By RICHARD NATALE
Dennis Hopper, a perennial Hollywood bad boy whose groundbreaking 1969 biker pic “Easy Rider” came to define the youth film market, died Saturday.
The actor, who appeared frail and gaunt at the March 2010 unveiling of his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, had been battling prostate cancer.The gruff, plainspoken, often explosive actor began his career in the mid 1950s in major studio films like “Rebel Without a Cause” and “Giant,” but quickly developed a reputation as “difficult,” and was consigned to minor roles until he directed the low-budget drugs, sex and rock ‘n’ roll “Easy Rider,” which was a major hit and spawned an endless series of imitators, transforming Hollywood into a youth- obsessed industry.
Hopper re-emerged in the mid-’80s as a delicious villain in such films as “Blue Velvet,” and later, “Speed.” In between were several more realistic and affecting portrayals in movies such as “Hoosiers,” for which he was Oscar-nommed.
He went back to direct, delivering a powerful and professional “Colors” in which he co-starred with Sean Penn. But his next film, “Backtrack” was taken away from him and the directing credit went to the infamous Alan Smithee. His last feature directorial efforts were little-noticed: the 1990 crime thriller “The Hot Spot” and the 1994 road picture “Chasers.”
More recently, Hopper starred as a meglomanic music mogul in the Starz drama series “Crash,” an adaptation of the 2005 feature film. He also had a regular role in the short-lived NBC Pentagon drama “E-Ring.”
A major figure on the L.A. art scene, he an important collection of California artists and was a photographer in his own right, though he lost many of his pop art works in a Bel-Air fire.
Hopper was born in Dodge City, Kans., later moving to Kansas City and eventually San Diego. An avid debater in high school, he won several contests and appeared on the Art Linkletter show. He began acting in summer stock and after graduating from high school won a scholarship to the Old Globe theater in San Diego. He was championed by La Jolla Playhouse’s Dorothy McGuire and husband John Swope, who introduced him to Hollywood where he quickly achieved his first role in an episode of TV’s “Medic” and later on the series “Cheyenne.” He also later appeared in the pilot of the series “The Rifleman,” written by Sam Peckinpah.
Although he was considered for a contract at Columbia, an early run-in with studio head Harry Cohn scotched that. Instead, he was signed by Warner Bros. and made his official film debut in “I Died a Thousand Times” in 1955 with Shelley Winters and Jack Palance. His first significant role was in “Rebel Without a Cause” as James Dean’s speed racing nemesis. He also starred in Dean’s last film, “Giant,” as the son of Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor. Other early roles included “The Steel Jungle” and the “Story of Mankind.”
By the time he starred in “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral” in 1957, his reputation as a hothead and all-around rebel was well established and he feuded bitterly with director Henry Hathaway on “From Hell to Texas.” He was then relieved of his WB contract for refusing to play Billy the Kid in a television series.
Hopper moved to New York where he studied with Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio and worked intermittently in such low grade productions as “Night Tide” and “Key Witness.”
Ironically, the movie that brought back into the Hollywood fold was “The Sons of Katie Elder” in 1965, directed by Hathaway. But the B work continued in “Planet of Blood,” “Glory Stompers” and “The Trip,” where he met and helped film acid trip sequences with Peter Fonda. Other A list credits at the time included “Hang ’em High,” “True Grit” and “Cool Hand Luke.”
With Fonda, he raised $400,000 to make the low-budget biker movie “Easy Rider” in which both starred. And when Rip Torn dropped out of the film, they hired Jack Nicholson in a supporting role.
The movie wound up grossing $40 million worldwide (half of that in the U.S.). The ripple effects on the motion picture industry were enormous and it won him a best picture award in Venice. After making an autobiographical documentary “American Dreamer” in 1971, he persuaded Universal to give him $850,000 for “The Last Movie” (shot in Peru), a kind of drug induced egomaniacal auteurist piece that won him praise in Venice again, but did little to endear him in the U.S.
By now he was living in Taos and addicted to alcohol and drugs. He made movies in Europe and the U.S., working with directors like Wim Wenders (“The American Friend”) and, at the end of the ’70s, Francis Coppola (“Apocalypse Now”). He took over the director’s reins on 1980’s “Out of the Blue,” which was nicely received and worked more regularly in films like “Osterman Weekend,” “Rumble Fish,” “My Science Project,” “Inside Man” and “Riders of the Storm” until the mid-1980s when he tapped on back to back winners, the basketball drama “Hoosiers” in a smpathetic role and David Lynch’s nightmarish “Blue Velvet” as a scary villain.
The one-two punch re-established him as a character actor/villain and while his supporting actor nomination came for “Hoosiers,” it was the satanic image he depicted in “Blue Velvet” that placed him on the wacko path which he furthered with a similar turn in “River’s Edge.”
Having cleaned up his act in his personal life, Hopper continued to be wacked-out and demoic on screen in films such as “Red Rock West,” “True Romance” and especially “Speed” and “Waterworld,” throughout the ’90s. His knowledge of the art world led to a deft portrayal of an art dealer in the biographical “Basquiat,” directed by Julian Schnabel, one of the painters whose work graced Hopper’s Venice, Calif. home, a veritable fortress of contemporary art, much of it from California painters. His photography work slowly accrued a reputation, resulting in many national and international showings in galleries and museums alike.
When not working in features, Hopper was in TV movies like “Heart of Justice,” “Nails,” “Witch Hunt,” “Samson & Delilah,” “Doublecrossed” and “Paris Trout.”
Hopper was married several times, first to Brooke Hayward, the daughter of Margaret Sullavan and Leland Hayward, by whom he had a daughter, Marin, in 1962. He was briefly married to singer-actress Michelle Phillips, then to actress Daria Halprin, Katherine La Nasa and finally to model Victoria Duffy, by whom he had another daughter, Galen. Hopper filed for divorce from Duffy in January 2010.
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