Learn About the Wild Life and Career of Dennis Hopper

Dennis Hopper was an American actor and filmmaker whose career flourished during a period of great transition – the 1960s. The decade was a tumultuous time for the United States. The Old Hollywood era gave way to the New Hollywood movement when young artists from the counterculture generation emerged to become the most celebrated actors and filmmakers of all time. One of the early New Hollywood films includes Easy Rider, which starred Hopper and Peter Fonda.

Hopper perfectly embodied that counterculture generation, as film critic Matthew Hays noted that “no other persona better signifies the lost idealism of the ‘60s than that of Dennis Hopper.”

Learn about the wild life and career of Dennis Hopper through these interesting facts:

1. Hopper was into acting early in his teens.

On May 17, 1936, Dennis Hopper was born in Dodge City, Kansas. His father was a post office manager, while his mother was a swimming pool supervisor.

When he was 13, Hopper and his family moved to San Diego, where he was voted most likely to succeed at Helix High School. He was active in the drama club, choir, and speech club. It was there when he developed an interest in acting. He studied at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego and the Actors Studio in New York City. Hopper also formed a friendship with actor Vincent Price, whose passion for art influenced Hopper to be interested in arts. He was fond of the plays of William Shakespeare and had been acting in Shakespearean plays since he was 13.

2. James Dean had a significant impact on him.

Hopper made a debut in the film, appearing alongside film legend James Dean in both Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and Giant (1956). Hopper admitted that he considered himself to be the best young actor around until he met Dean. He recognized that what he was doing was technical and pre-conceived, while Dean’s acting was improvisational, electric, and expressionistic. So, he asked Dean how he does what he does and developed a master-to-apprentice relationship with him. Later on, Dean had more influence on him onscreen and off-screen than the Shakespeare he’s been doing since he was young. Hopper called Dean the best actor he’d ever worked alongside with.

As you can imagine, James Dean’s sudden death in 1955 particularly devastated Hopper. Dennis was attending a play when he heard the news from his agent. He was so distressed that he fled into the street. Hopper said that after Dean died, he felt so angry, wretched, and alone in a hostile world. He admitted that it screwed him up for years afterward. 

3. His troubled and controversial Hollywood career started on the set of From Hell to Texas.

After working with the late James Dean, Hopper acted in the 1958 film From Hell to Texas. Foreshadowing his troubled and controversial film career, he fought constantly and viciously with the film’s director, Henry Hathaway. They constantly fought over Hopper’s interpretation of his role until the last day of filming, when Hathaway finally broke his will after Hopper insisted on reshooting a specific scene more than 80 times. When production wrapped, Hathaway promised Hopper he’s never work in Hollywood again.

4. He was never satisfied with his directing career.

While Hopper was remembered for his eclectic acting career, he was always interested in directing movies. The only reason why he participated in his big break Easy Rider (1969), was that his co-star Peter Fonda promised him that he’d also get to direct. Hopper won wide acclaim as the director for his improvisational methods and innovative editing for the film. But even in his old age, he always lamented that he never got the directing career he felt he deserved. 

5. He struggled with substances throughout his career.

According to Rolling Stone magazine, Hopper was one of “Hollywood’s most notorious drug addicts” for two decades. His career was constantly marred or even defined by his struggles with drugs and alcohol. In true counterculture spirit, he was often on illicit substances during the production of Easy Rider. The marijuana scenes in the film were actually done with the real thing. Jack Nicholson even claimed that he, Hopper, and Peter Fonda have gone through over a hundred joints just to finish a single scene together.

Hopper revealed in one interview that at his lowest, he spent a period of his life consuming 28 beers, half a gallon of rum, and three grams of blow on a daily basis. After the success of Easy Rider, he spent much of the 70s to the early 80s living as an outcast in New Mexico.

6. He made a shift to the small screen.

Because his dubious reputation has almost ruined his film career, Hopper turned to television so he could work as an actor. This happened during an era when film actors looked down their noses at television actors, so it was considered a step down for Hopper.

He made multiple appearances as a guest star on different TV shows throughout the 50s and the 60s. Throughout his life, Hopper appeared in more than 140 episodes of TV series such as 24The Twilight ZoneGunsmokeLas VegasCrashE-Ring, and Entourage.

7. He delved into photography after being ostracized from Hollywood.

Ostracized by Hollywood film studios for being a difficult actor, Hopper turned to photography in 1961 using a camera bought for him by his first wife, Brooke Hayward. He created the cover art for the Ike and Tina Turner album River Deep – Mountain High (1966) during this period. Later on, he became a prolific photographer, and noted writer Terry Southern named him an up-and-coming photographer to watch during the mid-1960s. His early photography is known for portraits from the decade, and he began shooting portraits for Vogue and other magazines.

His intimate and unguarded images of famous personalities became the subject of museum and gallery shows. He took portraits of people such as Jane Fonda, Andy Warhol, Paul Newman, James Brown, Peter Fonda, Michael McClure, Timothy Leary, and The Byrds, among others.

8. John Wayne saved his career.

After burning bridges on From Hell to Texas, Hopper gained a reputation for being difficult to work with. Because of his insolent behavior, he could not find work in Hollywood for seven years. But because he was the son-in-law of great actress Margaret Sullavan, a friend of John Wayne, Wayne arranged for Hopper to be hired for a role in The Sons of Katie Elder (1965). Incredibly, the film’s director was none other than Henry Hathaway.

9. His idea changed the entire tone of Blue Velvet.

Hopper saw a career resurgence in 1986 when he was widely celebrated and acclaimed for his performances in Blue Velvet and Hoosiers. Few people know that one of his ideas changed the entire tone of Blue Velvet, where he portrayed the gas-huffing, obscenity-screaming villain Frank Booth. Originally, Frank Booth was addicted to helium, but Hopper convinced writer and director David Lynch that he must be addicted to amyl nitrite instead. Lynch later admitted that it was the right move since the idea of a high-pitched villain would be hard to take seriously.

Hopper won critical acclaim and several awards for this memorable role. His performance has often been hailed as one of the best villains in American film. That same year, he received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his role as an alcoholic assistant basketball coach in Hoosiers.

10. The set of Easy Rider was problematic because of Hopper.

Hopper got his big break as an actor and writer-director on the set of Easy Rider, but he made production difficult. He admitted that he didn’t respond well to marijuana and was prone to paranoid tantrums during production. Things went so bad that crew members took matters into their own hands by secretly recording Hopper’s outbursts. These videos were proof of why many people quit production.

The film was successful, but after its production, Hopper spent much of the 70s and 80s living as an outcast.

11. He was sued for defamation by Rip Torn.

More than 20 years after Easy Rider was first released, Hopper appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and retold an anecdote, saying that Torn pulled a knife on him during pre-production of the movie. It seemed like Hopper blamed Torn for pulling the knife rather than himself. Hopper stated that Torn was initially cast in the film but was replaced with Jack Nicholson after the knife incident.

According to Torn’s lawsuit, it was actually Hopper who pulled a knife on him. A judge ruled in favor of Torn, and Hopper was ordered to pay $475,000. However, Hopper denied Torn’s request for punitive damages, ruling that he had not acted with malice. In 1998, a California court upheld the ruling for compensatory damages, requiring Hopper to pay another $475,000 for punitive damages.

12. He had problematic relationships as well.

Dennis Hopper was notorious not just for his drug problems but also for his troubled relationships with women. In his lifetime, he was married five times. He had one child with four of them. His second wife, Michelle Philips, divorced him just after eight days of marriage.

In 2010, Hopper filed for divorce from his fifth wife, Victoria Duffy, whom he cited as insane, inhuman, and volatile. Hopper also filed a restraining order against her.

13. He was part of an eerie trio.  

In 2009, Hopper was diagnosed with cancer, first in his prostate and in his bones. By the following year, he only weighed 100 pounds, was unable to speak for long periods of time, and was too sick to undergo chemotherapy.

He died on the morning of May 29, 2010, at age 74. Eerily enough, he was one of the three different actors from Rebel Without a Cause who died in the first half of 2010. The other two were Corey Allen and Steffi Sidney.

14. He received his Hollywood Walk of Fame star two months before his death.

In March 2010, Hopper was honored with the 2,403rd star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at Hollywood Boulevard. He attended his addition to the sidewalk with family and friends like Jack Nicholson, David Lynch, Michael Madsen, and Viggo Mortensen.