Few careers have been as interesting—and influential—as Dennis Hopper's. Hopper died earlier today after a long battle with prostate cancer at the age of 74, and without speaking ill of the dead it is absolutely fucking amazing that Dennis Hopper made it to 74. This is a man who, in the early 80s, after he'd “cut down” on his controlled substance intake, was consuming twenty-four beers, a quart of rum, and two grams of cocaine . . . a day. At that point in his career, Hopper was unemployable as an actor and director, and was planning to fake his own death to escape shady creditors, and so planned an elaborate performance art piece involving dynamite, figuring that if the dynamite killed him he was no longer liable for his debts.
Of course, there was more to him than that. Although no one was as theatrical a disaster as Hopper at his height (low?) he was a very accomplished actor, photographer, and filmmaker. As a teenager, Hopper worked with James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause and Giant, and found himself influenced by Dean in ways both positive and negative (Hopper was more taken with an incident where Dean pulled a knife on one of his directors than his dedication to craft) that would stay with Hopper for life.
In the 60s, with his career as an actor hindered by his tendency to indiscriminately tell people to go fuck themselves, Hopper was given the opportunity, by Roger Corman, to shoot some second unit footage for a picture called The Trip, which inspired both Hopper and old friend Peter Fonda to make their own movie.
That movie was Easy Rider. While to modern eyes Easy Rider is kind of boring, sloppy, and extremely pretentious, it definitely had its moments and no one had ever seen anything like it. Hopper directed and co-starred as Billy the Kid, and claims to have written the whole script by himself (Fonda, who played Captain America, claims to have had the initial idea while staring at a bike movie poster while on drugs and written the script himself, while Terry Southern, the third credited writer and the one who actually was a writer, claims to have written the whole thing himself with occasional notes from Hopper and Fonda). Hopper was already lurching around, dangerously out of his head on four or five different drugs at once at all times, yelling at George Cukor that the establishment was finished and that he—Hopper—was the vanguard of the new cinema, pulling a knife on Rip Torn, who was supposed to be in the movie (Torn took the knife away and put his foot in Hopper's ass; years later when Hopper claimed on the Tonight Show that Torn had pulled a knife on him, Torn sued Hopper for a few hundred thousand dollars and won), beating up his wife when she said the idea for the movie was stupid . . . and this is all before one frame of film was shot.
Eventually, through all the drugs and epic battles between Hopper and Fonda, and despite Hopper's utter lack of any practical knowledge of how to make a movie, Easy Rider not only happened, not only was a massive hit, but was responsible for a cultural paradigm shift. It popularized not only cocaine (something for which Hopper gleefully took credit) but a particular kind of stylized realism, pessimistic in outlook, that would be prevalent in Hollywood pictures for the next half decade. And, lest we forget, Easy Rider made Jack Nicholson a star (he filled in for Torn). The enormous, near unprecedented success of Easy Rider made Hopper a cultural icon.
As an already difficult, belligerent, and unpredictably violent man, Hopper became even more so, combined with and augmented by a messianic ego. (Hilariously, while all this was going on, John Wayne used to chase Hopper around the True Grit set with loaded guns whenever any counterculture-related item would hit the news; not because he was pissed—the Duke got a kick out of Hopper—but just to show the little motherfucker who the alpha dog was).
So it was that even though Easy Rider made such a massive impact and Hopper so venerated in the press, no one in Hollywood wanted to make his next picture. Eventually, Universal, in a desperate and clueless grab at cred with the kids, rolled the dice on Hopper, who promptly fucked them over so badly the studio almost ceased to exist (first he miscast himself in the lead, didn't bother writing a script, and shot in Peru so he could do mountains of cheap coke and smuggle a bunch back, then he informed the studio he was going to need a year to edit and presented them with a four-hour cut when he was done). This effectively ended Hopper's career as a director.
Hopper spent the rest of the 70s incoherently fucked up to the point where, on the rare occasions he did get an acting job, the director would include notations on the call sheet indicating which drug Hopper should do for which shot. This was followed by the low in the early 80s mentioned earlier, when Hopper's death was an acceptable option to him, weighed against the reality of an extinct career, a massive drug problem, and mountains of debt.
Eventually, though, Hopper pulled himself together. He—apparently—got sober and had two terrific comeback performances in 1986: nitrous-huffing gangster Frank “Daddy wants to fuck!” Booth in David Lynch's Blue Velvet, and haunted alcoholic Shooter in the crowd-pleasing basketball drama Hoosiers.
The acting comeback was followed by a directing comeback: Colors, while a borderline piece of shit, has the advantage over The Last Movie of actually being a movie (and the soundtrack, like Easy Rider's, is great), and The Hot Spot, which is about 45 minutes too long but is one of the greatest movies ever made for featuring Jennifer Connelly's bare breasts; in all seriousness, it's a fairly decent noir aside from the overlength.
Hopper had a very good 90s (well, aside from getting his balls sued off by Rip Torn). His performance in True Romance alone would qualify him for icon status, even if he wasn't so beyond iconic that he'd fucking been friends with fucking James Dean. This scene's awesomeness cannot be described in words (featuring bonus Walken!)
Around that time Hopper starred in a number of ads for the NFL, wherein he played a hilariously unhinged fan in a referee outfit ranting worshipfully about several stars of the day (“It's Junior Seau, maaaaaaaan!”) These were what initially inspired me to watch Easy Rider as a young teenager and realize “Holy shit, this man's career was epic!”
And then there was Speed. Wherein Dennis Hopper was outwitted by Keanu. Let's reiterate that for dramatic impact. Dennis Hopper was outwitted by Keanu.
DENNIS HOPPER and KEANU are on the roof of a speeding subway trainThis sort of humiliation would have driven a lesser man back to drugs and drink. Hopper, though, unpredictable sort that he is, decided instead to become right-wing, much like many other 60s-vintage leftists who get off the drugs, realize they're middle-aged with bills and get cranky about how much tax they have to pay.
Dennis Hopper: I'm smarter than you. I'm smarter than you!
Keanu holds Dennis Hopper at arm's length; Dennis Hopper is decapitated by a light
Keanu: Yeah? Well I'm taller.
Hopper's last hurrah as an actor came on the first season of 24, as Final Boss Victor Drazen, complete with one of the most bizarre accents ever committed to tape and a particularly Hopper-esque oozing, delightfully over-the-top villainy.
And today Dennis Hopper shuffled off this mortal coil. It is often said “There will never be another like him,” but Dennis Hopper is perhaps the worthiest subject of that, with a career spanning six decades, in none of which was there ever a dull moment. Dennis the Menace, rest in peace, and thanks for the memories.