You turn off the computer in the hopes of getting something else accomplished today, and WHAM! another show business celebrity goes on to their rich reward. This time it’s actor-director Dennis Hopper, who died today after a long fight with prostate cancer at the age of 74. The director and co-star of the landmark counterculture classic Easy Rider (1969) had only recently been awarded with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in March of this year.
Hopper’s show business career took off in 1955 when he was featured as one of several “juvenile delinquents” in Rebel Without a Cause (1955), which starred James Dean. He also worked alongside Dean in Giant (1956), and from that point on appeared in nearly 115 films, notably Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), The Sons of Katie Elder (1965), Cool Hand Luke (1967), Hang ‘Em High (1968), and True Grit (1969).
It was on the set of From Hell to Texas (1958) where Hopper had his legendary run-in with director Henry Hathaway (Hathaway, annoyed with Hopper’s insistence on improvisation, forced him to do eighty takes of a scene that took fifteen hours…and then he warned the young actor he might never “work in this town again”) that led to his temporary career stall in Hollywood—but as fans of classic television know, this ensured that Hopper would become a presence working in the grist mills of television in order to pay the rent. Among the many TV series he guest-starred on: The Rifleman, The Millionaire, Naked City, Surfside 6, The Twilight Zone, Wagon Train, The Defenders, Bonanza, Gunsmoke, and a now legendary episode of Petticoat Junction in which he played a beatnik (titled, appropriately, “Bobbie Jo and the Beatnik”). Hell to Texas director Hathaway ended up giving Hopper a second chance by agreeing to cast him in Katie Elder and Hopper was well on his way to achieving the fame that would culminate in Easy Rider.
There are already tributes to Hopper popping up on the Internets and I really can’t bring too much to the party—despite the fact that he could at times be annoying in some of his film roles (Rider, Apocalypse Now , Blue Velvet , Speed , and Waterworld  are the ones that immediately come to mind, though admittedly that irritation was often part of the characters he was portraying) he was capable of some breathtakingly sublime performances. The sly, cunning Tom Ripley in Der amerikanische Freund (1977, aka The American Friend). The burned-out dope fiend shocked by the callousness of the school kids in River’s Edge (1986). The alcoholic father who sobers up and becomes an assistant to coach Gene Hackman in the audience-pleasing Hoosiers (1986). The titular unrepentant racist in Paris Trout (1991). The unforgettable hit man known as “Lyle from Dallas” in the neo-noir Red Rock West (1993).
Rider was Hopper’s directorial debut, and its success made him the flavor-of-the-month in the industry for a time until the release of the indescribably awful The Last Movie (1971) two years later. Personally, I never thought Hopper received his proper due for his work behind the camera on Colors (1988), an underrated crime drama starring Robert Duvall and Sean Penn, and a remarkably good movie. His other directorial efforts include Out of the Blue (1980), The Hot Spot (1990), Chasers (1994) and Homeless (2000).
If I learned anything from Dennis Hopper, it’s two things: 1) Fifty is the new forty and 2) A lifetime of excess abusing drugs and alcohol will often have unintended side effects…like turning you into a Republican. (Okay, that might have been a little harsh.) For other tributes to this one-of-a-kind performer, I suggest you turn to The Land of Whatever, Edward Copeland on Film, Comet Over Hollywood, Some Came Running and Self-Styled Siren, who links to a wonderful video appreciation from Matt Zoller Seitz.
R.I.P, Dennis. You’ll never know how much you’ll be missed.