Actor-Director Dennis Hopper Dies at Age 74

2007/7/11 #975797: Dennis Hopper headshot, actor, photo on black
Last Updated 12:40 a.m. ET

Dennis Hopper, the high-flying Hollywood actor-director whose memorable career included the 1969 smash "Easy Rider," has died. He was 74.

Family friend Alex Hitz said Hopper died Saturday at his Venice home, surrounded by family and friends. The actor had been battling prostate cancer.

Gallery: Dennis Hopper, 1936-2010

A writer, director and painter, Hopper struggled for years with alcohol and drug abuse, which interrupted a memorable movie career marked by wild swings as a director, ranging from "Easy Rider" (that helped redefine Hollywood moviemaking at the end of the 1960s) to the failure "The Last Movie."

Hopper (who directed "Easy Rider," and starred alongside Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson) shared an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay with Fonda and Terry Southern for the film.

Hopper (who was married five times) led a dramatic life right to the end. In January 2010, Hopper filed to end his 14-year marriage to Victoria Hopper, who stated in court filings that the actor was seeking to cut her out of her inheritance, a claim Hopper denied.

But he was best known for his presence on-screen as a rebellious, perhaps dangerous figure, whether as the counterculture motorcycle rider whose very existence seemed to protest the Vietnam War in "Easy Rider," to the photographer caught in a cult-like world in the Southeast Asian jungle in "Apocalypse Now," to the threatening criminal Frank Booth at the center of a kidnapping mystery in David Lynch's "Blue Velvet."

In addition to the 1986 "Hoosiers" (for which he received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor), Hopper's other memorable films as an actor include "The Trip," "Hang 'Em High." "True Grit," "Mad Dog Morgan," "The American Friend," "Out of the Blue," "Tracks," "Rumble Fish," "River's Edge," "Black Widow," "The Pick-Up Artist," "Chattahoochee," "Flashback," "Paris Trout," and - marking one of his biggest popular successes - "Speed."

His last major acting role was in the TV series "Crash," inspired by the Oscar-winning film.

After early roles on TV, Hooper made his film debut in Nicholas Ray's "Rebel Without a Cause" (1955). He appeared again with Dean in "Giant," and also in "Gunfight at O.K. Corral," "The Story of Mankind" (playing Napoleon), and "From Hell to Texas."

He was seemingly blackballed from acting in motion pictures for several years after engaging in on-set battles. On the film "From Hell to Texas," Hopper is reputed to have gone through 87 takes of a scene, refusing to perform it the way director Henry Hathaway wanted. And on the set of "True Grit," Hopper so angered John Wayne that the star reportedly chased Hopper with a loaded gun.

"Much of Hollywood," critic-historian David Thomson wrote, "found Hopper a pain in the neck."

Yet the actor continued to find work in TV westerns, making numerous guest appearances on "Quicksand, "The Iron Trail," "Cheyenne," "Sugarfoot," "Brannigan's Boots," "The Sharpshooter," Zane Grey Theatre," "The Rifleman," "Gunsmoke" and "Bonanza." His non-Western TV roles included "The Millionaire," "The Naked City," "The Twilight Zone" (playing a neo-Nazi), "Combat," "Time Tunnel" and "Petticoat Junction."

Yet Hopper was welcomed back into the Hollywood fold after he and another struggling actor, Peter Fonda collaborated on a script about two pot-smoking, drug-dealing hippies on a motorcycle trip through the Southern United States to visit the New Orleans Mardi Gras.

On the way, Hopper and Fonda befriend a drunken young lawyer (Jack Nicholson, whom Hopper had resisted casting, in a breakout role), but arouse the enmity of Southern rednecks and are murdered before they can return home.

"'Easy Rider' was never a motorcycle movie to me," Hopper said in 2009. "A lot of it was about politically what was going on in the country."

Fonda produced "Easy Rider" and Hopper directed it for a meager $380,000. It went on to gross $40 million worldwide, a substantial sum for its time. The film caught on despite tension between Hopper and Fonda and between Hopper and the original choice for Nicholson's part, Rip Torn, who quit after a bitter argument with the director.

The film was a hit at Cannes, and has since been listed on the American Film Institute's ranking of the top 100 American films. It was also named to the Library of Congress' National Film Registry.

The film's success (and, more important, profitability) prompted studio heads to pursue a new kind of
movie: low-cost, with inventive photography and themes sure to attract a younger, more restive audience. Universal Pictures spent $850,000 on Hopper's next project, which ended up costing him whatever good will he'd won in Hollywood thanks to "Easy Rider."

For 1971's "The Last Movie" (which he directed, co-wrote and co-edited, as well as starred in), Hopper took a large cast and crew to a village in Peru to film the tale of a Peruvian tribe corrupted by a movie company. Trouble on the set developed almost immediately, as Peruvian authorities pestered the company, drug-induced orgies were reported and Hopper seemed out of control.

When he finally completed filming, he retired to his home in Taos, N.M., to piece together the film, a process that took almost a year, in part because he was using psychedelic drugs for editing inspiration.

Although it won a prize at the Venice Film Festival, the film's U.S. backer refused to release it without cuts, which Hopper refused to do. When it finally saw daylight, "The Last Movie" was such a crashing failure that it made Hopper unwanted in Hollywood for a decade. (He didn't find his way back into the director's chair until 1980's "Out of the Blue.")
At the same time, his drug and alcohol use was increasing to the point where he was said to be consuming as much as a gallon of rum a day.

Shunned by the major studios, he found work in European films that were rarely seen in the United States.

But again, he made a remarkable comeback, starting with a memorable performance as a drugged-out journalist in Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 Vietnam War epic, "Apocalypse Now," a spectacularly long and troubled film to shoot. Hopper was drugged-out off-camera, too, and his rambling chatter was worked into the final cut.

He went on to appear in several films in the early 1980s, including the spy thriller "The Osterman Weekend," the comedy "My Science Project," and the gore-fest "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2."

But alcohol and drugs continued to interfere with his work. Treatment at a detox clinic helped him stop drinking but he still used cocaine, and at one point he became so hallucinatory that he was committed to the psychiatric ward of a Los Angeles hospital.

Upon his release, Hopper joined Alcoholics Anonymous, quit drugs and launched yet another comeback, including "Blue Velvet" and "Hoosiers."

From that point on, Hopper maintained a frantic work pace, appearing in many forgettable movies and a few memorable ones, including the 1994 hit "Speed," in which he played the maniacal plotter of a freeway disaster. His directorial efforts included "Colors," "The Hot Spot," "Chasers" and "Homeless."

In the 2000s, he was featured in the television series "Crash" and such films as "Elegy" and "Hell Ride."

"Work is fun to me," he told a reporter in 1991. "All those years of being an actor and a director and not being able to get a job - two weeks is too long to not know what my next job will be."

For years he lived in Los Angeles' bohemian beach community of Venice, in a house designed by acclaimed architect Frank Gehry.

In later years he picked up some income by becoming a pitchman for Ameriprise Financial, aiming ads at baby boomers looking ahead to retirement. His politics, like much of his life, were unpredictable. The old rebel contributed money to the Republican Party in recent years, but also voted for Democrat Barack Obama in 2008.

Hopper also tried his hand at a number of artistic pursuits including photography, sculpting and painting. His art, dating to a 1955 painting, is the subject of a show opening July 11 at the Museum of Contemporary Art's Geffen Contemporary space in downtown Los Angeles. The title of the exhibition, "Double Standard," is taken from a 1961 Hopper photograph of two Standard Oil signs seen through an automobile windshield on historic Route 66 in Los Angeles.

Dennis Lee Hopper was born in 1936, in Dodge City, Kan., and spent much of his youth on the nearby farm of his grandparents. He saw his first movie at 5 and became enthralled.

After moving to San Diego with his family, he played Shakespeare at the Old Globe Theater.

Scouted by the studios, Hopper was under contract to Columbia until he insulted the boss, Harry Cohn. From there he went to Warner Bros., where he made "Rebel Without a Cause" and "Giant" while in his late teens.

Later, he moved to New York to study at the Actors Studio, where Dean had learned his craft.

Hopper was married and divorced several times. His first wife was Brooke Hayward, the daughter of actress Margaret Sullavan and agent Leland Hayward, and author of the best-selling memoir "Haywire." They had a daughter, Marin, before Hopper's drug-induced violence led to divorce after eight years.

His second marriage, to singer-actress Michelle Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas, lasted only eight days.

A union with actress Daria Halprin also ended in divorce after they had a daughter, Ruthana. Hopper and his fourth wife, dancer Katherine LaNasa, had a son, Henry, before divorcing.

He married his fifth wife, Victoria Duffy, who was 32 years his junior, in 1996, and they had a daughter, Galen Grier.

In March 2010 Hopper was honored with a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame.

Celebrities posted tributes to the actor on the Internet Saturday.

Actress Marlee Matlin called Hopper a "maverick, a wonderful actor. You always got something unexpected from him."

"So long Dennis," tweeted actress Virginia Madsen, who starred in "The Hot Spot." "U taught me so much."

Guitarist Slash tweeted, "You take the great ones for granted until they're gone. RIP Dennis Hopper."

  • David Morgan

    David Morgan is a senior editor at and