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Culture

US actor Dennis Hopper dies aged 74

©

Video by Oliver FARRY

Text by Jon FROSCH

Latest update : 2010-05-31

Best known for his landmark performance in the 1969 counterculture classic "Easy Rider", veteran Hollywood actor Dennis Hopper has died aged 74 from prostate cancer, just two months after being awarded a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame.

American actor, director, and visual artist Dennis Hopper, an iconic big-screen emblem of US counterculture, died Sunday in Los Angeles after a battle with prostate cancer. He was 74. 

Revered in cinephile circles for directing and starring in 1969's seminal biker buddy movie "Easy Rider", as well as for memorably twisted roles in films like Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now" and David Lynch's "Blue Velvet", Hopper was also known for his tumultuous personal life: he famously battled drug and alcohol addictions, had several rocky marriages, and voiced ever-shifting political views.
 
As the landscape of American cinema changed, Hopper carved out a niche playing wild-eyed, motor-mouthed men that straddled a line between sanity and insanity. The fact that Hopper's off-screen notoriety sometimes mirrored his onscreen persona served to seal his place as an indelible figure in contemporary cinema, at once enigmatic and oddly familiar.
 
A recognisable identity, both onscreen and off
 
Perhaps no film better exemplified the intertwining of Hopper's art and life than 1969's "Easy Rider", in which Hopper and Peter Fonda played potheads motorcycling across America.
 
As infamous as the film's scenes of joint-passing conversations and LSD-induced hallucinations were reports that Hopper was frequently high during production. 25 years later, a profile in "The New York Times" compared the way the actor spoke in interviews to "the kind of dislocated, amazed whine of a 1960's hippie". Hopper had by then kicked his drug habit, but the aura of anti-establishment eccentricity typified by "Easy Rider" clung to him.
 
If Hopper was never dismissed as another Hollywood burnout -- even when his private struggles eclipsed his career -- it was thanks to edgy, critically praised work as a character actor.
 
"Hopper was a glowing example of how people who lived through the worst excesses of the Sixties and didn't completely fry their brains came out incredibly interesting on the other side", said FRANCE 24 film critic Lisa Nesselson. 
 
The actor gave particularly noted performances under the direction of two cherished US filmmakers: as an unhinged photojournalist in Francis Ford Coppola's Vietnam War film "Apocalypse Now" (1979), and a gas-sniffing sadomasochist in David Lynch's kinky mystery "Blue Velvet" (1986).
 
These two roles -- the first highly-strung and spaced-out, the second seething with menace -- helped establish a recognisable onscreen identity that would become a template for Hopper's future work.
 
Professional ups, personal downs
 
Born in 1936 in Kansas, Hopper moved to Los Angeles as a teenager to pursue acting. While shooting a role as a high school bully in Nicholas Ray's "Rebel Without a Cause" (1955), Hopper became friendly with the film's star, James Dean. Following Dean's death in a car accident that year, Hopper moved to New York to study acting with Dean's teacher, Lee Strasberg.
 
After a series of minor TV and film roles, Hopper's acting career settled into a back-and-forth pattern of triumphs followed by periods in which his rocky personal life overshadowed his work. He stunned the movie world with "Easy Rider", which won a best first film prize at the 1969 Cannes Film Festival. In the wake of this breakthrough, Hopper's worsening substance abuse began to attract more attention than his movies.
 
"Apocalypse Now" brought his talent back into the spotlight a decade later. But in the years following the film's release, Hopper's biggest headline was for a drug-related breakdown in Mexico in 1983, which prompted him to check into rehab and seek psychiatric treatment.
 
Hopper's comeback came in 1986, with a trio of lauded supporting performances. Besides his ferocious role in "Blue Velvet", he played a small-town drug dealer in the dark teen drama "River's Edge" and a town drunk trying to go clean in the high school basketball crowd-pleaser "Hoosiers". The latter performance, with its echoes of Hopper's real-life demons, earned the actor an Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination.
 
But it was his unsettling work in "Blue Velvet" that set the tone for the next phase of Hopper's career. He was cast as charismatic villains in a variety of films, both big and small: the Texas hit-man in neo-noir "Red Rock West" (1993), the mad bomber in action hit "Speed" (1994), and the evil, one-eyed tribe leader in the futuristic "Waterworld" (1995) are a few for which he will be remembered.
 
At the end of his career, Hopper stretched beyond typecasting, picking up strong reviews as a Pulitzer-Prize-winning poet in Philip Roth adaptation "Elegy" (2008) and a successful record producer on TV series "Crash". Yet even these more polished characters had a touch of the classic Hopper wildness; the well-spoken wordsmith in "Elegy" is also a compulsive womanizer, while the mogul in "Crash" is a former drug addict.
 
Though he is best known as an actor, Hopper also directed a handful of films after his début behind the camera with "Easy Rider". One of those, bleak father-daughter drama "Out of the Blue", was screened in competition at 1980's Cannes Film Festival. A more commercial effort was 1988's "Colors", an LA police-versus-gangs procedure starring Robert Duvall and Sean Penn.
 
Aside from his film work, Hopper was also a widely exhibited photographer, sculptor, and painter whose art often dealt with themes relating to the 1960s - the decade that so influenced both him both professionally and personally.
 
A stormy life tempered by late-career honours
 
Nearly as well-documented as Hopper's acting was his stormy love life. He made headlines in January after filing for divorce from his fifth wife (and mother of his fourth child), Victoria Duffy, calling her "insane" and "inhuman".
 
Hopper was also known as an outspoken independent political voice in left-leaning Hollywood. In a 2005 interview, the actor described the evolution of his views, saying he had been "as Left as you could get" in the 1960s before drifting toward the Republican Party in the 1980s. In an unexpected move, Hopper endorsed President Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election, citing the Bush administration's "lies" and Sarah Palin's unpreparedness as reasons for his change of political stripes.
 
It was his acting, though, that earned Hopper recognition beyond American borders. In 2008, he was made commander in France's National Order of Arts and Letters and was the subject of a retrospective at France's national Cinématheque (film library).
 
As for his reputation at home, Hopper was awarded a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame on March 26, in front of cheering fans, a handful of family members, and several friends, including "Easy Rider" co-star Jack Nicholson. Already declared terminally ill by his doctor, the controversial actor's frame was frail and his movements shaky, but he smiled widely throughout the ceremony.

Date created : 2010-05-29

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