Dennis Hopper’s film career began during a period of great transition. The 1960s were a tumultuous time for the United States, and the era of Old Hollywood gave way to the New Hollywood movement. Young artists from the counterculture generation emerged to become some of the most celebrated filmmakers of all time. One of the first of these New Hollywood films was Easy Rider, starring Hopper and Peter Fonda. Grab a hold of that PBR and enjoy these 50 wild facts about Dennis Hopper, Hollywood rebel.
Dennis Hopper Facts
1. Day One
Dennis Lee Hopper was born on May 17, 1936, in Dodge City, Kansas. His father, James, worked as a post office manager while his mother, Marjorie, supervised a swimming pool.
2. I Found My Icon
Hopper’s film career began when he appeared alongside film legend James Dean in both Rebel Without a Cause and Giant. Hopper later admitted that he arrogantly considered himself to be the best young actor around, until he met Dean. Unlike Hopper’s Shakespearean training, Dean had a flair for improvisation as well as drinking and smoking rather than just miming the actions for the camera. Hopper called Dean the best actor he’d ever worked alongside.
3. For Too Brief a Moment
As you can imagine, Hopper was particularly devastated when James Dean met his untimely end in 1955. When his agent told him the news, Hopper was in a small Los Angeles theater. He was so distressed that he fled into the street. Dean continued to impact Hopper throughout his career, such as when Hopper improvised his way through his performance in Apocalypse Now.
4. The Production from Hell
Following his work with James Dean, Hopper acted in the 1958 film From Hell to Texas. However, foreshadowing Hopper’s troubled and controversial film career, he clashed viciously with the film’s director, Henry Hathaway. During the production, Hopper once insisted on reshooting a specific scene more than 80 times. Hathaway told Hopper that he was finished in Hollywood when production wrapped.
5. What Might Have Been
While Hopper is easily remembered for his eclectic acting career, he was always interested in directing films as well. In fact, the only reason why Hopper even participated in his big break Easy Rider was that Peter Fonda promised Hopper that he’d also get to direct. Even in his old age, Hopper always lamented that he never got the directing career he felt he deserved.
6. We Shall Overcome!
As well as being a child of the counterculture movement, Hopper also participated in the Civil Rights Movement. He marched alongside Martin Luther King Jr. on at least one occasion during the 1960s.
7. How Did he Live So Long?
Hopper’s career was constantly marred, or even defined, by his struggles with substances. In one interview, Hopper revealed his lowest point. He spent a period of his life consuming “half a gallon of rum, 28 beers, and three grams of blow” on a daily basis.
8. It’s All Art
Long before Hopper was interested in films or television, he wanted to pursue the visual arts. As a child in Kansas City, Hopper took painting lessons at the Nelson-Atkins Museum.
9. Friends in the Right Places
According to Hopper, the person we have to thank for giving Hopper his film career is none other than John Wayne. After burning bridges on From Hell to Texas, Hopper gained a reputation for being difficult and was blacklisted in Hollywood. However, he happened to be the son-in-law of Wayne’s friend, the great American actress Margaret Sullavan.
As a result of this connection, Wayne arranged for Hopper to be hired onto the film The Sons of Katie Elder. Incredibly, this film’s director was none other than Henry Hathaway. He must have been thrilled to see Hopper on set...or not.
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10. Light Up!
In true counterculture spirit, Hopper was often on illicit substances while working on the film Easy Rider. Few viewers realize that all the marijuana scenes in the film were done with the genuine article. In fact, Jack Nicholson claimed that he, Hopper, and Peter Fonda went through over a hundred joints just to complete a single scene together.
11. Not Exactly a Meet-Cute
During his younger years, Hopper studied acting at Lee Strasberg’s school in New York. While he was there, Hopper encountered a then-unknown Marilyn Monroe. According to Hopper, Monroe “kept herself to herself in class, never wore make-up, wore a bandanna over her hair, and baggy trousers and a sweatshirt.” Hopper also admitted that if he were trapped on a desert island with any actress, he’d have picked Monroe.
12. To the Small Screen
Because his dubious reputation had almost ruined his film career, Hopper turned to television for work. Keep in mind that this was back when film actors looked down their noses at television actors, so it was seen as a step down for Hopper. During his life, Hopper appeared in over 140 episodes of such series as The Twilight Zone, Entourage, Gunsmoke, and 24.
13. It’s an Honor to be Nominated, Right?
Hopper was nominated for two Oscars during his lifetime. One was for his contributions to the screenplay of Easy Rider, while the other was an acting nomination for his role in the film Hoosiers. He didn’t win either of them, unfortunately. On a brighter note, Hopper achieved a rare accomplishment at the 1988 Golden Globes. He competed against himself because he was nominated twice in the same category, receiving two Supporting Actor nominations for Hoosiers and Blue Velvet.
14. Not a Bad Choice!
Actors don’t necessarily like all the film projects they work on, and Hopper was no exception. He even revealed which of his own films was the worst: an "awful" flick called White Star from the 1980s.
15. An Old Trick
When Hopper had to act drunk during a scene in the film Hoosiers, he requested a 10-second warning before “Action” was called. He spent those ten seconds spinning round and round to give himself a clumsy, confused walk which made him seem inebriated. Hopper claimed that he learned this strategy from James Dean on the set of Giant.
16. Say Cheese!
One side effect of Hopper being ostracized from Hollywood during the 1960s was that in his spare time, he delved into a surprising pastime: photography. It wasn’t just a hobby, either. Hopper was well known in many circles for his photography skills. Among his most well-known works was the cover art for Ike and Tina Turner’s 1966 single River Deep – Mountain High.
17. Would You Call That a Fail or a Success?
In Easy Rider, the two main characters (radical, counter-culture men with long hair) motorcycle through the American South and are treated with hostility by the locals. This cruel treatment wasn't confined to the page, but to real life as well. Dennis Hopper once recounted an incident where he played a joke to see how bad things could get. He walked into a small bar, and loudly announced, “Hi there, I’m on my way to the peace march.” Immediately, eight different men attacked him!
18. The Three Amigos
In the late 1970s, Hollywood wanted to adapt the notorious William S. Burroughs’ novel Junkie into a film. Hopper, being Burroughs’ friend, persuaded the producer that he was the man for the job. He, Burroughs, and screenwriter Terry Southern were each paid $45,000 to come up with a script. After what must have been a hard-partying year of living together in New York, the three men had 14 different screenplays between them, and the film was still left on the shelf.
19. Always Comes in Threes
Hopper’s death was part of an eerie trio. He was one of three different actors who’d worked on Rebel Without a Cause who passed away in the first half of 2010. The other two actors were Corey Allen and Steffi Sidney.
20. Make that Paper
At one point in his career, Hopper was paid $780,000 to appear in some truly weird commercials for Japanese television. According to Hopper himself, one of these commercials involved him sitting in a bathtub with a rubber ducky. Hey, even movie stars need to pay the bills.
21. Close Call
Hopper's role in Blue Velvet has become one of his most celebrated performances, and for good reason. Few people realize that one of Hopper's ideas changed the film's entire tone. Originally, the villain Frank Booth was addicted to helium, but Hopper was convinced that he should be addicted to amyl nitrite instead. Writer/director David Lynch later admitted that it was the right move, as the idea of a high-pitched villain would have been too laughable to take seriously.
22. An Auteur in Every Sense of the Word
Hopper was an incredibly respected figure in the art and photography communities. His art collection, as well as his own original works, have been displayed around the world such as in Amsterdam, Minneapolis, Paris, Melbourne, and Washington DC.
23. Missed Opportunity
Hopper’s performance as Frank Booth in the 1986 film Blue Velvet has often been hailed as one of the best villains in American film. However, Hopper only got the role after several other actors turned the opportunity down. Apparently, the controversial character was just too repulsive for their taste. Hey, someone's too-creepy-villain is another person's iconic role.
24. Everyone’s a Critic…
One of the most infamous films of Dennis Hopper’s career was the film Super Mario Bros., a universally despised adaptation of the ultrapopular video game franchise. Hopper portrayed the villain and later admitted that the production was a complete mess. Reportedly, Hopper’s own son asked his dad why he acted in that awful film.
When Hopper explained “Well Henry, I did that so you could have shoes,” his son replied “Dad, I don’t need shoes that badly.”
25. Well Remembered
As of 2019, the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry is preserving six of Hopper's films for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically” significant. Most actors would be happy with one!
26. Not a Good Look
Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now has gone into legend as being one of the most tumultuous, chaotic, and grueling film productions of all time. One of the side effects of this production was rampant substance abuse amongst the cast and crew, and Hopper was no exception to that. In fact, he allegedly persuaded actor Laurence Fishburne to try out smack. That's pretty bad, but the worst part?
Fishburne was only 14 years old at the time.
27. Lost Works
By 1961, Hopper had already completed a large number of paintings, and even tried his hand at poetry. However, disaster struck that year in the form of a devastating fire which devastated many homes in the Bel Air region. Hopper’s home was one of those affected, and none of his artworks survived the blaze.
28. From the Ashes Rises the Phoenix
Before production on Easy Rider began, actor Rip Torn was initially cast in the film. This came to an abrupt end when he had a serious altercation with Hopper. Hopper even pulled a knife on Torn, which understandably resulted in him washing his hands of that production. Jack Nicholson got Torn’s role instead, resulting in him getting his own big break.
29. He’s an Actor, Not a Prophet
Fans of the sports film Hoosiers might remember a scene where Hopper and Gene Hackman’s characters are speaking, only for Hopper to burst out laughing for no clear reason. Years later, he revealed what happened behind-the-scenes. Allegedly, Hackman confided in Hopper: "Hopper, I hope you've invested well, because you and I are never gonna work after this movie. This is a career-ending film for both of us."
More than 20 years after Easy Rider was first released, Hopper appeared on Jay Leno’s Tonight Show and retold the anecdote about Rip Torn and the knife. However, Hopper blamed Torn for pulling the knife rather than himself. This resulted in Torn successfully suing Hopper for defamation.
31. Wait, was That Line in the Script?
Any actor would be stoked to say that they worked with Marlon Brando. Hopper, however, could claim something even more special. During their work together on Apocalypse Now, a simple misunderstanding caused Brando to yell at Hopper. While anyone else might try to clear things up, Hopper leaned into it by antagonizing Brando at any opportunity he could find.
32. Do We Call Him “Sire?”
During his early days in Hollywood, Hopper was roommates with actor Nick Adams, who introduced Hopper to Elvis Presley in 1956. At the time, the King of Rock & Roll was breaking into film acting for the first time. Adams and Hopper befriended Presley and even hung out with him on several occasions.
33. You’ve Got a Friend in Me
After his work on Apocalypse Now, Hopper was in rough shape. He was physically exhausted from filming out in the jungle, and his addiction troubles were out of control. Hopper credited Wim Wenders, the director of Hopper’s next film The American Friend, with saving his life. It was Wenders who was concerned enough about Hopper to help him dry out and get himself looked after.
34. Starring Me!
In 1971, a documentary film was made about Hopper, titled The American Dreamer. Hopper spends the documentary philosophizing and giving his views on literature, life, love, and nudity to the audience. Contrary to what you might think, it was a rather exposing documentary, in that it featured nudity from Hopper. You can’t say he didn’t put his money where his mouth was.
35. Eat Your Heart Out, Christian Bale
The set of Easy Rider was particularly problematic for the cast and crew because of Hopper. By his own admission, he didn’t respond well to marijuana, and he was prone to paranoid tantrums during production. Things got so bad that crew members took matters into their own hands. They secretly recorded Hopper’s outbursts as proof of why so many people were quitting the production.
Dennis Hopper was notorious for his relationships as well as his drug problems. He was married five times in his life. His second wife, Michelle Phillips from The Mamas and the Papas, divorced Hopper just eight days after their wedding.
37. Must Have Been a Friend’s Discount
Dennis Hopper was good friends with avant-garde art figure Andy Warhol. In fact, Hopper bought the very first of Warhol’s soup-can pictures. He paid the whopping sum of $75. Talk about a good deal!
38. What a Weekend that was!
In 1984, Hopper was originally a cast member in the film The Jungle Warriors, but that all ended when he was fired in an especially bizarre way. At one point early in the shoot, Hopper was discovered wandering around a village near the filming location while wearing absolutely nothing. Hopper was arrested by local authorities, and he was fired from the film. Hopper later admitted that he was so far gone on drugs at the time that he didn’t even remember being fired or arrested.
39. Failed Follow-Up Part I
Following the wild, unprecedented success of Easy Rider, Hopper got the chance to direct another film. He chose to make his passion project, The Last Movie. However, things derailed very quickly. Given $1 million to make the film, Hopper brought the cast and crew to Peru, shooting countless hours of footage. Embroiled in substance abuse, Hopper first edited together a conventional story, but changed gears to a more artistic, disjointed film.
He didn't know it at the time, but this was a mistake.
40. Failed Follow-Up Part II
Hopper’s unconventional take on The Last Movie was not well received by his producers at Universal Pictures. MCA founder Jules Stein reportedly exclaimed "I just don't understand this younger generation” when he first saw the film. Things devolved even more when Hopper got into a fight with Universal head Lew Wasserman, who threatened to bury the film if Hopper didn’t re-edit it.
Considering that you haven’t heard of The Last Movie, you can guess that Hopper didn’t back down.
41. Well, this is Awkward
In the mid-1950s, Hopper fell in love with Joanne Woodward. He even took her to the premiere of Giant instead of doing as the studio asked and taking someone more famous. Later on in the evening, Woodward asked Hopper to take her home, but refused to let him in the door. From Hopper’s own account, she even pushed him down a flight of stairs when he didn’t take the hint.
Later on, he found out the truth: Paul Newman (Woodward’s future husband) was waiting for her in her apartment at the time.
42. I Was Born to Play This Guy!
Given his counterculture status and his struggles with addiction, it should surprise nobody that Hopper was deeply interested in starring in a film adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s classic novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Hopper and his lifelong friend Jack Nicholson both planned to star in the film, but it was never made.
43. A Miracle!
In 1999, Hopper was in Jamaica, headed towards a golf course with two friends and his ten-year-old son, Henry. However, their journey turned into a nightmare when the car was struck head-on by a speeding truck. Hopper’s friends were badly injured, while Hopper scrambled out of the car before pulling his son to safety. Incredibly, both father and son were unhurt. Hopper was convinced that “there is a force looking out for me, because I can’t figure out how we survived.”
44. Two Missed Opportunities
Hopper was nearly cast in the long-running sci-fi series Doctor Who—twice. In 1996, he almost became the Doctor’s worst enemy, the Master and in the 2000s, he couldn't make his schedule work for an appearance in a Christmas special.
45. There He Is!
Hopper received a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on March 26, 2010. You can find it at 6712 Hollywood Boulevard.
46. Avid Art Fan
Hopper used to live in a very unique house. Once owned by Frieda Dodge and the renowned English writer D.H. Lawrence, the New Mexico residence was one in a million. Hopper even owned and used some of the furniture which Dodge and Lawrence had used.
47. Classic Showdown
One of the most beloved moments in Hopper’s career is undoubtedly the scene in True Romance where his character is interrogated by a mafia boss (Christopher Walken) about his son's location. According to Hopper, he improvised the moment where he called the Sicilians “part eggplant,” leading Walken to improvise and call Hopper a “cantaloupe” in return. Ah, cinema.
Hopper was diagnosed with cancer in 2009, first in his prostate and in his bones due to metastasis. By the following year, Hopper was down to just 100 pounds in weight, unable to speak for long periods of time, and was too sick for chemotherapy. He died on the September 28, 2009, less than two weeks after his 74th birthday.
Although they both got their big career break together, Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda spent a lot of time arguing while making Easy Rider. In fact, things became so messy that even though Fonda got Hopper involved in the first place, he tried to get him fired from the movie several times throughout the shooting. Sounds like an, um, interesting set.
After their falling out, they never reconciled, and Hopper was so vengeful that he barred Fonda from attending his funeral. Loyal to the end, Fonda went anyway, only to have Hopper’s family refuse him entry.
50. You’re Going to do What?!
People said that Dennis Hopper was as unhinged in real life as he was on screen—and in 1983, he proved it. Hopper performed an infamous stunt called the “Russian Dynamite Death Chair.” The theory was that if the sticks of dynamite strapped to the chair detonated at the exact same time, it would create a vacuum that would spare the person sitting in the chair. If they were off by a millisecond—poof.
Hopper somehow survived the stunt, and even better, there's footage. The trick was filmed by a university professor, proving that education doesn’t equal common sense.