When Dennis Hopper passed away earlier this past May at the age of 74 due to prostate cancer, he left a remarkably varied body of work as an actor. Over five decades, Hopper appeared in more than two hundred films and television shows, some, maybe most forgettable, but rarely because Hopper chose to appear in them. Beginning in the mid-1950s, Hopper mixed appearances in film and on television, usually in supporting roles. Substance abuse, however, undermined Hopper's career multiple times (he went more than seven years without a film role at one point). Despite those setbacks, he continued to act, on television or in small, supporting roles. He also cultivated a talent for photography and, briefly, directing, most notably 'Easy Rider,' an existential biker flick that far exceeded its modest, low-budget origins as a B-level programmer.
Early in his career as an actor, Hopper crossed paths with James Dean, appearing in supporting roles in 'Rebel Without a Cause' and 'Giant.' The director of 'Rebel Without a Cause,' Nicholas Ray, obviously saw something in Hopper, featuring him prominently in several, non-speaking scenes. Hopper's character, a member of a rival group, says little (if anything), appearing in the foreground, once in a car, oddly rubbing his nose and later, at the Griffith Observatory, again central to a visual composition. Hopper had more to do in Dean's last film, 'Giant,' but it was in a Western, 'Gunfight in the O.K. Corral,' that he gave his first, truly memorable performance as an ill-fated Clanton. Family loyalty trumps his character's survival instinct, leading to a tragic, unnecessary end. A lead role in 'Night Tide,' a woefully underseen, low-key dark fantasy in 1960, did little to spur Hopper's career as a lead actor.
Despite early, sporadic success, Hopper developed a reputation as a "difficult" actor and combined with substance abuse, became unemployable for several years. Rod Serling, the writer-creator-producer of 'The Twilight Zone,' gave Hopper the lead role in a fourth season (1963) episode, "He's Alive," as a disgruntled young man seduced by the false promise of fascism as the answer for his socio-economic status and lack of success. As with every 'Twilight Zone' episode, there's a twist, of course (alas, a cheap one), but minus that ending, it's also one of Serling's best, sharp-edged political commentary. Rarely seen, due to its length ('The Twilight Zone's shortened fourth season was expanded into hour-long episodes and subsequently left out of syndication).
When Hopper returned to film work, it was again in supporting roles, twice in Westerns featuring John Wayne, 'The Sons of Katie Elder' in 1965 and 'True Grit' in 1969 as another character doomed to an early, violent demise. At the suggestion of then friend Peter Fonda, Hopper signed on to direct and co-star in 'Easy Rider,' a low-budget biker flick. Hopper, however, had other ideas in mind for 'Easy Rider.' With the help of writer Terry Southern (who wrote the initial draft of the script), Fonda, and Jack Nicholson (a writer-director in his own right), Hopper channeled the late-sixties counter-culture vibe into a romantic, romanticized ode to freedom and friendship (among other themes).
The surprise box-office success of 'Easy Rider' briefly gave Hopper carte blanche to make his next film, the aptly titled 'The Last Movie,' completely free of studio and producer experience. Hopper's substance abuse problems derailed 'The Last Movie.' An incoherent, muddled misfire, 'The Last Movie' ended Hopper's career as a director for almost a decade, with only 'Colors,' a 1988 cop drama co-starring Robert Duvall and a young Sean Penn, worth seeing or revisiting.
As an actor, Hopper tended to rise to the material (or conversely fall to the level of the material). His performance, if, in fact, it was a performance and not just a drug-fueled rant, in Francis Ford Coppola's hallucinatory Vietnam War drama, 'Apocalypse Now,' was and remains his first or second-most memorable (after his performance as violently sociopathic Frank Booth in David Lynch's 'Blue Velvet' in 1986). Hopper appears three-quarters of the way through 'Apocalypse Now,' a longhaired, bearded, raving photojournalist in awe of Colonel Kurtz's willingness to use genocide to control and build a new, "pure" society.
Hopper saw a mid-career resurgence in the mid-1980s with three, back-to-back performances, first as an emotionally and mentally disturbed, pitiable character, Feck, in 'River's Edge,' as Frank Book in 'Blue Velvet' the same year, and a year later, as an alcoholic assistant coach who stumbles toward hard-fought redemption in 'Hoosiers,' an arc that mirrored, however imperfectly, Hooper's own path, professionally and personally. Hooper received an Academy Award nomination for Supporting Actor, but didn't win (he wouldn't be nominated again).
That resurgence continued with roles in 'Red Rock West,' a 1993 neo-noir directed by John Dahl headlined by Nicholas Cage and, far memorably, thanks to Quentin Tarantino's dialogue and Tony Scott's direction, 'True Romance' in 1994. Hopper turned to high profile, high-paying villain roles in 'Speed,' and 'Waterworld,' released in 1994 and 1995, respectively. The next fifteen years saw Hopper take a series of undemanding paycheck roles, including the lead villain on the 2002 season of '24,' and a stint on the cable series, 'Crash' (based on Paul Haggis' Oscar-winning film).
By any measure, a five-decade career as an actor is an impressive feat. That Dennis Hopper managed to give memorable performances in supporting roles, some smaller than others, many worth revisiting multiple times, says much about his talents as an actor and a singular onscreen presence that barely dimmed over those decades.