Hopper, Dennis (1936—)

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Hopper, Dennis (1936—)

From young Hollywood rebel, to counter-cultural icon, to dropped-out druggie, to acclaimed character actor, Dennis Hopper's art has often mimicked his life. In the process, however, he came to exert a profound cultural influence on Hollywood, opening the way for the new, independent, youth-oriented cinema that took hold in the 1970s. As a starstruck boy born and raised on a farm in Kansas, Hopper dreamed of becoming a Hollywood actor. When his family moved to San Diego, California, 14-year-old Dennis fell in with a drug-using party crowd. But he also found an outlet for his acting ambitions by working at the Old Globe Theatre and the La Jolla Playhouse, where he was cast in his first professional role. At 18, Hopper was signed to a seven-year contract with Warner Brothers. There, he appeared in a small role in Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and became a close friend of James Dean and Natalie Wood.

Hopper's breakthrough film was Giant (1956), starring Dean, Rock Hudson, and Elizabeth Taylor, and for most of the next 10 years he was known as a rebellious but gifted and successful young actor. It wasn't, however, until he tried his hand at directing that he became a Hollywood icon. In 1969, Hopper and his good friends Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson made Easy Rider, a film that reflected the attitudes of nearly a decade of the counter-culture from which it sprang. Easy Rider captured the imagination of a generation, shone the spotlight on future megastar Nicholson and, significantly, caused convulsive changes in the thinking of the established movie industry. He used his heightened success and new influence to direct The Last Movie (1971) on location in Peru, but the result was a muddled drama and a commercial and critical disaster. Hopper then dropped out for almost 15 years, doing drugs in New Mexico and making foreign films.

He returned to Hollywood respectability with an astonishingly brilliant portrait of psychologically disturbed brutality in David Lynch's indie favorite, Blue Velvet, in 1986. That same year he made Hoosiers, another independent film, which earned him an Oscar nomination. His comeback was complete, and in 1988 he directed the decently crafted Colors. Actor, director, writer, photographer, and art collector, Dennis Hopper continued to work in a varied and variable mix of movies throughout the 1990s, by which time he had become Hollywood's favorite iconoclast and a pop culture institution.

—Victoria Price

Further Reading:

Hoberman, J. Dennis Hopper: From Method to Madness. Minneapolis, Minnesota, Walker Art Center, 1988.

Monaco, James, and the Editors of Baseline. Encyclopedia of Film. New York, Perigee, 1991.

Rodriguez, Elena. Dennis Hopper: A Madness to His Method. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1998.

Thomson, David. A Biographical Dictionary of Film. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1994.

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