Photos courtesy of Walt Disney Studios and Overture Films
Story by Ryan Wilson

Dennis Hopper passed away last month, leaving behind a body of work to make any character actor envious. Hopper’s career was historic to say the least. As a young actor he starred with James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause and Giant. He also starred in True Grit with John Wayne, who reportedly didn’t like his antics on the set. Hopper is probably best known for his antics on screen. No matter the decade, Hopper was always a counter-culture figure, stretching his characters and our understanding of them, often to uncomfortable limits.

People began noticing Hopper after he wrote, directed, and starred in Easy Rider in 1969. Because of Hopper, Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild” will always conjure images of motorcycles on the open road. Hopper and Peter Fonda play two bikers searching for the true meaning of freedom, be it in drugs, brothels, or hippie communes. The film made an impact not because of the counterculture the two bikers represent, but because of the violence imposed on the two for simply looking and acting different. The two leads are literally blown off the road by rednecks. Hopper, suited in buckskin fringe, looks like Wild Bill, but he’s ironically the quiet presence in the film compared to Peter Fonda, whose leading man looks are cloaked in the American Flag. There’s also the football helmet wearing Jack Nicholson, as a lawyer upset with the status quo. He gets the best line of the film, saying that, “This used to be a hell of a good country. I can't understand what's gone wrong with it.” Easy Rider isn’t really a character study, but a visual metaphor for the 1960s. There’s little nuance to the story. Hopper understood that the visuals themselves could do more than dialogue.

Which is a bit strange because, as an actor, Dennis Hopper is known for his extraordinary delivery of dialogue. This began in 1979’s Apocalypse Now, where Hopper plays an unnamed American Photojournalist in Vietnam, who’s fallen under the sway of the crazed prophetic Colonel Kurtz, played by Marlon Brando. We meet Hopper’s character well before we meet Kurtz, and his crazy-eyed soliloquy about how the Colonel has “enlarged my mind” is an essential preamble to meeting Kurtz. In fact, I always found Hopper’s scenes to be more effective than Brando’s. If Apocalypse Now is about madness, then Hopper is the madness. I can’t imagine the movie without him.

Hopper was so good at playing strung-out that he spent the next thirty years in similar supporting parts. He was usually the crazy, ominous neighbor, crook, or monster.

1986 was a great year for Hopper, the year he seemed to perfect his art of playing the truly disturbed. First and foremost is his role as Frank Booth in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. This role might be Hopper’s masterpiece. As the gas-huffing sadomasochistic villain, he doesn’t appear just crazy but almost evil incarnate in his capacity for handing out abuse. The plot is basically the journey of the all-American boy, played by Kyle MacLachlan, whose curiosity and daring uncover the dark underbelly of his hometown. Hopper’s Booth represents that underbelly. Booth’s terrible actions aren’t even as bad as his sheer presence. Just drinking a beer with this character is unbearably unnerving, and that beer had better be Pabst Blue Ribbon. Never before on screen had the “F” word been used to such affect as it is coming out of Hopper’s twisted mouth. Blue Velvet has been deconstructed minutely by scholars for its symbolism, but it wouldn’t work without Hopper, who makes Frank Booth one of the greatest screen villains of all time.

Hopper saw more attention that year for his role in the basketball film Hoosiers, where he plays a small town drunk named Shooter, who befriends Gene Hackman’s troubled coach. It’s easy to dismiss Hopper’s role as Shooter, though it did earn him an Academy Award nomination. What strikes me is how sympathetic Hopper made his drunk. This is unusual for Hopper, who normally was cast as men well beyond redemption. If you look closely, you’ll see that every moment he’s on screen, Hopper makes his character fragile, breakable. While most of Hoosiers is sentimental and nostalgic, it’s Hopper’s presence that gives the movie gravity.

That same year Hopper also starred in a small independent film called River’s Edge. The film tells the story of a murder and cover-up by some disaffected teenagers. Hopper plays Feck, a secluded man rumored to have committed a similar crime in the 1960s. The small role is well within Hopper’s wheel-house, as it’s both unsettling and wild, but it also marked Hopper’s place for the next twenty years as the eccentric. He was cast in a number of independent productions, from a hit man in Red Rock West to a bartender in Sean Penn’s directing debut The Indian Runner. Just having him in the background added some menace. My favorite of these small roles was as ex-cop Clifford Worely in 1993’s True Romance, written by Quentin Tarantino. In the film Hopper delivers another stellar soliloquy.

Hopper would later cash in his persona for some villain roles in action pictures like Speed and Waterworld in the late ‘90s. His career low probably came as the villain in Super Mario Bros. based on the video game. But by then his strange legacy was already intact.

I’ll remember Hopper best for not just his acting or persona but for how he spoke. We’ll be quoting him for years to come, and I’ll think of him every time I hear a bad hippie impression. Right Man?

Take 5 on Film is a production of Delta College's WUCX Q 90.1, airing every Saturday at 8:35 a.m. and again at 9:35 a.m. and produced by Jennifer Vande Zande. For more information, visit deltabroadcasting.org.

© Ryan Wilson, 2010