Dennis Hopper, written off after first blaze of glory, left a fine body of work

 

DONALD CLARKElooks at the life and work of the star of 1960s cult film ‘Easy Rider’, who has died aged 74

PROFILES OF Dennis Hopper, who died in Los Angeles on Saturday at the age of 74, often argued that his story was one of squandered potential. This was, after all, an actor who, at just 19, appeared alongside James Dean in both Giantand Rebel Without a Cause. Later an exemplary student of Lee Strasberg, the guru of method acting, Hopper was surely destined to become one of the era’s big movie stars.

But look what happened. Regarded as inhumanly difficult by directors, rendered unreliable by dependence on drink and drugs, Hopper was blacklisted for long periods of his career and never quite managed to conquer the mainstream. So runs the line.

Yet, now that the time has come to write his obituary, we realise that Hopper, a child of middle-class parents from Kansas, lived one of the more delicious Hollywood lives.

In 1969, working in angry collaboration with Peter Fonda, he directed and starred in Easy Rider.One of the key films of the counter-culture and a significant force behind Hollywood’s early 1970s renaissance, that befuddled road movie seemed to provide us with a new all-American auteur. Sadly, the barmy The Last Movie– an incoherent follow-up filmed in a state of chemical confusion – proved to be an almighty flop and Hopper was dispatched into the semi-wilderness for another spell.

A decade after Easy Riderscared the horses, Hopper delivered an extraordinarily deranged – largely improvised, it is said – performance as “the photojournalist” in Francis Ford Coppola’s durable Apocalypse Now. Most critics adored Hopper’s turn, but tales of his on-set confusion continued to scare off producers and directors.

A further seven years passed before David Lynch unearthed Hopper, by then residing deep in Cult Valley, for his surreal thriller Blue Velvet. The myth goes that, after reading the script, in which the deranged Frank Booth terrorises an entire town, Hopper phoned up the director and screamed: “You have to let me play Frank Booth. Because I am Frank Booth!” A shuddering Lynch duly cast Hopper and watched delighted as cinema acquired one of its most agreeably revolting villains.

After Blue Velvet, Hopper gained a modicum of job security. Though he had a rather beautiful voice, his hawkish face and eccentric delivery always generated sinister energies. As a result, now clean of booze and drugs, he was repeatedly cast as the fulminating bad guy. He was on good form in Speed. He was, well, on screen in Super Mario Brothers: The Movie.

So, the whingers suggest, Hopper’s career comprised a canvas of dross held aloft by the tent-poles that were Easy Rider, Apocalypse Nowand Blue Velvet? Not at all. Burrow in the undergrowth and you find gems such as Wim Wenders’s The American Friend(1977), in which he played a mutated version of Patricia Highsmith’s anti-hero Tom Ripley, and Henry Jaglom’s Tracks(1976), the searing story of Vietnam veteran accompanying a late comrade’s coffin home for burial.

In retrospect, Hopper, latterly a keen art collector and decent painter, appears to have lived a more exciting, more productive existence than many of his more lauded contemporaries. James Dean wrapped his car around a tree before he was 25. Marlon Brando spent his last two decades in unhappy isolation.

You couldn’t say Hopper had a cosy private life. He was married five times and, in the last few months, while gravely ill from prostate cancer, fought one more messy divorce. Yet, for all his difficulties, Dennis Hopper somehow – a firm Republican in later years – always came across as the coolest guy in the room.

It was, on balance, a triumphant career. His like will not be seen again.