of low budget and European films throughout the 1970s. His erratic career would pick up again in fits and starts with classic roles as a drugged-out photojournalist in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 Apocalypse Now, and as the gas-huffing, sadomasochistic villain Frank Booth in David Lynch’s 1986 Blue Velvet.
For Hopper, who was committed to a Los Angeles psychiatric ward in 1982 after experiencing psychotic hallucinations from his cocaine use, success came most readily when art imitated life. The unstable energy and intensity which Hopper brought to each of his most iconic characters – Billy in Easy Rider, the photojournalist in Apocalypse Now, Frank Booth in Blue Velvet – speaks to the realness of the personal demons he struggled with.
Hopper has expressed regret that his addictions and temperament have hurt his legacy. “Instead of directing 20 films in my life. I have done only six,” he told People Magazine in 1990. “I haven’t left a meaningful body of work.”
Dennis Hopper, who was born in Dodge City, Kansas, in 1936, received a star on the Hollywood Boulevard Walk of Fame this past March. The passionate actor-director will be missed by his friends and his many fans throughout the world. He leaves behind four children and two grandchildren.