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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.

Fonda played Wyatt, nicknamed Captain America, and Mr. Hopper was his sidekick Billy; the names were meant to evoke Western icons Wyatt Earp and Billy the Kid. "Easy Rider" made a star of Jack Nicholson, who played a supporting role as an alcoholic lawyer who joins the bikers.

The movie catapulted Mr. Hopper to the center of the glamorous intersection of art, entertainment and politics that included his friends Bob Dylan, music producer Phil Spector, and pop artists Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. But Mr. Hopper's drug habit and other personal problems made it nearly impossible for him to duplicate the success of "Easy Rider."

His next film, "The Last Movie" (1971), was a $1 million box-office fiasco. The plot concerned a Hollywood film crew trying to shoot a Western in Peru. Mr. Hopper played a stunt man who is crucified by the villagers.

Mr. Hopper returned to Los Angeles with an unwieldy amount of footage that took more than a year to edit. Studio heads were appalled by the result and ordered Mr. Hopper to rework the film. "The Last Movie" won a top award at the 1971 Venice Film Festival in Italy, but Mr. Hopper found the experience of losing control of his film anguishing.

Committed to psych ward

He retreated to a commune in New Mexico, where he binged on rum, tequila and cocaine, and fell into a fit of paranoia that led him to shoot off rounds from a machine gun he kept in his house. He took a handful of acting jobs, the best remembered of which was as the drug-addled Vietnam War photographer in Coppola's "Apocalypse Now" (1979), but his career was otherwise stalled. In 1984, he was committed to the psychiatric ward of a Los Angeles hospital after experiencing a violent hallucination.

Mr. Hopper described this as the lowest point in his life. He said he stopped hard drugs and drinking and decided to channel his "compulsive" personality in other directions, namely work. He earned an Academy Award nomination for his supporting role as an alcoholic coach in the basketball drama "Hoosiers" (1986) opposite Gene Hackman and directed the police drama "Colors" (1988), starring Sean Penn and Robert Duvall.

Mostly, Mr. Hopper specialized in portraying weirdly intense characters, which prompted film critic Roger Ebert to call him the "most dependable and certainly the creepiest villain in the movies."

The actor played a one-legged hermit in "River's Edge" (1987), a hired killer in the low-budget noir "Red Rock West" (1994) and the mad bomber who threatens Keanu Reeves in the popular action film "Speed" (1994).

Mr. Hopper's eeriest performance was as a gas-sniffing sadist named Frank Booth in David Lynch's "Blue Velvet" (1986). "I didn't have any problem understanding Frank," he told Newsday. "He was just your basic middle-class degenerate. I understood that. I've been a middle-class degenerate most of my life."

'Rebel Without a Cause'

Dennis Lee Hopper was born May 17, 1936, in Dodge City, Kan., where his father was a railroad postal worker. He grew up in San Diego, became an apprentice at the La Jolla Playhouse and left for Hollywood with the encouragement of film actress Dorothy McGuire, whom he met at the theater.

In 1955, he won a pivotal role as a gang member in "Rebel Without a Cause" opposite Dean, whom he idolized.

"I was a very good technician, but Dean was, like, so loose, creating all these wonderful things," Mr. Hopper told the Chicago Tribune in 1990. "So I grabbed him during the 'Chickie-run' scene, and threw him into a car, and I said, 'I thought I was the best, and now I see you, and I know you're better, and I don't even know what you're doing.'


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