The odyssey of Dennis Hopper has been one of Hollywood's longest, strangest trips. A onetime teen performer, he went through a series of career metamorphoses -- studio pariah, rebel filmmaker, drug casualty, and comeback kid -- before finally settling comfortably into the role of character actor par excellence, with a rogues' gallery of killers and freaks unmatched in psychotic intensity and demented glee. Along the way, Hopper defined a generation, documenting the shining hopes and bitter disappointments of the hippie counterculture and bringing their message to movie screens everywhere. By extension, he spearheaded a revolt in the motion picture industry, forcing the studio establishment to acknowledge a youth market they'd long done their best to deny.
Born May 17, 1936 in Dodge City, Kansas, Hopper began acting during his teen years, and made his professional debut on the TV series Medic. In 1953 he made his film bow in Nicholas Ray's cult-favourite Western Johnny Guitar, and two years later reunited with the director in the classic Rebel Without a Cause, appearing as a young tough opposite James Dean. Hopper and Dean became close friends during filming, and also worked together on 1956's Giant. After Dean's tragic death, it was often remarked that Hopper attempted to fill his friend's shoes by borrowing much of his persona, absorbing the late icon's famously defiant attitude and becoming so temperamental that his once-bright career quickly began to wane.
Seeking roles far removed from the stereotypical 'troubled teens' which previously dotted his resume, Hopper began training with the Actors Studio. However, on the set of Henry Hathaway's From Hell to Texas he so incensed cast and crew with his insistence upon multiple takes for his improvisational techniques -- the reshoots sometimes numbering upwards of 100 -- that he found himself a Hollywood exile. He spent much of the next decade mired in "B"-movies, if he was lucky enough to work at all. Producers considered him such a risk that upon completing 1960's Key Witness he did not reappear on-screen for another three years. With a noteworthy role in Hathaway's 1965 John Wayne western The Sons of Katie Elder, Hopper made tentative steps towards a comeback. He then appeared in a number of psychedelic films, including 1967's The Trip and the following year's Monkees feature Head, and earned a new audience among anti-establishment viewers.
With friends Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson in front of the camera, Hopper decided to direct his own movie, and secured over $400,000 in financing to begin filming a screenplay written by novelist Terry Southern. The result was 1969's Easy Rider, a sprawling, drug-fueled journey through an America torn apart by the conflict in Vietnam. Initially rejected by producer Roger Corman, the film became a countercultural touchstone, grossing millions at the box office and proving to Hollywood executives that the ever-expanding youth market and their considerable spending capital would indeed react to films targeted to their issues and concerns, spawning a cottage industry of like-minded films. Long a pariah, Hopper was suddenly hailed as a major new filmmaker, and his success became so great that in 1971 he produced an autobiographical documentary, American Dreamer, exploring his life and times.
The true follow-up to Easy Rider, however, was 1971's The Last Movie, an excessive, self-indulgent mess that, while acclaimed by jurors at the Venice Film Festival, was otherwise savaged by critics and snubbed by audiences. Once again Hopper was left picking up the pieces of his career; he appeared only sporadically in films throughout the 1970s, most of them made well outside of Hollywood. His personal life a shambles -- his marriage to singer/actress Michelle Phillips lasted just eight days -- Hopper spent much of the decade in a haze, earning a notorious reputation as an unhinged wild man. A bizarre appearance as a disturbed photojournalis
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