Dennis Hopper, the hard-living Hollywood star with acclaimed roles in films including Apocalypse Now and Easy Rider, died yesterday of prostate cancer. He passed away at his home in Venice, California, at the age of 74.
He was surrounded by his family and friends and died peacefully at around 9am local time. Hopper had been taken ill last September with serious flu-like symptoms. Doctors quickly discovered he had cancer which then spread to other parts of his body.
Hopper's career was one of the most long-lived in an industry which is notorious for chewing up its stars. It began in the era of the 1950s with a role opposite James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, flowered in art films of the 1960s and 1970s, and then transitioned into the modern era of the blockbuster, as he specialised in psychotic villains. "Great actor. Great director. Great American. Terrible loss. God bless the wild man with the gentle soul. May he rest in peace," wrote John Nolte, editor-in-chief of the Big Hollywood blog. "We all knew this was coming, but that does not lessen the blow."
Certainly not every role Hopper took was a great one. Especially towards the end of his career, he appeared in many movies that did little to impress critics or audiences. In his filmography cinematic duds such as Hell Ride and The Crow: Wicked Prayer sit alongside true classics including Blue Velvet, Giant, and Cool Hand Luke and Speed. But Hopper's wild-eyed, scenery-chewing performances often lifted the quality of any B-movie, reminding viewers that he was one of the most watchable of Hollywood stars. "There are moments that I've had some real brilliance, you know," he reflected recently. "But I think they are moments. And sometimes, in a career, moments are enough."
His private life was as variable as his professional one. He married five times and fathered four children. One of his marriages, to his second wife, Michelle Phillips, a singer in the group The Mamas and the Papas, lasted just eight days in 1970. Of the experience Hopper famously quipped: "Seven of those days were pretty good. The eighth day was the bad one." His final marriage, to actress Victoria Duffy took place in 1996. The pair were undergoing a bitter divorce when he died. So bitter, in fact, that a dreadfully ill Hopper sought a restraining order against his spouse even though he was dying and virtually bedridden.
Hopper's private life was often blighted by tales of hard-drinking and drug-taking. He confessed that he used cocaine in order to sober himself up so he could binge on more alcohol. His problems and lifestyle became the stuff of Hollywood legend – or nightmare. He once spent time on a New Mexico commune drinking spirits, taking drugs and firing machine guns. He was committed to a psychiatric ward in 1984 after experiencing violent hallucinations.
Nothing in Hopper's personal life could overshadow a handful of truly great screen performances. In 1969's Easy Rider, which he directed, co-wrote and co-starred in, Hopper explored the hippy counter-culture and the reaction to the Vietnam war. He dubbed the film his "state of the union" message and it was a roaring critical success, paving the way for the New Hollywood of the 1970s and directors such as Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. Then in Apocalypse Now Hopper seemed to blend reality and fiction with his portrayal of a burned-out and insane war photographer. Finally, Hopper's portrayal of a sadistic brute, Frank Booth, in David Lynch's surreal Blue Velvet introduced the actor to an entirely new generation of fans.
He was born in Dodge City, Kansas, in 1936. After the second world war, the Hoppers moved to the relatively urbane metropolis of Kansas City, Missouri, where Hopper went to Saturday art classes. But after they moved again, to San Diego in California, Hopper was better able to express his interest in the arts.
He hung out with actors and actresses and eventually won a role playing opposite James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause. The young heart-throb, whose life was to be tragically cut short, left a major impression on Hopper. Dean's commitment to the art of acting profoundly influenced Hopper and left him reluctant to bend to the whims of directors – something that often caused friction throughout his career and, more than once, saw him written off as impossible to work with. Aside from the drug problems, he often refused to take a director's advice and instructions and wanted to go his own way. In one film, a western directed by Henry Hathaway, Hopper botched 87 takes of a simple line after disagreeing over how to play a scene. "Much of Hollywood found Hopper a pain in the neck," wrote critic-historian David Thomson.
In the end Hopper's career spanned more than five decades and 100 films – a huge triumph by anyone's standards. Last March Hopper, who received two Oscar nominations, got his own star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame. During the ceremony, a frail-looking Hopper, with a bandage on his forehead, told an audience of fans and Hollywood industry figures: “Everything I learned in my life, I learned from you."