Dennis Hopper dies; actor, director's 'Easy Rider' became a generational marker

Actor, director and artist Dennis Hopper died Saturday. Hopper had a long and tumultuous career that included such films as "Easy Rider," "Hoosiers," "Blue Velvet," and "Speed." His cancer was diagnosed last year.
By Adam Bernstein
Sunday, May 30, 2010

Dennis Hopper, 74, an actor and director whose low-budget biker movie "Easy Rider" made an unexpected fortune by exploring the late 1960s counterculture and who changed Hollywood by helping open doors to younger directors including Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, died May 29 at his home in Venice, Calif.

Mr. Hopper, who enjoyed a career resurgence in the 1980s and 1990s playing alcoholics and compelling psychopaths in films including "Hoosiers," "Blue Velvet" and "Speed," learned he had prostate cancer last year.

"Easy Rider," released in 1969, was often called a generational marker, a film set to a pulsating rock soundtrack and filled with hallucinogenic imagery meant to evoke the rebellious youth counterculture.

As its director, co-star and co-screenwriter, Mr. Hopper called the film his "state of the union message" about a country on the brink of self-destruction because of the Vietnam War, political assassination, prejudice, intolerance and greed. He, actor Peter Fonda and writer Terry Southern shared an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay.

Independently financed, "Easy Rider" cost less than $500,000 to make and grossed tens of millions of dollars. This success astonished executives at many Hollywood studios, which were losing lots of money after years of making flops like the musical "Dr. Dolittle."

The economic success of the film "signaled a sea change in Hollywood, causing studio chiefs to embrace the new 'youth audience' and offer employment to other young, even untried, filmmakers," said film critic and historian Leonard Maltin.

"Easy Rider" was credited with helping usher in the "New Hollywood" of the 1970s with the rise of younger directors including Spielberg, Lucas, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Peter Bogdanovich.

Novice director

Mr. Hopper was a first-time director when he made "Easy Rider." He had started his movie career with promise, opposite James Dean in "Rebel Without a Cause" (1955) and "Giant" (1956). But his reputation for substance-abuse problems and angering veteran directors had caused acting offers from major studios to dry up.

By the mid-1960s, Mr. Hopper was knocking around American International Pictures, a studio specializing in cheaply made films about bikers, drugs and beach parties. He was awakened by a late-night phone call from Fonda, a fellow AIP actor, with the idea for "Easy Rider." It was not easy to persuade movie executives, even at AIP, to finance a movie that showed drug-dealing bikers as heroes.

"I figure you direct it, I produce it, we'll both write it and both star in it, save some money," Fonda told Mr. Hopper, according to Peter Biskind's book "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock 'n' Roll Generation Saved Hollywood."

Fonda brought in his friend Southern, a novelist and experienced screenwriter, to shape the script. Fonda and Mr. Hopper found independent investors to bankroll the project, and a major studio, Columbia, then distributed the film.

The story was about two small-time drug dealers (played by Mr. Hopper and Fonda) who make a cocaine sale in Mexico and then set off across the country by motorcycle to Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Along the way, they meet hippies, dropouts and bigots.

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