Filmmaker, artist, photographer, and actor Dennis Hopper roared into the public zeitgeist with the wide release of the 1969 counterculture classic film, Easy Rider. Produced, written, and directed with Peter Fonda, this film became and American classic. Hopper proved himself a truly great actor, playing a variety of eccentric and genre-defining roles such as the complicated villain Frank Booth in Blue Velvet. This performance earned Hopper an academy award nomination. But his eccentric behavior and his complicated relationship with substance abuse denied him mainstream appreciation until after his death. Looking back, Easy Rider, which grossed over $40 million on a $400,000 budget, was not only a commercial success. It opened viewers to an experience of what it means to be free in America.
Who is Dennis Hopper?
Born in Dodge City, Kansas, Hopper began acting at an early age, earning himself accolades in his high school drama club. Hopper’s first credited film roles were in Rebel Without a Cause and Giant, acting opposite James Dean. Dean had a big impact on the young actor, whom he was friends with until his untimely death.
“Hopper seemed destined to be compared to Dean, as part of a generation of sensitive, emotionally expressive actors, but nearly always to be found wanting.”Ann Hornaday – Washington Post Article “Dennis Hopper’s influential career came full-circle”
Hopper had a string of minor roles in 1950s films such as Giant and From Hell to Texas. In the latter film, Hopper scuffled with Director Henry Hathaway. His refusal to play a scene in the manner that the director requested had negative consequences. He performed more than 80 takes before he finally followed orders. Hathaway told Hopper, “[Y]our career in Hollywood is finished.”
Hathaway couldn’t have been more wrong.
In an interview with 60 Minutes’ Charlie Rose, Hopper credited western actor John Wayne with saving his film career. Wayne hired Hopper for a role in The Sons of Katie Elder (1965), which, ironically, was also directed by Hathaway. This role allowed Hopper to restart his film career.
In 1968, Hopper, along with Peter Fonda and screenwriter Terry Southern, began crafting the outline to the film that would become Easy Rider. Hopper credits the inspiration for the film from working with Fonda on the Jack Nicholson-written film, The Trip. Nicholson would also have an iconic role in Easy Rider.
The Trip is one of the first examples of popularizing LSD on the big screen. The plot follows Peter Fonda on his first psychedelic experience, as he travels and hallucinates around Hollywood. Fonda’s role in the film, along with his persona in another counterculture tale, The Wild Angels, established the actor as “an icon of the counterculture.”
Peter Fonda attributes the spark of Easy Rider to a dream he had about the killing of two motorcyclists by hillbillies. He immediately called Hopper and the two began working on the screenplay.
Easy Rider: Plot and Initial Reception
The film follows the tale of two men, Wyatt and Billy, who successfully smuggle cocaine into the United States from Mexico. They take their profits on a cross-country journey on their Harley-Davidsons. They want to make it in time for the Mardi Gras celebration in New Orleans.
On their long, strange journey, they encounter an American farmer, down on his luck; a hippie commune; an ACLU lawyer (a knockout performance from Jack Nicholson); and prejudice and resentment in the deep South for the freedoms that these two hippies represent.
The film hit a chord with young audiences, grossing $60 million worldwide and gaining Hopper critical acclaim for his acting and directing. Production was more difficult than the film’s title. Creative differences between Fonda and Hopper, the dissolution of Hopper’s first marriage, and his unwillingness to leave the editor’s desk, led to his accelerating abuse of drugs and alcohol.
Hopper said of Easy Rider: “The cocaine problem in the United States is really because of me. There was no cocaine before Easy Rider on the street. After Easy Rider, it was everywhere”
Hopper spent much of the 1970s and ’80s in Taos, New Mexico. He lived as an outcast, using Easy Rider‘s financial success to abuse cocaine and other substances.
While Dennis Hopper is known for his breakout directorial debut with Easy Rider, he has a larger-than-life presence in a number of other highly successful films. He always brings an enthusiastic and off-kilter character to life.
Dennis Hopper Movie Roles
Rebel Without a Cause
Hopper credits James Dean for unlocking the craft of acting within him. Hopper took much inspiration from Dean’s ability and performances. Tellingly, it was after Dean’s death that Hopper got into the aforementioned confrontation with film director Henry Hathaway, almost ruining Hopper’s early career.
In 1979, Director Francis Ford Coppola cast Hopper as an eccentric war photographer in the film Apocolypse Now, showing off Hopper’s character-actor chops. Hopper gave a Hollywood Reporter interview with Bob Costas. In it, he revealed that he and Marlon Brando had almost come to a fistfight on the film’s set.
The 1986 cult classic from director David Lynch relaunched Hopper’s acting career. Once again, he was cast as the villain. Hopper’s deranged performance as Frank Booth highlights the method actor’s ability to transform and truly scare the viewer. When Hopper heard about Lynch casting the film, he called the director immediately, begging to be cast as Frank. Hopper confirmed in a documentary about the making of Blue Velvet that he called Booth, saying, “I’ve got to play Frank! I am Frank!”
The Kevin Costner cult classic highlighted Dennis Hopper’s character acting ability to new depths. His bombastic performance as The Deacon brought life to the film. Again, Hopper shows off his talent for playing truly over-the-top, complicated characters.
“I thought Waterworld got a bad name for itself in the United States, but it did really well in Europe and Asia. I think the studio sort of shot themselves in the foot by announcing it was so over-budget, blah blah blah, it’s going to be a failure … All this came out before we released it in the States. But I enjoyed it.” —Dennis Hopper
“Pop quiz hot shot!” This explosive action film rocketed Hopper once again into the spotlight as the villain Howard Payne, who has rigged a city bus to detonate if its speed drops below 50 mph. This big-budget summer blockbuster starred Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock. But it’s worth a watch for Hopper’s performance alone!
Countercultural Icon Legacy
Dennis Hopper passed away in Venice, CA in 2010, leaving behind his cultural legacy, several children, and his multi-million dollar art collection. His impact on the art and film world still leaves a mark. He died of prostate cancer. To honor his legacy, his estate has launched a medical cannabis initiative, Hopper Reserve, to continue the Hopper Legacy and to help heal others using plant medicine.
- Charlie Rose
- Documentary: Dennis Hopper: Create (or Die)
- Dennis Hopper on BLUE VELVET and his film career highlights
RS Contributing Author – Kyle Rosner
After graduating in 2016 from Rowan University with a B.A. in Radio, Television, & Film Production, Kyle pursued his passion for filmmaking, producing several short films & documentaries. Wanting to broaden his horizons, Kyle took his skills in video production and brought them to the cannabis industry. Joining the 420i team in 2018, Kyle produced and edited 420i video assets for a $10 million+ Regulation A+ IPO. Produced campaign video for 175%+ successfully funded Indiegogo campaign, and has conducted interviews with dozens of prominent influencers in the cannabis & entertainment space. When not working for his agency 420interactive, Kyle is constantly researching (consuming) the latest in filmmaking and pop culture, playing tennis, or enjoying long walks with tokes on the San Diego beach.