Dennis Hopper — actor (Rebel Without a Cause, Blue Velvet), director (Easy Rider, Colors), screenwriter, photographer, painter, hellraiser, raconteur, and no-bull Hollywood legend — died of prostate cancer at his house in Venice Beach, in Los Angeles (yesterday). He was 74.
Hopper may have had the surest hand on the zeitgeist of anyone in Hollywood, putting his fingerprints on a series of iconic, era-defining pictures. He played a supporting role in the ultimate '50s teen drama, Rebel Without a Cause (1955); legitimized hippies on film (and in Hollywood's power structure) with Easy Rider (1969); contributed a memorable cameo as a crazed journalist to Francis Ford Coppola's New Hollywood apotheosis Apocalypse Now (1979); concocted one of the scariest of all screen villains as Frank Booth in David Lynch's Blue Velvet (1986); directed the gang drama Colors (1988) with its hit title track by Ice-T just as L.A.'s Bloods and Crips were making news; and completely stole the blockbuster Speed (1994) as the bad guy. Later in life he became a widely exhibited photographer and published collections of his images.
He was a member of a small cadre of baby boomers who changed the cinema industry in the '60's.
With its portrait of counterculture heroes raising their middle fingers to the uptight middle-class hypocrisies, "Easy Rider" became the cinematic symbol of the 1960s, a celluloid anthem to freedom, macho bravado and anti-establishment rebellion. As a low-budget independent film that earned huge amounts of money, it also triggered a seismic shift in Hollywood, which began eagerly to court the youth market and look for similarly disreputable properties to co-opt.
My favorite recent role was that of Huey Walker in Flashback, a film which managed to satire the '60's at every plot turn. Keifer Sutherland's role as son-of-flower-children-turned-FBI-agent in hot pursuit of Hopper's Abby Hoffman-ish Walker is hilarious. More from the Rolling Stone link:
Hopper spent the '90s and '00s in a reliable niche as a hipster emeritus, frequently appearing on talk shows and playing a wide range of roles, though in Blue Velvet's wake he was most frequently identified with villain roles.
The alcoholic coach in Hoosiers, the intergalactic contraband hauler in Space Truckers, the band manager in White Star ... even his minorly freaky roles were legend. Concluding from the WaPo link:
As the sexually compulsive, pathologically troubled villain Frank Booth, Hopper -- three years clean and sober -- found a way to combine the knife-edge madness he had always possessed with newfound powers of control and discipline.
Hopper left the planet too soon, but it was still gratifying to see him turn what could have been a career of flameouts and sad self-destruction into a triumph of endurance. Now that he's gone, he has left behind a generation of actors who grasp at his wildness with mannerisms and empty emoting, but who can never reach that precise alchemy of derangement and focus that Hopper embodied at his best. ... It's an irony Hopper himself surely appreciated that the man who embodied antiauthoritarianism at its most anarchic finally realized his best artistic self when he embraced self-control.
Update: It's kind of difficult to picture Hopper, Art Linkletter, and Gary Coleman all going anywhere together ... and of course, maybe they didn't.