The Iconic Career of Actor Dennis Hopper

Dennis Hopper was also a director, writer, painter, poet, photographer and art collector


Dennis Hopper won many awards for his acting and directing, but he started out as a rebellious, anti-authoritarian bad boy that few people wanted to hire. In fact, Dennis was blackballed from Hollywood at least twice; and when he became a drugged-out alcoholic, few people wanted anything to do with him.

Let’s check out the career of Dennis Hopper, his high points and low points, and find out why he may have been one of the greatest character actors of all time.

By the way, all quotes in this story come from the book, Dennis Hopper: A Madness to His Method by Elena Rodriguez.

Please keep reading!

One of Hopper's photos
One of Hopper's photos
Jack Nicholson, Dennis and Michelle Phillips
Jack Nicholson, Dennis and Michelle Phillips
Dennis in 1956
Dennis in 1956

Please buy some material about Dennis Hopper

The life of Dennis Hopper begins . . .


Dennis Hopper was born in 1936 and grew up on a farm near Dodge City, Kansas. For the most part, Dennis was raised by his grandparents. Tragically, at the age of five, Dennis' mother told him his father had been killed during basic training for World War Two.

* * *

Then Hopper’s father seemingly came back from the dead. His father had been in China, Burma and India, fighting the Japanese until their surrender in Peking. Dennis’ father was actually an American spy, working in the Office of Strategic Services. But soon his father left again, working on the railways, and his mother kept working in Dodge City. Dennis’ lack of interaction with his parents bothered him for a long time.

* * *

Dennis moved to San Diego, California in 1950. In high school, Dennis studied drama and won awards for his acting prowess. His first serious acting was playing the part of a street urchin in A Christmas Carol. Although Dennis’ parents didn’t want him to become an actor – they didn’t think it was a respectable occupation - he packed his bags and moved to Los Angeles.

* * *

In 1953, Dennis did some acting at the well-known La Jolla Playhouse. Coached by actress Dorothy McGuire, Dennis was actually paid for an acting part for the first time.

* * *

Dennis won a scholarship at the National Shakespeare Festival at the Globe Theater in San Diego. During the summer, Dennis played small roles in Othello, Twelfth Night and The Merchant of Venice.

* * *

Finally, Dennis made it to Hollywood in November 1954. At Hal Roach Studios, he got a tiny part in the TV series, Cavalcade of America. Then he passed the audition for a bigger part in the television series Medic. For this part in an episode titled “Boy in a Storm,” Dennis had to play a young man who had an epileptic seizure. The producers thought his performance was indistinguishable from the real thing.

* * *

After seeing Dennis’ appearance on Medic, seven major studios wanted to sign him to a contract. Soon Dennis interviewed with Harry Cohn the studio chief at Columbia. Cohn boasted about how important he was in the movie business, but Dennis wasn’t impressed. Then Cohn asked Dennis about his acting experience and Dennis told him about doing Shakespeare. But Cohn dismissed Dennis’ work in Shakespeare. Nevertheless, Cohn offered Dennis a contract and some cash.

Proud of his work in Shakespeare, Dennis felt insulted and, in so many words, told Cohn to go screw himself. As Dennis bolted from the office, Cohn said he would never work at Columbia, not even in a crowd scene.

* * *

Dennis met James Dean when he got a small part in Rebel Without a Cause. Dennis was in awe of Dean’s acting ability; he thought Dean was 20 years ahead of his time. (Dean was five years older than Hopper.) Perhaps because both of them had both grown up on farms and felt lonely as kids, Hopper and Dean became fast friends, smoking pot, drinking beer and taking peyote together. Moreover, Dean promised Hopper he would teach him how to act.

* * *

Regarding acting, Dean told Hopper: “In the beginning everything will be very difficult because you’re used to acting. But pretty soon it will be natural to you and you’ll start going and the emotions will come to you if you leave yourself open to the moment-to-moment reality.”

* * *

While working on Rebel, Dennis met Natalie Wood, Dean’s love interest in the movie. Dennis and Natalie even had romance for a short time, but stayed friends. One night, Dennis, Natalie and some friends - hoping to party like Frank Sinatra, Errol Flynn and the Barrymores - decided to have an orgy. They filled a bathtub with champagne and Natalie, nude, jumped in. Unfortunately, within minutes Natalie felt terrible and they had to rush her to the hospital!

* * *

Once again, Dennis worked with James Dean in another movie. This one was Giant, directed by George Stevens, an easy-going fellow who made Dennis’ acting much easier. As for Dean’s acting in the movie, Hopper enjoyed watching Dean steal scenes from Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor, the big Hollywood stars in the movie.

* * *

On the set for Giant, Dean taught Dennis about crossing the imaginary line between natural and false. About this, Dennis said, “Dean knew how to observe what was going on immediately off camera, and how to bring that same tone of reality onto the set itself. And that’s what’s meant by ‘great acting’ – because then it isn’t acting at all.”

* * *

When a friend told Dennis that James Dean was dead, Dennis started hitting him in the mouth and screamed, “Don’t you ever put me on like that again!” But it was true, Dean had died in automobile accident on Sept. 30, 1955. Dennis told an interviewer years later, “It was the worst personal tragedy in my life, it affected me for years after. The guy was always with me. Every time I walked onto a sound stage, he was there watching every move I made, listening to ever word I uttered. I was still trying to live up to what I’d learned from him.”

* * *

At the premiere of Giant, the studio wanted Dennis to take Natalie Wood, but Dennis, the rebellious type, refused to take her; instead, he took Joanne Woodward, who later married Paul Newman.

* * *

On the set for From Hell to Texas, Dennis clashed with the director. Henry Hathaway was a seasoned veteran who insisted his actors do each scene exactly as he wanted them to do it. But Dennis considered himself a “Method” actor. Hathaway wanted Dennis to talk like Marlon Brando, but Dennis refused to imitate anyone. Dennis walked off the picture three times.

At the end of the filming, all Dennis had to do was utter ten more lines. On the set, Hathaway had stacked up numerous cans of film, enough to shoot for four months, as he expressed it, as long as it took, that is, to film Dennis’ scene the way the director wanted it. Fifteen hours and 86 takes later, Dennis finally agreed to do the scene the way Hathaway wanted it. Then, as Dennis left the set, Hathaway told him, “You will never work in this town again! I guarantee it!”

* * *

In the late 1950s, Dennis moved to New York City and studied Method acting with Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio. He also became heavily interested in photography, preferring to use Tri-X black and white film. Hoping to direct in films one day, Dennis was training his directorial eye.

Hopper also collected modern art, including some of Andy Warhol’s silk screen prints, and also kept many of his own paintings, which emphasized abstract impressionism and photorealism.

Tragically, a canyon fire in Los Angeles in 1961 destroyed many of Hopper’s paintings, poems and photographs.

* * *

In 1961, Dennis married actress Brooke Hayward. At the reception, Dennis met Jane Fonda and the rest of the Fonda family.

* * *

In the early 1960s Dennis was a peace lover or dove, as they called them, but by the latter years of the decade he’d earned a black belt in karate and seemed ready to fight anybody who messed with him, once kicking out the windshield of a neighbor’s car. Becoming rather paranoiac as well, Dennis thought the FBI and CIA were spying on him.

* * *

Dennis certainly did he share of partying in the so-called Swinging Sixties. “The Sixties was just one big drug party,” he said. “We experimented for everybody. Free love, be-ins, love-ins, drop in, drop out, take some acid. I dropped in and dropped out.”

* * *

About the reputed free love in the Sixties, Dennis said, “There was a lot of free love. Everyone was going through a period of time where you didn’t have to be tied down. I mean, love-ins were people making love. I never participated in the exhibitionistic part of it, the ceremonies. But it was happening.”

* * *

In the middle 1960s, Dennis’ acting career was in full gear. He appeared in hit movies such as The Sons of Katie Elder, Cool Hand Luke and The Trip. Jack Nicholson had written The Trip, in which Dennis plays a dealer who sells LSD to the character played by Peter Fonda. Interestingly, Dennis and Peter ventured into the desert alone and filmed the acid trip sequences.

In Katie Elder, Dennis once more worked with director Henry Hathaway, who had buried the hatchet, and he and Dennis got along just fine, because Dennis didn’t care about using the Method anymore. Dennis also did lots of drinking with John Wayne and Dean Martin, the big stars in this western.

* * *

Also, at this time, Dennis appeared in over 140 episodes of various TV shows; in fact, he played Billy the Kid in the series, The Rebel, starring Nick Adams, with whom Dennis became friends. Dennis also acted in Bonanza, Gunsmoke, Petticoat Junction, The Twilight Zone, The Barbara Stanwyck Show, The Defenders, The Investigators, The Legend of Jesse James, Entourage, The Big Valley, The Time Tunnel, The Rifleman and Combat!

* * *

Much has been written about perhaps the quintessential counterculture film, Easy Rider. Written by Jack Nicholson, Terry Southern and Dennis Hopper, it’s a movie about a trio of free-spirited men who encounter contemptuous Southern rednecks – with disastrous results. After Dennis’ wife Brooke Hayward read the screenplay, she called it just another “biker druggie movie” and added that Dennis was “chasing fool’s gold” if he thought it would be successful. Moreover, tired of Dennis’ heavy use of drugs and violent temper, Brooke divorced Dennis.

* * *

While traveling across the southern part of the U.S.A. during the making of Easy Rider, Hopper told an interviewer, “Every restaurant, man, every roadhouse we went in, there was a Marine sergeant, a football coach who started with, ‘Look at the Commies, the queers, is it a boy or a girl?’ “

* * *

Easy Rider was produced for about $400,000 and earned more than $50 million. Working as the director of the film, Dennis had made it on schedule and under budget. It appeared the movie had generated much more than fool’s gold!

* * *

Feeling his filmmaking oats after making Easy Rider, Dennis then embarked on his magnum opus, The Last Movie. Writing, directing and editing the film, Dennis had total creative control of every aspect of the picture.

The Last Movie is about a film crew that travels to Peru to make a western. After watching this film being made - there's a scene in which a man seemingly comes back from the dead after being killed doing a stunt - the local people think everything in the movie is really happening, so they begin creating their own movie-reality, actually hurting people in the process.

* * *

While editing about 40 hours of film exposed during the making of The Last Movie, Dennis moved into a house in Taos, New Mexico. In sight of the lovely Sangre de Cristo Mountains, Dennis made the house into a kind of hippie commune. Along the way, he married pop singer Michelle Phillips, a marriage that lasted for just eight days.

* * *

Most critics hated The Last Movie. Pauline Kael thought Dennis had ruined the movie in the editing room. About Dennis, she wrote: “This knockabout tragedy is not a vision of the chaos in the world . . . but a reflection of his (Hopper’s) own confusion.”

* * *

In 1971, Dennis played the part of a naïve youngster in Kid Blue, even though he was now 36. Afterwards, when he returned to his house/commune, he kicked out many of the hippie freeloaders. Also, at this point, animosity was building between Dennis’ party-hardy friends and the Spanish and Indian folks in Taos. Fearing for his life, Dennis was arrested and convicted for carrying a loaded .357 magnum revolver.

* * *

In the middle 1970s, Dennis acted in three good movies: Mad Dog Morgan, Apocalypse Now and The American Friend. Perhaps the most notable acting part of the three was when Dennis played an eccentric photojournalist in Apocalypse Now. Interestingly, Dennis had idolized Marlon Brando, who played the insane rogue Colonel Kurtz in the movie, but Brando refused to be on the same set with Dennis. In contrast, Dennis and Francis Ford Coppola, the director, got along just fine and even got drunk together.

* * *

While promoting The American Friend in Mexico, where Dennis became friendly with the wife of the Mexican president, Dennis was arrested for shooting guns in a Mexican town. Because of his friendship with the aforementioned lady, instead of being jailed, Dennis was taken to an airport and told to leave Mexico immediately.

* * *

In 1982, Dennis agreed to perform a dangerous stunt. While strapped into the so-called Russian Suicide Death Chair, Dennis survived the blast of six sticks of dynamite which had been wired to the chair. Shaken but otherwise all right, Dennis survived because the detonation left a vacuum for anybody sitting in the chair. Dennis did the trick because he was so paranoid from getting drunk and ripped on cocaine, he thought he was going to die soon anyway. And then, astonishingly, he performed the trick again somewhere else!

* * *

In 1983, Dennis entered Studio 12, a drug rehabilitation facility for movie industry people. Because Dennis was hearing voices as if he were schizophrenic, they pumped him full of Prolixin, an antipsychotic drug. Dennis thought alcohol had put him in rehab, so he gave it up. Eventually, though, he had to give up cocaine and all other inebriants.

* * *

Now clean and sober, Dennis made two of the best movies he ever appeared in. In Blue Velvet, Dennis played the part of psychopathic, sadistic criminal Frank Booth. As for Hoosiers, Dennis plays Shooter Flagg, an alcoholic coach who once had a shot at glory in his own school days playing basketball, but couldn’t make the big shot to win the championship. Now he wants to help his son’s basketball team win the high school title.

* * *

Beginning to be typecast, though he didn’t mind, Dennis played the part of another alcoholic father – this one with a gambling problem - in The Pickup Artist, starring Molly Ringwald. The movie didn’t do well at the box office, but people in Hollywood began to show Dennis respect for having gone through the rehabilitation process without becoming a preachy, hypocritical jerk.

* * *

In perhaps Dennis Hopper’s best directing job, he took the helm in Colors, a movie about gang warfare in contemporary Los Angeles. The movie starred Sean Penn, who reminded Dennis of James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause. Penn also reminded Dennis of Dennis Hopper, because Penn could be rebellious, temperamental and difficult to work with, a bad boy image that had gotten them both in trouble.

* * *

In 1994, playing villains nowadays, Dennis portrayed a deranged criminal in the blockbuster thriller Speed, starring Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock. Then he played the one-eyed nemesis of Kevin Costner in the post-apocalyptic, action-adventure movie Waterworld in 1995.

* * *

Returning to television late in his career, Dennis starred as a U.S. Army colonel in E-Ring, a drama set in the Pentagon. He also played the part of a record producer in the Starz TV series, Crash.

* * *

Two months before his death, Dennis Hopper was honored with a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. Dennis Hopper died on May 29, 2010. We should all be amazed that he lived to be 74!

To sum up Dennis Hopper’s genius for playing deranged characters, he once narrated a song entitled, “Fire Coming out of the Monkey’s Head.”

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