Hollywood Iconoclast Dennis Hopper Dies at 74
His screen roles and his real life combined to define the Kansas-born actor-director
Dennis Hopper, whose pot-addled Billy in Easy Rider and psychopathic Frank Booth in Blue Velvet helped put the icon in iconoclastic, has died after a decade-long battle with prostate cancer. He was 74.
The legendary actor died about 9 a.m. Saturday surrounded by family in his Los Angeles home.
Taken ill with flu-like symptoms last September, Hopper later said he was suffering with prostate cancer. Family members told PEOPLE that the disease had spread to other organs in his system.
Early Rebel Role
Born in Dodge City, Kansas – his father, Jay Hopper, reputedly was an intelligence officer in the pre-CIA Office of Strategic Services, which explained his son’s peripatetic American upbringing – Hopper was 19 when he was cast in his very first movie opposite none other than James Dean: 1955’s Rebel Without a Cause. Hopper played a character named “Goon.”
Known off-screen as a rabble-rouser and impossible when it came to taking direction, the young Method actor was soon virtually blacklisted from movies. Resorting to TV dramas and even moonlighting as a Vogue photographer, his turnaround came in 1969 when he joined forces with Peter Fonda, screenwriter Terry Southern and a then unknown B-movie actor named Jack Nicholson to costar in and direct a $400,000 road picture called Easy Rider.
The movie proved a box-office phenomenon, launched the youth movement in Hollywood and turned Hopper into a household name, though not necessary a bankable one. His next directorial effort, 1971’s The Last Movie, literally went up in pot smoke.
At the same time, his first marriage – to Hollywood princess Brooke Hayward (daughter of two legends, actress Margaret Sullavan and producer Leland Hayward) – flamed out, and Hopper would go on to marry (and divorce) four more times – including the singer-actress Michelle Phillips, to whom he was wed for nearly a week.
As far as children were concerned, the 1961-69 marriage to Hayward produced a daughter, Marin, now 47; with wife Daria Halprin (1972-76) he had a daughter Ruthanna, 35; and with Katherine LaNasa (1989-92), a son, Henry, 19.
Fighting convention to the very end, only last January, amid bitter claims about her out-of-control spending, a direly sick Hopper filed for divorce from his fifth wife, Victoria Duffy, whom he wed in 1996. The couple also had a daughter, Galen, born in 2003 and to whom Hopper was said to be devoted.
TV Actor and Elder Statesman
Professionally, Hopper managed to keep working, with his career kick-started again by his tour-de-force role in David Lynch’s surrealistic 1986 Blue Velvet. In the last decade, when he was devoting himself to art photography, Hopper played several roles on TV, such as himself on Entourage and a villain on 24.
At the time of his work on the Fox series, he told Florida’s St. Petersburg Times, “When I was in my 20s, I remember Vincent Price telling me, ‘You should play bad guys. You’re going to make a great bad guy. And I thought, ‘Boy is he crazy. Just because he plays bad guys, he thinks I’m going to be playing bad guys.’ But he was right. I make a pretty good living playing the bad guy.”
And while he fit comfortably into his real-life role as a kind of Hollywood elder statesman – Hopper jolted many of his early fans by becoming an ardent Republican – the old troublemaker could still look back and see there were times when his excesses overwhelmed him. (In 1982, he was committed to a Los Angeles psychiatric ward after suffering psychotic hallucinations from cocaine and alcohol.)
“Instead of directing 20 films in my life. I have done only six,” he told PEOPLE in 1990, expressing regret for the costs of his addictions. “I haven’t left a meaningful body of work.”
Maybe so, but as Viggo Mortensen, who costarred with the lifelong rebel in 1991’s The Indian Runner and 1993’s Boiling Point, told the crowd on March 26, 2010, when a frail-looking Hopper received his star on the Hollywood Blvd. Walk of Fame, what set Dennis Hopper apart was “his ability to instill … fearlessness … as an artist and friend.”