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Dennis Hopper Dies at 74

Dennis Hopper, who brought the counterculture to Hollywood with "Easy Rider" and led a career marked by successes, failures and comebacks, has died at age 74.

Hopper, who was twice nominated for Oscars and earned a star this year on the Walk of Fame, died Saturday at his home in the Venice neighborhood of Los Angeles, family friend Alex Hitz said. Hopper had been diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2009.

"We rode the highways of America and changed the way movies were made in Hollywood," Peter Fonda, his "Easy Rider" co-star, said in comments carried by several news outlets. "I was blessed by his passion and friendship."

The success of "Easy Rider" and failure of his next film, "The Last Movie," fit the pattern for the talented but wild Hopper, who also had parts in such favorites as "Rebel Without a Cause," ''Apocalypse Now," ''Blue Velvet" and " Hoosiers."

Other tributes were posted on celebrities' websites and Twitter feeds.

"So long Dennis," actress Virginia Madsen, who starred in the Hopper-directed "The Hot Spot," said on her Twitter page. "U taught me so much."

After a promising start that included roles in two James Dean films, Hopper's acting career languished as he developed a reputation for tantrums and drug abuse. On the set of "True Grit," Hopper so angered John Wayne that the star reportedly chased Hopper with a loaded gun.

"Much of Hollywood," wrote critic-historian David Thomson, "found Hopper a pain in the neck."

All was forgiven when he collaborated with Fonda on a script about two pot-smoking, drug-dealing hippies on a cross-country motorcycle trip.

On the way, Hopper and Fonda befriend a drunken young lawyer (Jack Nicholson in a breakout role) but arouse the enmity of Southern rednecks and are murdered before they can return home.

"'Easy Rider' was never a motorcycle movie to me," Hopper said in 2009. "A lot of it was about politically what was going on in the country."

Fonda produced "Easy Rider" and Hopper directed it for a meager $380,000. It went on to gross $40 million worldwide, a substantial sum for its time.

It was a hit at Cannes, netted a best-screenplay Oscar nomination for Hopper, Fonda and Terry Southern.

The establishment gave official blessing in 1998 when "Easy Rider" was included in the United States National Film Registry for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."

Its success prompted studio heads to schedule a new kind of movie: low cost, with inventive photography and themes about a restive baby boom generation. With Hopper hailed as a brilliant filmmaker, Universal Pictures lavished $850,000 on his next project, "The Last Movie."

The title was prescient. Hopper took a large cast and crew to a village in Peru to film the tale of a tribe corrupted by a movie company. Trouble on the set developed almost immediately, as Peruvian authorities pestered the company and drug-induced orgies were reported.

The film took a drug-and-drink addled Hopper nearly a year to edit, and when it was released, "The Last Movie" was such a crashing failure that it made Hopper unwanted in Hollywood for a decade, and forced him to find work in Europe.

He made a remarkable comeback, starting with a memorable performance as a drugged-out journalist in Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 Vietnam War epic, "Apocalypse Now." Hopper was on drugs off camera, too, and his rambling chatter was worked into the film.

Hopper made a series of scattershot film appearances in the 1980s, but steady use of drugs and alcohol led him into rehab and at one point a hospital's psychiatric ward.

Upon his release, Hopper joined Alcoholics Anonymous, quit drugs and launched yet another comeback. It began in 1986 when he played an alcoholic ex-basketball star in "Hoosiers," and earned an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor.

His role as a wild drunk in "Blue Velvet," also in 1986, won him more acclaim, and years later the character wound up No. 36 on the AFI's list of top 50 movie villains.

He also returned to directing, with "Colors," ''The Hot Spot" and "Chasers."

Dennis Lee Hopper was born in 1936, in Dodge City, Kan., and spent much of his youth on the nearby farm of his grandparents.

After moving to San Diego with his family, he played Shakespeare at the Old Globe Theater.

Scouted by the studios, Hopper was under contract to Columbia until he insulted the boss, Harry Cohn. From there he went to Warner Bros., where he made "Rebel Without a Cause" and "Giant" while in his late teens.

Later, he moved to New York to study at the Actors Studio, where Dean had learned his craft.

Hopper married five times. In January he filed to end his 14-year marriage to Victoria Hopper, who said in court filings that the actor was seeking to cut her out of her inheritance, a claim Hopper denied.

He was married to a scion of a Hollywood family Brooke Hayward for eight years and to Mamas and the Papas singer Michelle Phillips for eight days.

He married Victoria Duffy, who was 32 years his junior, in 1996.

Hopper maintained a frantic work pace in the last two decades of his life.

He made it to the top of the box office as a vengeful bus bomber in the 1994 hit "Speed," and in the 2000s, he was featured in such films as "Jesus' Son" and the television series "Crash."

"Work is fun to me," Hopper told a reporter in 1991. "All those years of being an actor and a director and not being able to get a job — two weeks is too long to not know what my next job will be."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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