Hand color tinted photo of Dennis Hopper, from the 2008 movie, Hell Ride
Dennis Lee Hopper (May 17, 1936 – May 29, 2010) was an American actor, filmmaker and artist. As a young man, Hopper became interested in acting and eventually became a student of the Actors Studio. He made his first television appearance in 1955, and appeared in two films featuring James Dean, Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and Giant (1956). Over the next ten years, Hopper appeared frequently on television in guest roles, and by the end of the 1960s had played supporting roles in several films. He directed and starred in Easy Rider (1969), winning an award at the Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay as co-writer. Film critic Matthew Hays notes that “no other persona better signifies the lost idealism of the 1960s than that of Dennis Hopper.”
He was unable to build on his success for several years, until a featured role in Apocalypse Now (1979) brought him attention. He subsequently appeared in Rumble Fish (1983) and The Osterman Weekend (1983), and received critical recognition for his work in Blue Velvet and Hoosiers, with the latter film garnering him an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. He directed Colors (1988). Hopper starred in the 1989 Motion Picture “Flashback” which was inspired by the 1960s Love Movement. He also played the villain in Speed (1994). Hopper’s later work included a leading role in the television series Crash.
Hopper was born in Dodge City, Kansas, the son of Marjorie Mae (née Davis, died 2006) and Jay Millard Hopper (June 1916 – August 1982).
After World War II, the family moved to Kansas City, Missouri, where the young Hopper attended Saturday art classes at the Kansas City Art Institute, taught by Thomas Hart Benton. At the age of 13, Hopper and his family moved to San Diego, where his mother worked as a lifeguard instructor and his father was a post office manager (Hopper has acknowledged, though, that his father was in the OSS, the precursor to the CIA). Hopper was voted most likely to succeed by his high school class (Helix High School, La Mesa, California, a suburb of San Diego). It was there he developed an interest in acting, studying at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego, and the Actors Studio in New York City (he studied with Lee Strasberg for five years). Hopper struck up a friendship with actor Vincent Price, whose passion for art influenced Hopper’s interest in art. He was especially fond of the plays of William Shakespeare.
Hopper was reported to have an uncredited role in Johnny Guitar in 1954 but he has stated that he was not even in Hollywood when this film was made. Hopper made his debut on film in two roles with James Dean (whom he admired immensely) in Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and Giant (1956). Dean’s death in a 1955 car accident affected the young Hopper deeply and it was shortly afterwards that he got into a confrontation with veteran director Henry Hathaway on the film From Hell To Texas. Hopper refused directions for eighty takes over several days.
In his book Last Train to Memphis, American popular music historian Peter Guralnick says that in 1956, when Elvis Presley was making his first film in Hollywood, Hopper was roommates with fellow actor Nick Adams and the three became friends and socialized together. In 1959 Hopper moved to New York to study Method acting under Lee Strasberg at the Actor’s Studio.
In a December 1994 interview on the Charlie Rose Show, Hopper credited John Wayne with saving his career, as Hopper acknowledged that because of his insolent behavior, he could not find work in Hollywood for seven years. Hopper stated that because he was the son-in-law of actress Margaret Sullavan, a friend of John Wayne, Wayne hired Hopper for a role in The Sons of Katie Elder. This role enabled Hopper to begin making movies again.
Hopper had a supporting role as “Babalugats,” the bet-taker in Cool Hand Luke (1967). Hopper acted in mainstream films including The Sons of Katie Elder (1965) and True Grit (1969). Both of these films starred John Wayne, and in both Hopper’s character is killed. During the production of True Grit, he became well acquainted with Wayne.
In 1969, Hopper teamed with Peter Fonda, Terry Southern, and Jack Nicholson to make Easy Rider. Hopper won wide acclaim as the director for his improvisational methods and innovative editing. The production was plagued by creative differences and personal acrimony between Fonda and Hopper, the dissolution of Hopper’s marriage to Hayward, his unwillingness to leave the editor’s desk, and his accelerating abuse of drugs and alcohol.
In 1971, Hopper released The Last Movie. Expecting an accessible follow-up to Easy Rider, audiences were treated to artistic flourishes (the inclusion of “scene missing” cards) and a hazily existentialist plot that dabbled in non-linearity and the absurd. After finishing first at the Venice Film Festival, the film was dismissed by audiences and critics alike during its first domestic engagement in New York City. During the tumultuous editing process, Hopper ensconced himself in Taos, New Mexico for almost an entire year. In between contesting Fonda’s rights to the majority of the residual profits from Easy Rider, he married Michelle Phillips in October 1970.
Hopper was able to sustain his lifestyle and a measure of celebrity by acting in numerous low budget and European films throughout the 1970s as the archetypical “tormented maniac”, including Mad Dog Morgan (1976), Tracks (1976), and The American Friend (1977). With Francis Ford Coppola’s blockbuster Apocalypse Now (1979), Hopper returned to prominence as a hypo-manic Vietnam-era photojournalist. Stepping in for an overwhelmed director, Hopper won praise in 1980 for his directing and acting in Out of the Blue. Immediately thereafter, Hopper starred as an addled short-order cook “Cracker” in the Neil Young/Dean Stockwell low-budget collaboration Human Highway. Production was reportedly often delayed by his unreliable behavior. Peter Biskind states in the New Hollywood history Easy Riders, Raging Bulls that Hopper’s cocaine intake had reached three grams a day by this time period, complemented by an additional thirty beers, marijuana, and Cuba libres.
After staging a “suicide attempt” (really more of a daredevil act) in a coffin using 17 sticks of dynamite during an “art happening” at the Rice University Media Center (reportedly filmed by film professor Brian Huberman) and later disappearing into the Mexican desert during a particularly extravagant bender, Hopper entered a drug rehabilitation program in 1983. During this period, he gave critically acclaimed performances in Rumble Fish (1983) and The Osterman Weekend (1983).
It was not until he portrayed the gas-huffing, obscenity-screaming iconic villain Frank Booth in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986) that his career revived. After reading the script, Hopper called Lynch and told him “You have to let me play Frank Booth. Because I am Frank Booth!” Hopper won critical acclaim and several awards for this role and the same year received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor for Hoosiers.
In 1988, Hopper directed the critically acclaimed Colors. He was nominated for an Emmy Award for the 1991 HBO films Paris Trout and Doublecrossed (in which he played real life drug smuggler and DEA informant Barry Seal). He starred as King Koopa in Super Mario Bros., a 1993 critical and commercial failure loosely based on the video game of the same name. Despite the failure of the film, it led to several villainous roles in the following years. He co-starred in the 1994 blockbuster Speed with Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock.
In 1995, Hopper played a greedy TV self help guru, Dr. Luther Waxling in Search and Destroy. The same year, he starred as Deacon, the one-eyed nemesis of Kevin Costner in Waterworld. In 2003, Hopper was in the running for the dual lead in the indie horror drama Firecracker, but was ousted at the last minute in favor of Mike Patton. His last major feature film appearance was in the 2008 film Elegy with Sir Ben Kingsley, Penélope Cruz and Debbie Harry.
Hopper debuted in an episode of the Richard Boone television series Medic in 1955, portraying a young epileptic.
He appeared as an arrogant young gunfighter, the Utah Kid, in the 1956 episode “Quicksand” of the first hour-long television western television series, ABC’s Cheyenne, starring Clint Walker. In the story line, the Kid gave Cheyenne Bodie no choice but to kill him in a gunfight.
He subsequently appeared in over 140 episodes of television shows such as Gunsmoke, Bonanza, Petticoat Junction, The Twilight Zone, The Barbara Stanwyck Show, The Defenders, The Investigators, The Legend of Jesse James, The Big Valley, The Time Tunnel, The Rifleman and Combat!.
Hopper teamed with Nike in the early 1990s to make a series of television commercials. He appeared as a “crazed referee” in those ads. He portrayed villain Victor Drazen in the first season of the popular drama 24 on the Fox television network. Hopper starred in the NBC 2005 television series E-Ring, a drama set at The Pentagon, but the series was cancelled after fourteen episodes aired in the USA. Hopper appeared in all 22 episodes that were filmed. He also played the part of record producer Ben Cendars in the Starz television series Crash.
Photography and art
Hopper was a prolific photographer, painter, and sculptor. His photography is known for portraits from the 1960s. His painting style ranges from abstract impressionism to photorealism and often includes references to his cinematic work and to other artists.
Ostracized by the Hollywood film studios due to his reputation for being a “difficult” actor, Hopper eventually turned to photography in the 1960s with a camera bought for him by his first wife, Brooke Hayward. During this period he created the cover art for the Ike & Tina Turner single River Deep – Mountain High (released in 1966).
Hopper became a prolific photographer, and noted writer Terry Southern profiled Hopper in Better Homes and Gardens magazine as an up and coming photographer “to watch” in the mid 1960s.
He began working as a painter and a poet as well as a collector of art in the 1960s as well, particularly Pop Art. One of the first art works Hopper owned was an early print of Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans bought for $75.
In March, 2010, it was announced that Hopper was on the “short list” for Jeffrey Deitch’s inaugural show at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA).
In April, Deitch confirmed that Hopper’s work, curated by Julian Schnabel, will indeed be the focus of his debut at MOCA.
In May it was announced that Hopper will be the subject of an upcoming biography by American writer Tom Folsom, Hopper: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream. The subtitle is a direct reference to the Hunter S. Thompson book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
According to Rolling Stone magazine, he was “one of Hollywood’s most notorious drug addicts,” for 20 years. He spent much of the 1970s and early 1980s living as “an outcast” in a small town he purchased after the success of Easy Rider. Hopper was also “notorious for his troubled relationships with women,” including Michelle Phillips, who divorced him after less than two weeks of marriage. Hopper was married five times in total — he was in the process of divorcing Victoria Duffy, his wife of 14 years, at the time of his death — and is survived by four children:
Brooke Hayward (born 1937), daughter of Leland Hayward and Margaret Sullavan; married 1961 – divorced 1969, 1 child, daughter Marin Hopper (born on June 26, 1962)
Michelle Phillips (born 1944); married 31 October 1970 – divorced 8 November 1970
Daria Halprin (born 1948); married 1972 – divorced 1976, 1 child, daughter Ruthanna Hopper (born circa 1974)
Katherine LaNasa (born 1966); married June 17, 1989 – divorced April 1992, 1 child, son Henry Lee Hopper (born on September 11, 1990)
Victoria Duffy (born 1968); married April 13, 1996 – separated January 12, 2010, 1 child, daughter Galen Grier Hopper (born on March 26, 2003)
Hopper had two granddaughters, Violet Goldstone and Ella Brill.
In 1999, actor Rip Torn filed a defamation lawsuit against Hopper over a story Hopper told on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Hopper claimed that Torn pulled a knife on him during pre-production of the film Easy Rider. According to Hopper, Torn was originally cast in the film but was replaced with Jack Nicholson after the incident. According to Torn’s suit, it was actually Hopper who pulled the knife on him. A judge ruled in Torn’s favor and Hopper was ordered to pay US$475,000 in damages. Hopper then appealed but the judge again ruled in Torn’s favor and Hopper was required to pay another US$475,000 in punitive damages.
According to Newsmeat, Hopper donated US$2,000 to the Republican National Committee in 2004 and an equal amount in 2005.
In 2008, Hopper starred in An American Carol, a right-leaning comedy, with Jon Voight, Kelsey Grammer and James Woods.
At the time of his death, Hopper was living in Venice, California, and owned property in Wilmington, North Carolina.
Hopper has been honored with the rank of commander of France’s National Order of Arts and Letters, at a ceremony in Paris.
Hopper supported Barack Obama in the 2008 US Presidential election. Hopper confirmed this in an election day appearance on the ABC daytime show The View. He said his reason for not voting Republican was the selection of Sarah Palin as the Republican vice presidential candidate.
Divorce from Victoria Duffy
On January 14, 2010, he filed for divorce from his fifth wife, Victoria Duffy. After citing her “outrageous conduct” and stating Duffy was “insane”, “inhuman” and “volatile”, Hopper was granted a restraining order against her on February 11, 2010, and as a result, she has been forbidden to come within 10 feet of him or contact him. On March 9, 2010, Duffy refused to move out of the Hopper home, despite the court’s order that she do so by March 15.
On March 23, 2010, Hopper filed papers in court alleging Duffy had absconded with $1.5 million of his art, refused his requests to return it, and then had “left town”. In March 2010, a judge ruled that Duffy must stay at least 10 feet away from Hopper.
On April 5, 2010, a court ruled that Duffy can continue living on Hopper’s property, and that he must pay $12,000 per month spousal and child support for their daughter Galen. Hopper did not attend the hearing. On May 12, 2010, a hearing was held before Judge Amy Pellman in downtown Los Angeles Superior Court to decide who to designate on Hopper’s life insurance policy; it currently lists his wife as beneficiary. A very ill Hopper did not appear in court though his estranged wife did – case BD518046. The judge ruled that the policy should not be changed at present.
Illness and death
On September 30, 2009, news media reported that Hopper had been rushed to a New York hospital for an unspecified condition. Hopper, 73, was reportedly brought into an unidentified Manhattan hospital by an ambulance on Monday wearing an oxygen mask and “with numerous tubes visible.” On October 2, he was discharged, after receiving treatment for dehydration.
On October 29, Hopper’s manager reported that Hopper has been diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer. In January 2010, it was reported that Hopper’s cancer had metastasized to his bones.
As of March 23, 2010, Hopper reportedly weighed only 100 pounds (45 kg) and was unable to carry on long conversations. According to papers filed in his divorce court case, Hopper was terminally ill and was unable to undergo chemotherapy to treat his prostate cancer. His lawyer reported on March 25 that he was dying from cancer.
Hopper died at his home in the coastal Los Angeles suburb of Venice on the morning of May 29, 2010, due to complications from prostate cancer.
Hollywood Walk of Fame
On March 18, 2010, it was announced that Hopper would be honored with the 2,403rd star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, in front of the iconic Grauman’s Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard. Surrounded by friends including Jack Nicholson, Viggo Mortensen, David Lynch, Michael Madsen, family, and fans, he attended its addition to the sidewalk on March 26, 2010.