Dennis Hopper, Hollywood's Easy-Riding Counterculture Hero, Dies at 74

Dennis Hopper, who drew upon his own rough-edged lifestyle to create menacing villains and devil-may- care outlaws in movies including “Rebel Without a Cause,” “Easy Rider” and “Apocalypse Now,” has died. He was 74.

Hopper died today at his home in Venice, California, the Associated Press reported, citing family friend Alex Hitz. Hopper disclosed last October that he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer.

Easy Rider” (1969) established him as a counterculture hero and a gifted actor recognized, if not fully embraced, by Hollywood.

He was nominated for an Academy Award for co-writing the movie with Peter Fonda and Terry Southern. He also directed it and, with Fonda, co-starred as freedom-celebrating bikers roaming the American Southwest. The American Film Institute in 2007 included “Easy Rider” on its list of the top 100 U.S. movies.

The film was a personal expression for Hopper, who had himself been immersed in the drug-fueled culture of beatniks and hippies throughout the 1960s. “I wanted it to be like a time capsule” of that period, Hopper said in a 2008 interview with Bloomberg Television.

‘Apocalypse Now’

After spending four-and-a-half weeks on the road filming the movie, “I came back to 60 hours of film, so it took me a year to edit it,” he recalled. “While I was editing I would listen to the radio and I would hear ‘Born to Be Wild,’ ‘Goddamn the Pusher Man,’ ‘If 6 Was 9’ by Jimi Hendrix, and I’d just start plopping them into the riding sequences. And it’s really the words of the songs that tell the story more than the screenplay.”

Among his 150 film roles, he also played a teenage hoodlum to whom James Dean’s impressionable character is drawn in “Rebel Without a Cause” (1955); a drug-crazed photojournalist in the Francis Ford Coppola-directedApocalypse Now” (1979); a bomb-loving terrorist in “Speed” (1994); and the leader of a marauding gang in “Waterworld” (1995).

His own long struggle with drugs and alcohol, which lasted well into the 1980s, at times stalled his entertainment career. “Hollywood has never embraced me, despite the fact I went and lived there,” he told London’s Sunday Times in 2008.

Political Conservative

He earned his second Academy Award nomination, as best supporting actor, for his role in “Hoosiers” (1986) as a onetime-athlete-turned-alcoholic who is enlisted by his son’s coach to help the high-school basketball team. His return to sobriety around that time also coincided with his well-received role as a sadistic villain, Frank Booth, in David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet” (1986).

His villainous roles on television included one as a vengeful warlord in the first season of the Fox series “24.” Nike Inc. deployed his manic creepiness in a series of commercials in the 1990s in which he played an obsessed football fan.

Unusual for a countercultural figure, Hopper was a political conservative for much of his life and moved left in his later years. “I was the first person in my family to have been Republican,” he told reporters shortly before the 2008 U.S. presidential election. He said he had supported Republicans George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush but was planning to vote for Democrat Barack Obama.

Blackballed by Hollywood

Hopper was married five times, including an eight-day union with singer Michelle Phillips of the Mamas & the Papas. An artist and art collector, Hopper exhibited his photographs and presented them in a book, “Photographs: 1961-1967.”

Dennis Lee Hopper was born on May 17, 1936, in Dodge City, Kansas, where he lived until age 9 on his grandfather’s wheat farm. He became an avid moviegoer and fan of westerns and started acting after his family moved to San Diego when he was 13.

During the shooting of “Rebel Without a Cause,” one of his first films, he had a romantic affair with co-star Natalie Wood. That movie was followed quickly by “Giant” (1956), which also starred Dean as well as Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson.

Working with Dean -- who was killed in a 1955 automobile crash, while production of “Giant” was in progress -- made a lasting impression. “I wouldn’t say I learned to be difficult, but I did learn there was another way of doing things,” Hopper told Australia’s Sunday Telegraph Magazine in 2009.

He said Hollywood studios “blackballed” him for several years after he resisted the instructions of director Henry Hathaway while filming “From Hell to Texas” (1958). He moved to New York City to study for five years under acting teacher Lee Strasberg.

Hopper had four children, including one with his fifth wife, actress Victoria Duffy, whom he married in 1996. He filed for divorce from Duffy in January 2010 while in the final stages of his battle with cancer.

To contact the reporter on this story: Laurence Arnold in Washington at larnold4@bloomberg.net

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