Dennis Hopper died on Saturday morning May 29 of complications from advanced prostate cancer; he was 74. When the young Kansan came to Hollywood in the 50s, he was mentored by James Dean, who brought him in to star in Rebel Without a Cause and Giant. Hopper chafed under the constraints of the old studio system, where such directors as Henry Hathaway tried to tell him how to do his job on From Hell to Texas, The Sons of Katie Elder and True Grit.
Hopper started an art collection early on (buying Andy Warhol’s Tomato Can for $75) and pursued photography. He co-wrote, directed and starred in the 1969 sleeper Easy Rider which grossed $40 million, made Jack Nicholson a star, and changed the rules of Hollywood for a time, ushering in an era of experimentation and creativity which lasted a decade and has never been seen again. Hopper’s follow-up, Last Movie, was a debacle, and he chased drugs and alcohol for years, resurfacing as a loopy hippie photographer in Francis Coppola’s Apocalypse Now in 1979.
I met Dennis Hopper in 1983, on the Robert Taylor Ranch set in Mandeville Canyon of Sam Peckinpah’s last film, The Osterman Weekend, based on Robert Ludlum’s 1972 novel. Both Peckinpah and Hopper were fighting their various addictions; Peckinpah wasn’t drinking, but he was doing cocaine. If Hopper was using, it didn’t show on set, where he clearly enjoyed being part of the first-rate ensemble that the maverick director had assembled. Like Rutger Hauer, John Hurt and Burt Lancaster, Hopper had agreed to work for less than his usual fee, playing the part of a plastic surgeon meeting up with his old friends.
His best 80s roles were as the father in Coppola’s Rumble Fish, the whacked-out psychopath in David Lynch’s 1986 Blue Velvet (here’s a clip), the biker with a conscience in Tim Hunter’s River’s Edge, and the alcoholic sports fan in the basketball drama Hoosiers, which yielded a supporting Oscar nomination. In 1980 Hopper took over as director on Out of Blue, in which he starred opposite Linda Manz, and did a fine job. And the 90s saw him play many villains, from Waterworld to Speed.
Hopper also had a reputation as a photographer and supporter of the arts, dating back to the legendary Ferus Gallery on La Cienega. Hopper’s art will be the subject of a show opening July 11 at MOCA’s Geffen Contemporary space Downtown, the first show under new museum director Jeffrey Deitch. The show’s title, Double Standard, comes from Hopper’s 1961 photograph of two Standard Oil signs seen through a windshield at the intersection of Santa Monica Boulevard, Melrose Avenue, and North Doheny Drive in what’s now West Hollywood. “The image was reproduced on the invitation for Ed Ruscha’s second solo exhibition at Ferus Gallery in 1964,” MOCA says.
The LAT recounts how MOCA’s “Dennis Hopper Double Standard” was rushed into existence. So does The Civic Beacon. And MCN’s David Poland interviewed him at his Venice home in December 2008 for the under-rated film Elegy.
Here’s a 2007 video about his art collecting:
And his video introduction to the Dennis Hopper & the New Hollywood exhibition at the Australian Center of the Moving Image, which examines the dynamic between his art and film careers.
And his Actors’ Studio session:
[Photo by Dennis Hopper; portrait of Hopper by Julian Schnabel; Hopper in Easy Rider]