His management revealed his battle with cancer just last year and yesterday 74 year-old long-time film star Dennis Hopper passed away. His cultural legacy is most closely fused with the counter culture sensation Easy Rider (1969) which he directed, wrote and starred in. But it stretches back much further than that and was, at least at the start, quite a case of beginner's luck. When three of your first four movies are titles as major or enduring as Rebel Without a Cause (1955), Giant (1956) and Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957) than things are off to quite a good start no matter how you define such things.
After those promising early years, things got choppy. Addictions and reportedly volatile on set behavior may have derailed major movie stardom but his bad boy reputation, whatever the personal and professional costs, surely added to his iconoclast mystique.
In the end he's left quite a legacy to consider. Decades from now, if you'll excuse the pun, his bumpy journey through the cinema is going to look like an easy ride. So many classics pepper his filmography that his career looks quite consistently charmed once its visibly stretched over five decades of cinema: 1950s, Rebel and Giant; 1960s, Easy Rider and Cool Hand Luke; 1970s, Apocalypse Now; 1980s, Blue Velvet; 1990s, Speed. Many great actors never come close to lining up that many seminal films. And that's just the cream of the crop.
The last Hopper performance I personally saw was in the undervalued Elegy (2008) in which he plays Ben Kingsley's dying confidante. I attended that junket, in fact, though I don't attend many. I still remember how excited I was awaiting his response to a question about which films he considered most important if you were teaching film history. After all, hadn't he lived film history himself? He cited Citizen Kane, Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The 400 Blows and anything by Akira Kurosawa. When it came time to talk current directors he wanted to work with it was Oliver Stone and Woody Allen. The answer seemed, to these ears at least, roughly twenty years late. But it also weirdly coincided, chronologically speaking, with Hopper's last widely celebrated triumph, two of them to be exact: the deranged addict of Blue Velvet and the drunk assistant coach in Hoosiers (for which he received his only acting nomination. His other Oscar bid was for writing Easy Rider). Both of those films arrived in 1986 when Oliver Stone's Platoon and Woody Allen's Hannah and Her Sisters were the top contenders for Hollywood's gold statue.
<--- Dennis with Natalie Wood in 1956
But who am I to judge the timeliness of a response? Especially when there are so many decades of his work to wade through. I myself tend to get trapped in a much earlier decade when I think of Hopper. I always think of Rebel first -- though his role was minor -- because it's one of my all time favorites and because the title could well have been coopted for Hopper himself. That classic captured so many young talents memorably, providing us with early livewire peeks at their adult sized movie charisma. Four members of the famous cast died tragically: James Dean in a car crash in 1955, Nick Adams overdosed in 1968; Sal Mineo was murdered in 1976; and Natalie Wood drowned in 1981. Dennis Hopper outlived them all, breaking that mythical "Rebel Curse" and providing intermittent rewards to moviegoing audiences for 55 more years after '55.
He was acting until the end. He has two unseen film in the cans. One is but a voice role but in the other, the comedy The Last Film Festival (2010), he plays a producer. It's one of the only major showbiz roles he had yet to play in real life after hundreds of acting gigs, and a good handful as a writer/director.