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A tribute to Dennis Hopper

Thu 23rd Sep 2021

Dennis Hopper was an award winning actor, filmmaker and respected artist who had an impressive career spanning five decades.

Defining the hippie counterculture of the 1960s with his directorial film debut, Easy Rider, Hopper showcased the struggles of a generation Hollywood for so long had tried to deny, preparing the ground for a new generation of filmmakers.

" other persona better signifies the lost idealism of the 1960s than that of Dennis Hopper". Film critic, Matthew Hays.

With an ever-evolving career that labeled him a prolific photographer, studio outcast, rebel filmmaker, drug and alcohol abuser and comeback kid, Hopper's talents proved him to be one of the most diverse and gifted stars to ever come out of Hollywood.

Dennis Hopper | Image care of Georges Biard
Dennis Hopper | Image care of Georges Biard

Early Life

Born in Dodge City, Kansas on May 17, 1936, Hopper was voted most likely to succeed by his peers at Helix High School. Enjoying drama, speech and choir at school, he went on to study at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego, and the Actors Studio in New York.

Hopper's professional debuts were on a slew of 1950s TV shows including: Medic (1954), Cheyenne (1955) and Tenderfoot (1957).

Hopper's notable film debut roles were in Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and Giant (1956).  Both starring James Dean, Hopper developed a close friendship with the star and was devastated after his tragic death in 1955. It was said Hopper became difficult to work with following the event, and his bright career was on the verge of failure before it had even begun.


Hopper credited John Wayne for saving his career, acknowledging himself that his own insolent behaviour was the reason he couldn't  find work in Hollywood for seven years. Hopper picked up roles in two of John Wayne's western films: Sons of Katie Elder (1965) and True Grit (1969), successfully restarting his film career.

In 1968, Hopper teamed up with Peter Fonda, Terry Southern and Jack Nicholson to make the iconic film Easy Rider (1969). A story of two Harley-riding hippies on a spiritual journey through an America struggling with the conflict in Vietnam. The film was the first of its type, and grossed millions, creating a reaction that proved to Hollywood that films delving into youth issues were in demand, spawning like-minded films to follow. On the back of True Grit a month earlier, Hopper now had two box office hits in the summer of '69 and it was safe to say, he had hit the big time!

Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson at the 62nd Academy Awards
Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson at the 62nd Academy Awards Photo taken by Alan Light

In 1971, his next film The Last Movie was released and although it won the prestigious CIDALC Award at the Venice Film Festival, American audiences did not agree and found it too abstract and confusing. He struggled picking himself up from here and managed to sustain somewhat of a career by acting in low budget European films sporadically throughout the 1970s, but his notorious reputation had him labelled as an 'unhinged wild man'.  Francis Ford Coppola's blockbuster Apocalypse Now (1979), saw Hopper play a disturbed photojournalist which may not have helped his persona, but did return him to prominence.

By 1980, Hopper won praise for his directing and acting in Out of the Blue and started to appear in American films again. Hopper accepted roles in teen drama, Rumble Fish (1983), My Science Project (1985), but it was his role as a psychopathic villain Frank Booth in David Lynch's masterpiece, Blue Velvet (1986) that his career truly started to shine again. In the same year, Hopper's moving performance as an alcoholic assistant basketball coach in Hoosiers (1986) earned him an Academy Award nomination. In 1988, alongside Sean Penn and Robert Duvall, Hopper directed Colors, a critically acclaimed police drama around gang violence in Los Angeles.

Actor Martin Sheen with Dennis Hopper in Apocalypse Now.
Actor Martin Sheen with Dennis Hopper in Apocalypse Now.

Throughout the 90s, Hopper continued his comeback with roles in Super Mario Bros (1993), True Romance (1993), the blockbuster hit Speed (1994) and Waterworld (1995).  

In 1997, Hopper was awarded the 87th spot in Empire Magazine's "The Top 100 Movie Stars of All Time" and in 2010 was honored with the 2,403rd star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Photography and Art

In addition to Hopper's pursuits in film, he was a prolific photographer, painter and sculptor whose interest began as a child doing painting lessons at the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas, Missouri.   During his outcast days in Hollywood when he was labelled the 'difficult' actor, Hopper turned his creativity to photography and carried his camera everywhere! He became one 'to watch' in the mid 1960s and captured beautifully, the real-life of Hollywood in that era.

His early works began shooting portraits for Vogue and other magazines and he also created the cover art for Ike & Tina Turner album River Deep - Mountain High (1966). His photographs also captured intimate moments of Andy Warhol, Jane Fonda, The Byrds, Paul Newman, Jasper Johns, James Brown and Peter Fonda among many others! Hopper's painting and photography works became the subject of gallery and museum shows all around the world and were also showcased in several books. A special one to mention is Dennis Hopper: Photographs 1961-1967 which was published in 2011 by Taschen and includes 18,000 images. Hopper captured of remarkable artists, musicians, actors, places, demonstrations and concerts throughout the 1960s.

German film director, Wim Wenders said that if "he'd only been a photographer, he'd be one of the great photographers of the twentieth century."

As a photographer in The New Yorker, Hopper was described as "a compelling, important, and weirdly omnipresent chronicler of his times."  

Dennis Hopper developed prostate cancer in the early 2000s, and sadly passed away on 29 May, 2010 at the age of 74.

Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider
Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider

"I was born in Dodge City, Kansas, and am really just a middle class Farm boy at heart. I really thought acting, painting, music, writing were all part of being an artist. I never thought of them as being separate." Dennis Hopper.

Rest in peace, Dennis Hopper.

By Kirsten Jakubenko