Dennis Hopper, Creator of Hit 'Easy Rider,' Dies

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Dennis Hopper, the high-flying Hollywood wildman whose memorable and erratic career included an early turn in"Rebel Without a Cause," an improbable smash with "Easy Rider"and a classic character role in "Blue Velvet," has died. He was74.

Hopper died Saturday at his home in the Los Angeles beachcommunity of Venice, surrounded by family and friends, familyfriend Alex Hitz said. Hopper's manager announced in October 2009that he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer.

The success of "Easy Rider," and the spectacular failure ofhis next film, "The Last Movie," fit the pattern for the talentedbut sometimes uncontrollable actor-director, who also had parts insuch favorites as "Apocalypse Now" and " Hoosiers." He was atwo-time Academy Award nominee, and in March 2010, was honored witha star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame.

After a promising start that included roles in two James Deanfilms, Hopper's acting career had languished as he developed areputation for throwing tantrums and abusing alcohol and drugs. Onthe set of "True Grit," Hopper so angered John Wayne that thestar reportedly chased Hopper with a loaded gun.

He married five times and led a dramatic life right to the end.In January 2010, Hopper filed to end his 14-year marriage toVictoria Hopper, who stated in court filings that the actor wasseeking to cut her out of her inheritance, a claim Hopper denied.

"Much of Hollywood," wrote critic-historian David Thomson,"found Hopper a pain in the neck."

All was forgiven, at least for a moment, when he collaboratedwith another struggling actor, Peter Fonda, on a script about twopot-smoking, drug-dealing hippies on a motorcycle trip through theSouthwest and South to take in the New Orleans Mardi Gras.

On the way, Hopper and Fonda befriend a drunken young lawyer( Jack Nicholson, whom Hopper had resisted casting, in a breakoutrole), but arouse the enmity of Southern rednecks and are murderedbefore they can return home.

"'Easy Rider' was never a motorcycle movie to me," Hopper saidin 2009. "A lot of it was about politically what was going on inthe country."

Fonda produced "Easy Rider" and Hopper directed it for ameager $380,000. It went on to gross $40 million worldwide, asubstantial sum for its time. The film caught on despite tensionbetween Hopper and Fonda and between Hopper and the original choicefor Nicholson's part, Rip Torn, who quit after a bitter argumentwith the director.

The film was a hit at Cannes, netted a best-screenplay Oscarnomination for Hopper, Fonda and Terry Southern, and has since beenlisted on the American Film Institute's ranking of the top 100American films. The establishment gave official blessing in 1998when "Easy Rider" was included in the United States National FilmRegistry for being "culturally, historically, or aestheticallysignificant."

Its success prompted studio heads to schedule a new kind ofmovie: low cost, with inventive photography and themes about ayoung, restive baby boom generation. With Hopper hailed as abrilliant filmmaker, Universal Pictures lavished $850,000 on hisnext project, "The Last Movie."

The title was prescient. Hopper took a large cast and crew to avillage in Peru to film the tale of a Peruvian tribe corrupted by amovie company. Trouble on the set developed almost immediately, asPeruvian authorities pestered the company, drug-induced orgies werereported and Hopper seemed out of control.

When he finally completed filming, he retired to his home inTaos, N.M., to piece together the film, a process that took almosta year, in part because he was using psychedelic drugs for editinginspiration.

When it was released, "The Last Movie" was such a crashingfailure that it made Hopper unwanted in Hollywood for a decade. Atthe same time, his drug and alcohol use was increasing to the pointwhere he was said to be consuming as much as a gallon of rum a day.

Shunned by the Hollywood studios, he found work in Europeanfilms that were rarely seen in the United States. But, again, hemade a remarkable comeback, starting with a memorable performanceas a drugged-out journalist in Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 VietnamWar epic, "Apocalypse Now," a spectacularly long and troubledfilm to shoot. Hopper was drugged-out off camera, too, and hisrambling chatter was worked into the final cut.

He went on to appear in several films in the early 1980s,including the well regarded "Rumblefish" and "The OstermanWeekend," as well as the campy "My Science Project" and "TheTexas Chainsaw Massacre 2."

But alcohol and drugs continued to interfere with his work.Treatment at a detox clinic helped him stop drinking but he stillused cocaine, and at one point he became so hallucinatory that hewas committed to the psychiatric ward of a Los Angeles hospital.

Upon his release, Hopper joined Alcoholics Anonymous, quit drugsand launched yet another comeback. It began in 1986 when he playedan alcoholic ex-basketball star in "Hoosiers," which brought him

an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor.

His role as a wild druggie in "Blue Velvet," also in 1986, wonhim more acclaim, and years later the character wound up No. 36 onthe AFI's list of top 50 movie villains.

He returned to directing, with "Colors," "The Hot Spot" and"Chasers."

From that point on, Hopper maintained a frantic work pace,appearing in many forgettable movies and a few memorable ones,including the 1994 hit "Speed," in which he played the maniacalplotter of a freeway disaster. In the 2000s, he was featured in thetelevision series "Crash" and such films as "Elegy" and " HellRide."

"Work is fun to me," he told a reporter in 1991. "All thoseyears of being an actor and a director and not being able to get ajob - two weeks is too long to not know what my next job will be."

For years he lived in Los Angeles' bohemian beach community ofVenice, in a house designed by acclaimed architect Frank Gehry.

In later years he picked up some income by becoming a pitchmanfor Ameriprise Financial, aiming ads at baby boomers looking aheadto retirement. His politics, like much of his life, wereunpredictable. The old rebel contributed money to the RepublicanParty in recent years, but also voted for Democrat Barack Obama in2008.

Dennis Lee Hopper was born in 1936, in Dodge City, Kan., andspent much of his youth on the nearby farm of his grandparents. Hesaw his first movie at 5 and became enthralled.

After moving to San Diego with his family, he played Shakespeareat the Old Globe Theater.

Scouted by the studios, Hopper was under contract to Columbiauntil he insulted the boss, Harry Cohn. From there he went toWarner Bros., where he made "Rebel Without a Cause" and "Giant"while in his late teens.

Later, he moved to New York to study at the Actors Studio, whereDean had learned his craft.

Hopper's first wife was Brooke Hayward, the daughter of actressMargaret Sullavan and agent Leland Hayward, and author of thebest-selling memoir "Haywire." They had a daughter, Marin, beforeHopper's drug-induced violence led to divorce after eight years.

His second marriage, to singer-actress Michelle Phillips of the

Mamas and the Papas, lasted only eight days.

A union with actress Daria Halprin also ended in divorce afterthey had a daughter, Ruthana. Hopper and his fourth wife, dancerKatherine LaNasa, had a son, Henry, before divorcing.

He married his fifth wife, Victoria Duffy, who was 32 years hisjunior, in 1996, and they had a daughter, Galen Grier.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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