4 Classics Starring Dennis Hopper

Though he had been acting since the mid-1950s, Dennis Hopper didn't come into prominence until the counterculture movement of the late-1960s.

Hopper made his film debut in two films starring James Dean, Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and Giant (1956), and was greatly affected by the iconic actor's death. He went on to play Billy Clanton opposite Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas in Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), but his erratic behavior—due in large part to his hard-partying ways—led to him becoming a Hollywood pariah.

The actor managed to bounce back in the late-1960s by appearing opposite Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke (1967), Clint Eastwood in Hang 'Em High (1968), and John Wayne in True Grit (1969). But by making the seminal New Hollywood classic, Easy Rider (1969), Hopper propelled himself to superstar status, even though it would nearly destroy his life.

Though he was only nominated once for an Oscar when he was in contention for Best Supporting Actor in Hoosiers (1986), Hopper has turned in many memorable performances. Here are four classics from the first half of Dennis Hopper's career.

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'Easy Rider' – 1969

The Criterion Collection

 A labor of love that turned into an iconic culture moment, Easy Rider was made on a shoe string budget by Hopper and turned the actor into an overnight star. Also directed by Hopper, the film focused on Billy (Hopper) and Wyatt (Peter Fonda), two anti-establishment bikers who head toward New Orleans for Mardi Gras after selling a large amount of cocaine. Their goal is to live it up in the Big Easy before retiring to Florida. But on their way there, Billy and Wyatt are arrested for "parading without a permit" and sent off to jail. There they meet drunk ACLU lawyer, George Hanson (Jack Nicholson), who helps them get out and decides to ride with them. But tragedy strikes before they make it to New Orleans, leaving Wyatt to admit that, "We blew it." While its reputation as a film has diminished over the years, Easy Rider had a significant cultural impact in 1969, changing both Hopper's fortunes and the way Hollywood makes movies.

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'The American Friend' – 1977

The Criterion Collection

A film noir thriller from director Wim Wenders, The American Friend was in part taken from Hopper's own real-life experiences as a painter and art collector. Hopper starred as Tom Ripley, a wealthy American involved in art forgery who serves as a middleman selling the work of artist Derwatt (Nicholas Ray), a painter who faked his own death to increase its value. During an art show, he meets a picture framer named Jonathan (Bruno Ganz) dying from a rare blood disease. Jonathan becomes the ideal candidate to pull off a hit job tasked to Ripley by a French gangster (Gerard Blain), but naturally the plan goes awry and leads to more bloodshed. Hopper delivered one of his most subdued performances, made all the more touching by his poor health brought on by hard living.

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'Apocalypse Now' – 1979

Lionsgate Films

Though only on screen for the last third of the movie, Hopper made a distinct impression in Francis Ford Coppola's masterpiece, Apocalypse Now. Adapted from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, the film followed Captain Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen), a burnt-out special forces officer tasked with traveling up a dangerous river during the Vietnam War to assassinate the mad Colonel Walter E. Kurtz (Marlon Brando). Kurtz has been waging his own illegal war using a misfit band of mercenaries loyal to his every command, leading the army brass to determine that he must be terminated with "extreme prejudice." Willard is delivered to his target by a Navy patrol commanded by the Chief (Albert Hall), but along the way runs into the surf-crazy Lt. Col. Kilgore (Robert Duvall), Playboy bunnies, and the insanity of the war. Once in Kurtz's compound, he's guided by a nameless photographer (Hopper), who both praises the Colonel's genius and warns Willard of the dangers that lie ahead. Hopper's manic performance was a perfect reflection of the madness surrounding Willard and was one of the more memorable turns in the film.

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'Blue Velvet' – 1986

MGM Home Entertainment

Always unpredictable, Hopper was never more unnerving than he was in David Lynch's Blue Velvet, a neo-noir thriller about sadomasochistic violence lurking beneath the surface of humdrum suburbia. The film starred Kyle Maclachlan Jeffrey Beaumont, an average young man who returns to his small hometown after his father has a stroke. After discovering a human ear, Jeffrey is pulled into the violent world of lounge singer, Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini), who finds herself at the mercy of the sadistic, ether-addicted Frank Booth (Hopper). Booth has kidnapped Dorothy's son and uses him as a means to repeatedly beat and rape her. Jeffrey tries to help Dorothy but soon discovers that Booth has help coming from all corners of town. Hopper's crazed performance was widely hailed by critics, as his Frank Booth lives on as one of the most terrifying villains of all time.