The Associated Press reports that actor Dennis Hopper, best known for starring in EASY RIDER, which he also directed and co-wrote, has died at the age of 74. The news is not surprising, since Hopper was diagnosed with stomach cancer a short time ago; it is, nevertheless, a sad blow to a generation of viewers who grew up watching his mad antics on screen – and reading about his equally mad antics off screen. Hopper helped define the ’60s, for both good and ill – the wild-eyed, naive optimism and creativity versus the drug-fueled mania and irresponsibility; now he’s gone to join his spiritual kin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, et al.
It would be a bit of a stretch to claim Hopper as a star of cinefantastique, but his length resume contains numerous horror, fantasy, and science fiction films, including THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2 (1986), BLUE VELVET (1986), WATERWORLD (1995), and George A. Romero’s LAND OF THE DEAD (2004).
One of his earliest starring roles was in NIGHT TIDE (1961), an atmospheric tale written and directed by Curtis Harrington, that deliberately evoked the mood and style of the 1940s horror films produced by Val Lewton, especially CAT PEOPLE (1942). In it, Hopper played Johnny Drake, a young sailor on shore leave, who falls in love with a woman who plays a mermaid in a carnival sideshow. Whether or not she may be a real mermaid forms the crux of the plot – a question that the film leaves deliberately unanswered. Hopper exhibits few of the traits for which he would become famous, instead offering a portrait of an everyman caught in a murky situation that he cannot solve despite his most sincere efforts.
Hopper later showed up in Harrington’s QUEEN OF BLOOD (1966), a cheapie sci-fi film co-starring John Saxon and Basil Rathbone. He was in Roger Corman’s surreal take on LSD, THE TRIP (1967), written by Jack Nicholson. A decade later, he played a crazed photojournalist in APOCALYPSE NOW – which, I’m found of recalling, made Stephen King’s list of 10 Best Horror Films in 1979 (as published in Rolling Stone magazine).
Although EASY RIDER (1969) had made him an international star, Hopper did little of note for many years, often portraying variations on his familiar persona. For instance, in MY SCIENCE PROJECT (1985), he seems to be playing a burned-out version of himself (although the film’s goofy time-travel scenario allows him to rejuvenate by the end).
Hopper’s career took a major turn when he appeared in David Lynch’s dark and disturbing murder-mystery BLUE VELVET (1986). Hopper’s portrayal of the homcidal sexual deviant Frank Booth went way beyond the comfort zone of many viewers, establishing new standards for screen villainy. Suddenly, Hopper was no longer just an aging hippie trading on past glories; for the next decade and beyond, he was an in-demand character actor – although often in demand as a bad guy or killer, in films like RED ROCK WEST (1993) and SPEED (1994).
Also in 1986, Hopper played Lt. Lefty Enright in THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2. Although frowned upon by fans of the original CHAINSAW MASSACRE, this sequel is actually an amusing black-comedy variation on its source. One of the many twisted jokes is that Hopper’s character, out to avenge a relative’s death at the hands of the chainsaw family, is virtually as crazed as the killers he is tracking.
WATERWORLD (1995) saw Hopper playing another SPEED-type villain in the infamous big-budget debacle starring Kevin Costner. Despite the film’s bad reputation – based on an out-of-control budget that killed its chance for profitability before it was ever released – the film is more fun than you would imagine, and Hopper is not bad in it, even if he is retreading old ground.
SPACE TRUCKERS (1996) gave Hopper a chance to play a hero for a change, a trucker hauling cargo through outer space who runs afoul of interstellar pirates and robots. Although directed by cult figure Stuart Gordon, the film was unable to secure theatrical distribution and wound up debutting on Showtime Cable. It’s not very good, but B-movie fans may get a kick out of it, and it’s nice to see Hopper given a chance to play a likable guy.
LAND OF THE DEAD (2005) offered another devious character for Hopper to play, this time a millionaire who has managed to forge a small island of civilization in the middle of the zombie apocalypse. It’s not necessarily one of Hopper’s greatest performances, but he does get to deliver a couple of memorable lines: “Zombies, man – they creep me out” and “In a world where the dead are returning to life, the word ‘trouble’ loses much of its meaning.”
Other genre credits include SUPER MARIO BROTHERS (1993); the made-for-HBO WITCH HUNT (1994) in which he starred as a private detective named H.P. Lovecraft; JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS (2000); THE CROW: WICKED PRAYER (2005); AN AMERICAN CAROL (2008), and a 2009 video game known as DEADLY CREATURES. According to IMDB, his last credit was providing one of the voices for the animated adventure ALPHA AND OMEGA, which is scheduled for release this September.
Hopper appeared in dozens of others movies and television episodes; he also directed several films. But for me, he will always be most memorable as “Lyle from Dallas” in John Dahl’s brillaint neo noir RED ROCK WEST. Although at first glance, Lyle is just another villainous killer, Hopper invest the man with the occasional flash of humanity (as when he commiserates with fellow former marine played by Nicolas Cage about the shit that went down in the first Gulf war). Even better, Hopper had the inspiration to play Lyle as a man with low self-esteem. He’s definitely dangerous, but his most noticeable characteristic is that he seems insecure. “You think you’re too good for me?” he asks of Cage’s Michael Williams, and the question seems less angry than hurt.
That’s how I will remember Hopper. He had a reputation for being difficult, even crazy (he blew a chance to play Christof, the Ed Harris role, in THE TRUMAN SHOW). But I like to think that underneath the mania, there was this hurt, frightened little guy who just wanted to be accepted, in spite of his intimidating reputation.