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Strange World Of...

The Strange & Frightening World Of... Dennis Hopper RIP
James Holloway , May 29th, 2010 14:22

James Holloway mourns Actor, Director and some-time Artist Dennis Hopper, a man who always seemed to be in the right place at the right time to be a part of numerous era defining cultural moments and who wrote the book for on-screen insanity

Some five years ago possibly the defining image of Dennis Hopper for me and my flatmates, was chanced upon during a rather boozy and disinterested viewing of boneheaded action classic Speed. Hopper plays the narked ex-cop who for some reason likes the idea of playing with real buses in the same way I used to play with toy cars, that is attempting to make them explode. The crowning moment for us came when Keanu Reeves despatches Hopper during a fight on top of a subway train through the creative application of his head to a overhead light fitting. A crowd pleasing death made all the more satisfying by Hopper's fafetful scream both seconds before and most notably after he suffered his fatal decapitation.

That Hopper managed to scream manically with his head separated from his body is somewhat unsurprising given his varied and somewhat rich career in playing characters with profoundly detached mental faculties, so the idea of Hopper's head living on after him seems wholly appropriate. Let us then mourn the passing of a great if deeply troubed (and sometimes deeply unpleasant) man who has left an indelible mark on a surprisingly diverse range of well respected cultural forms.

1. Rebel Without a Cause

Hopper's career was charmed from the start, with a stint in Rebel Without A Cause with James Dean where he plays a young ruffian named Goon, embodying all of the leading man’s intensity but with a more realistic face.

2. Ike and Tina Turner - River Deep, Mountain High

Hopper was always a keen artist, but bizarrely it was he who created the original cover art for Ike and Tina Turner's version of River Deep, Mountain High. Other examples of his keenly brilliant photographic eye can be seen adorning the cover to the retrospective anthologies of The Smiths, Best I & II, do doubt aided by Morrissey’s love of James Dean.

3. Easy Rider

With Easy Rider, Hopper along with Peter Fonda was probably most responsible for the wave of counter-cultural and radically different 'director' focused cinema of the 1970's. Easy Rider was also directly responsible for making a star out of a young Jack Nicholson. Hopper and Fonda fought constantly during the production of Easy Rider, Fonda admitting in interview years later that he often carried a 'skull crushing' motorcycle chain should Dennis push him over the edge with his egomania. Much has been made in recent years by Rip Torn and several authors about how Terry Southern was never given his rightful due after the film became a cultural monolith but one still can’t underestimate Hopper’s influence as provocateur, inspirator and key presence at the film’s heart.

4. Apocalypse Now

After seeing his directing career crash and burn with The Last Movie, Hopper cemented his reputation as the go-to guy for drug addled drop-outs with his cameo as a photographer entranced by Marlon Brando's Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. Those interested in the history of New Hollywood’s golden period (’69 – ’80 as passionately recorded in Peter Biskind’s excellent Easy Riders, Raging Bulls…) would be well advised to watch Eleanor Coppola’s engaging documentary on the farcical scenes behind the camera, Hearts Of Darkness. One highlight is a clearly addled Hopper explaining to his hirsute director how his new method of acting included “forgetting” his lines, only to be told by an irritated Francis Ford Coppola that in order to do this he would have to learn them first. It was also written into Marlon Brando's contract that he wouldn't have to appear on set with Dennis Hopper at any time.

5. Blue Velvet

Perhaps Hopper's defining role following the collapse of his directing career came in David Lynch's Blue Velvet with his turn as the utterly unhinged Oedipal psychopath Frank Booth. A classic film, even without his input, Hopper literally dominated the screen in a role that years later won him the award of best ever screen villain from the Observer.

6. Nike and the wilderness years

Hopper's unhinged on-camera persona was in full flow in this early 90s commercial and he cashed in majorly with more antagonist roles in Super Mario Bros, Waterworld and of course Speed. None of which exactly bothered the award granting set. His money driven need to keep on working no matter what the job meant he wasn’t available to appear in the film that surely would have rescued his career, as Mr Blonde in Reservoir Dogs.

7. True Romance

However he did get to revel in Quentin Tarantino’s pop culture savvy wordplay, albeit with Tony Scott in the director’s chair instead. In this curious but extremely exciting and emotional film, Hopper gives one of the most brilliant performances of his career, infusing a broken man with sensitivity and dignity right at the end of his life. He stands out, even amongst a stellar cast.

8. Grand Theft Auto: Vice City

Always happy to play with parodies of himself, Hopper appeared in cameo as a 'psuedo intellectual' film director in classic game Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, which heralded the 2000s obsession with all things 80s and made game voice over work respectable for established acting talent. Seen here with Ray Liotta and Jenna Jameson.

9. Gorillaz

Always open to a range of mediums, Hopper recorded the narration for Gorillaz 'Fire Coming Out of the Monkey's Head' on their Demon Days album. His unmistakable tones can also be heard livening up the already excitable ‘Jesus Built My Hotrod’ by Ministry featuring the Butthole Surfers’ Gibby Haynes.

10. The artist

Hopper's lifelong interest and involvement in photography and painting received a retrospective at the Tony Shafri Gallery in New York in 2009, highlighting his varied career.

Dennis Hopper. Born May 17th 1936. Died May 29th 2010, from complications following prostate cancer

Should you wish to support ongoing research and raise awareness of prostate cancer, The Great Drag Race is being held on the 19th of June in London Fields in London. Further details about how to get involved are avaliable from