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

By Adam Bernstein
Sunday, May 30, 2010; C06

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.

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.'

"He said, 'Well, you have to do things, not show them. You have to take a drink from the glass, not act like you're drinking. Don't have any preconceived ideas. Approach something differently every time.' That was the beginning of a lot of problems for me with directors."

Mr. Hopper played Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor's son in "Giant." Then, while filming a western a few years later, Mr. Hopper got into a verbal battle with veteran director Henry Hathaway over how to play a scene. Mr. Hopper spoiled 87 takes on what should have been a simple line reading.

Hathaway threatened to drive Mr. Hopper out of Hollywood, and he largely succeeded, even if the actor did win small parts in "Cool Hand Luke" (1967) and, much to his surprise, Hathaway's "True Grit" (1969).

Mr. Hopper's marriages to socialite Brooke Hayward, actress Daria Halprin and dancer Katherine LaNasa ended in divorce. He was also married for eight days to Michelle Phillips of the singing group the Mamas and the Papas.

"Seven of those days were pretty good," he said. "The eighth day was the bad one."

In January, while in cancer treatment, he filed for divorce from his wife of 14 years, actress Victoria Duffy.

Survivors include a daughter from his first marriage, a daughter from his third marriage, a son from his fourth marriage and a daughter from his fifth marriage.

Recently, Mr. Hopper was a star on the TV drama "Crash" on the Starz cable network and a commercial pitchman for the investment adviser Ameriprise Financial. He recorded his voice for the company Navtones, which specializes in celebrity voice downloads for GPS navigation systems. The company's Web site said his voice "makes every ride easy."

Critics have debated how well "Easy Rider" has aged. Pauline Kael called the film's dark tone and violent ending one of "sentimental paranoia" in an era when "it was cool to feel that you couldn't win, that everything was rigged and hopeless."

Mr. Hopper once told The Washington Post that Bob Dylan also felt the movie could have been improved. "Dylan didn't want us to die at the end," he said. "He was really upset about Wyatt and Billy being killed and suggested this outrageous ending. He said, 'You know the helicopter at the end? Why don't you have the helicopter swoop back down and shoot those rednecks in the truck?' Dylan wanted the good guys to win."

Special correspondent Alexander F. Remington contributed to this report.

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