Thursday 18 January 2018

An actor who became as famous for the "lost" years as he did for his enormous productivity

Hopper spent the 1970s in a spiral of substance abuse, reputedly consuming daily a gallon of rum and 20 beers

DENNIS Hopper, the American actor who died on Saturday aged 74, appeared in more than 100 films. But Hopper was more than just an actor/director. He was also a producer, screenwriter, photographer, painter and art collector who knew or worked with almost every significant American artist of the second half of the 20th Century.

Yet despite his achievements and a list of friends that ranged from James Dean through Miles Davis and William Burroughs, Hopper was as famous for addictions and his "lost" years as for his enormous, if uneven, productivity.

After becoming substance-free in the early 1980s, he constructed a second career as Hollywood's favourite villain -- a tame conclusion to a career that had started with Shakespeare and roles opposite James Dean.

'Easy Rider' (1969) was a searing indictment of a conformity to which Dennis Hopper heroically refused to bow. But he was the victim of his own towering ambition to be more than an actor -- to be an artist, director, iconoclast and all-embracing spirit of the 1960s. It was this zest, fired by the romantic rhetoric of his youth, that meant he ultimately underperformed.

Dennis Lee Hopper was born in Dodge City, Kansas, on May 17, 1936. For much of his childhood he lived with his grandparents on their farm with "no neighbours ... just a train that came through once a day". When he went to the cinema he suddenly realised "where the train came from and went to".

The family moved to Kansas City and then San Diego, where he attended high school and became obsessed by cinema, despite his mother's implacable opposition to a career in films. He won a scholarship to San Diego's Old Globe Theatre, where he enjoyed playing "the mad and the bad" of Shakespeare -- Hamlet, Macbeth, Iago. After appearing in the television series 'Medic' he signed to Warner Brothers, whose boss was impressed by his having told a rival studio boss, the celebrated Harry Cohn, to "Go f*** yourself" when Cohn announced he could not stand Shakespeare.

Hopper was exceptionally self-assured, convinced he was the best young actor around until he saw James Dean, with whom he worked on the classic, 'Rebel Without A Cause' (1955). He became obsessed by Dean, by his techniques, by method acting and by Dean's instruction to "just smoke the cigarette, don't act like you're smoking a cigarette".

They appeared again together in 'Giant' (1956). Immediately after filming, Dean was killed. Hopper, distraught at the loss of his mentor and hero, attempted to appropriate Dean's image and method and concluded that rebelliousness was the leitmotif of artistic integrity. It proved a disastrous conclusion.

In 'From Hell To Texas' (1958) Hopper sought the artistic licence that the reactionary director Henry Hathaway would never permit. After a clash of wills, Hopper took 85 takes before capitulating to Hathaway's demands and, at 21, found himself blackballed from Hollywood.

Moving to New York, he acted on Broadway and television and immersed himself in the cultural life of the city. He started collecting art, including work by Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, and Andy Warhol, to whom he paid $75 for his first Campbell's Soup painting. The collection, which cost $28,000, was surrendered to his first wife on their divorce in 1969. She immediately sold it for $700,000. By 2000 it would have been worth between $40m and $60m.

Having married Brooke Hayward (daughter of the actress Margaret Sullavan), Hopper returned to California and resumed acting -- even for Hathaway, in the John Wayne vehicles 'The Sons of Katie Elder' (1965) and 'True Grit' (1969).

Meanwhile, his house became a magnet for the underground and a hotel for east coast artists travelling west. Always prone to alcoholism, Hopper added LSD and cocaine to his repertoire and began consorting with the likes of Charles Bukowski, William Burroughs and Timothy Leary. His behaviour degenerated accordingly.

He was the perfect director for 'Easy Rider', which was made for less than $400,000 and took more than $40m at the box office. Hopper, however, spent the 1970s in a spiral propelled by massive substance abuse. By the time he appeared in Wim Wenders 'The American Friend' (1976) he was reputedly consuming daily a gallon of rum, 20 beers and three grams of cocaine.

HE was admitted to hospital as a paranoid and underwent lengthy detoxification that left him with regret about "the 15 years that I should have had a creative life and didn't".

He re-emerged as an alcoholic father in Coppola's 'Rumblefish' (1983), as an abusive father in 'Out of the Blue' (1984), an alcoholic basketball star in 'Hoosiers' (1986) and the psychotic Frank Booth in 'Blue Velvet' (1986).

Allowed the directorial chair again for 'Colors' (1987), Hopper was firmly installed as Hollywood's villain of choice and was appropriately menacing in 'Rivers Edge' (1987), drunk in 'The Pick-Up Artist' (1987) and evil in 'Paris Trout' (1991).

Having avoided his addictions for more than a decade, Hopper worked relentlessly from 'True Romance' (1993) through to his co-starring role in 'Elegy' (2008) with Ben Kingsley, Penelope Cruz and Debbie Harry.

Dennis Hopper was married five times. His last wife was the actress-singer Victoria Duffy, who he married in 1996 but filed for divorce when told that his cancer was terminal last January. He had a daughter by his first and third marriages; a son by his fourth; and another daughter by his fifth. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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