Page last updated at 17:43 GMT, Saturday, 29 May 2010 18:43 UK

Obituary: Dennis Hopper

Dennis Hopper
His career in TV and films spanned six decades

For many film buffs, Dennis Hopper's career will be defined by Easy Rider, the iconic road movie which he directed and in which he starred.

The film's success ushered in a new style of movie making in Hollywood, as well as launching the career of a young actor named Jack Nicholson.

However, Hopper subsequently struggled to maintain his career, battling against alcohol and drug abuse, before making a comeback in the 1980s.

Dennis Lee Hopper was born on 17 May 1936 in Dodge City, Kansas.

After the war his family moved first to Kansas City, Missouri, and then to San Diego in California where the young Hopper first became interested in acting.

He studied at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego, where he developed an interest in Shakespeare, and then at the Actors Studio in New York.

'Talent to watch'

Hopper made his TV debut in 1954 in Medic, a groundbreaking NBC medical drama which set the pattern for this genre of programmes.

The following year he played the part of Goon in Rebel Without a Cause, alongside James Dean, who Hopper much admired.

"I came out of playing Shakespeare at the old Globe Theatre in San Diego," he later recalled. " I was 18 years old and thought I was the best young actor in the world. Then I saw Dean. I had never seen anybody improvise before. I had never seen anybody do things that weren't on the page. I was amazed."

Hopper Taylor
The clean cut young Hopper with Elizabeth Taylor in Giant

One piece of advice Hopper remembered getting from Dean was "drink the drink, don't act drinking the drink," something that was to prove Hopper's undoing in the future.

In 1956 he was again cast alongside Dean in Giant, which also starred Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson. Dean was killed in a car crash two weeks before filming finished.

Over the next few years Hopper appeared in a number of minor film roles and in a host of TV shows including Bonanza and The Twilight Zone.

Becoming somewhat disillusioned with acting he turned to photography where he achieved some success, once being credited in a US magazine as "a talent to watch".

He had a supporting role alongside Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke and went on to appear with John Wayne in True Grit and The Sons of Katie Elder.

Easy Rider

Hopper's liberal political leanings at that time were in direct contrast to Wayne's right-wing Republican stance, but the two men struck up a rapport on set.

He appeared as a drugs dealer in Roger Corman's low budget film, The Trip, in 1967 where he found himself working with Jack Nicholson, who had written the script, and Peter Fonda who had a starring role.

In 1968 Hopper again teamed up with Nicholson and Fonda to produce the screenplay for Easy Rider, destined to become one of Hollywood's cult movies.

Filming was fraught with difficulties. Hopper's marriage to Brooke Hayward was falling apart and he constantly clashed with his co-star, Peter Fonda, and with his crew.

Easy Rider
He clashed with fellow star Peter Fonda while making Easy Rider

He was also feeling the effects of an increase in his intake of drugs and alcohol, not helped by the fact that the drug taking and drinking scenes in the film featured the real substances.

The scene in which the protagonists smoke dope in a New Orleans cemetery brought fierce criticism from the Catholic Church, which helped to boost the film's notoriety.

But the critics welcomed Easy Rider as a new direction in film making. Hopper received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay while Nicholson was nominated for Best Supporting Actor.

A self indulgent follow-up, The Last Movie, also with Peter Fonda, failed dismally at the box office and Hopper would not direct again for another 10 years.

Throughout the 1970s Hopper appeared in a string of TV shows and low budget films but continued to have problems in his personal life.

Having divorced Brooke Hayward, he married Mamas and Papas singer Michelle Philips in 1970 but she filed for divorce after just one week.

He returned to prominence in 1979, appearing as a crazed photojournalist in Francis Ford Coppola's Vietnam War blockbuster, Apocalypse Now, with many critics noting that Hopper appeared to be playing himself.


He won critical praise for the controversial film, Out of the Blue, which marked his return to directing and in which he also starred.

Dennis Hopper
His role in Apocalypse Now helped re-establish his reputation

But his increasingly erratic behaviour, caused by a massive intake of cocaine and beer, was making it difficult for him to find new acting roles.

After a bizarre attempt to blow himself up with dynamite as part of an "art happening", he went into rehab.

He began to get his career back on track with roles in Rumble Fish and The Osterman Weekend before a critically acclaimed appearance as Frank Booth, in David Lynch's film 1986 Blue Velvet.

"Blue Velvet was wonderful," Hopper later recalled. "I called David and said 'Don't worry about casting me in this because I am Frank Booth.'"

In the same year he received an Oscar nomination for his role in Hoosiers, the saga of a small-town basketball team.

Throughout the 1990s he made a speciality of playing villains with notable appearances in Speed, with Keanu Reeves and Kevin Costner's flawed epic, Waterworld.

He also made a series of TV commercials for the sporting goods manufacturer, Nike, in which he played a crazed referee.

He again played a villain, Victor Drazen, in the first series of the TV show, 24, and was playing Ben Cendars in the TV series, Crash, shortly before his death.

Dennis Hopper
The former hell raiser had become a Hollywood icon

Apart from his interest in photography, Dennis Hopper was also a prolific painter and sculptor who held regular exhibitions of his work.

He described one such exhibition, in Amsterdam in 2001, as the highlight of his life, even topping Easy Rider.

He recalled how acting guru Lee Strasberg taught him to use his senses and how Jackson Pollock's art teacher Thomas Hart Benton urged him as a young man to "get tight and paint loose".

He said: "I think getting in a state where you are free of any pre-conceived ideas and attack a canvas with just source materials is a wonderful freeing experience."

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