He was one of the most revered actors of our times, known to moviegoers for his iconic turns in such films as Easy Rider, Apocalypse Now, Blue Velvet, True Romance and Hoosiers. And yet horror fans can also take pride that this respected figure in Hollywood, one of the most "legit" performers of the past 40 years, was also a part of two of the most beloved horror franchises of the past 40 years: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and George Romero's Living Dead series. Last Saturday, Hopper passed away after a quiet eight-year battle with prostate cancer, just 12 days past his 74th birthday.
Hopper was a key part of a very crucial, transformative period in American film making. After a career as a child actor on the stage, he burst on the scene in the 1950s, part of the early wave of post-World War II method actors that washed over Hollywood. Still a teen, he found early success in westerns on TV and the big screen, and fell in with James Dean's circle, appearing with the legendary, ill-fated actor in Rebel Without a Cause and Giant.
But even early on, Hopper was what we might politely call "eccentric", making scenes on-set and quickly gaining a rep for being difficult, culminating in being banned from the MGM lot by the lord of all movie moguls, Louis B. Mayer, after a very heated argument over the young actor's desire to play Shakespearean roles. By the '60s, the young man who had once been one of the last of Hollywood's traditional contract players began taking chances with edgier, independent cinema.
This meant working with grindhouse icon Roger Corman, and it also meant dabbling in horror. In 1961, he made his horror debut with Night Tide, a quirky picture about a guy who falls in love with a girl who turns out to be a killer mermaid. He starred in the 1963 Twilight Zone episode "He's Alive", about Nazis operating in the United States. Three years later, he appeared alongside genre faves John Saxon and Basil Rathbone in the AIP alien vampire flick Queen of Blood.
During the '60s, Hopper went from potential teenage matinee idol to part of a burgeoning counterculture movement within Hollywood, which culminated in 1969 with Easy Rider, the film he directed, which literally altered the American film landscape overnight. Hopper, no doubt bitter over previous treatment, was one of those who eagerly danced on the grave of "old Hollywood," once famously declaring at a dinner party to Gone with the Wind co-director George Cukor, "We are going to bury you!"
But although Hopper was undoubtedly part of the movement that transitioned cinema into the "modern era", his own personal demons--including substance addiction--prevented him from following through on his early promise as well as he and others would've liked. He reinvigorated his career to a degree by the end of the '70s with an unforgettable supporting part in Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now, but his star had unquestionably fallen.
It might not have been what he most wanted to be doing, but as he attempted to piece his career back together on the comeback trail, Hopper wasn't above returning to his genre roots. He most notably did so in 1986 for Tobe Hooper's long-awaited Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, in which he played police lieutenant Lefty Enright, uncle of the original film's Sally and Franklin, out for vengeance against Leatherface and the gang. Despite Hopper citing the film as the worst he was ever in, it is his best-remembered horror role, and directly preceded the film that put the exclamation point on the Hopper comeback, David Lynch's Blue Velvet.
Into the 1990s and beyond, Dennis Hopper continued taking on the occasional genre role--often to his detriment in films like Super Mario Bros. and the infamous Waterworld. He starred in the 1994 HBO film Witch Hunt, in which he played a private detective named H. Phillip Lovecraft (!) operating in an alternate-reality 1950s in which everyone practices magic. Eight years later, he appeared with Lance Henriksen in the poorly received, low-budget thriller Unspeakable.
But Hopper would turn a lot of heads with his final horror appearance, in George Romero's 2005 big-budget return to the zombie genre, Land of the Dead. Despite his paradoxical real-life Republican affiliations, Hopper gleefully parodied George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld with the villainous part of Kaufman, unscrupulous owner of Fiddler's Green, a tiny enclave of humanity amidst a world overrun by the dead. Also featuring Simon Baker and John Leguizamo, the film was Romero's first studio-backed zombie film--the first to feature marquee actors--and Hopper's name on the bill undoubtedly helped raise the project's profile.
Dennis Lee Hopper was a true original and a Hollywood trailblazer who wasn't afraid to take chances (sometimes by necessity) and shake up the status quo. Along the way, this brilliant actor and filmmaker left his indelible mark on the history of cinema, from his mainstream dramatic performances, to the genre appearances horror fans will particularly cherish in their hearts.