Dennis Hopper died Saturday (May 29, 2010) at 74 of prostate cancer, taking a tie-dyed generation's memories with him.
Filmmakers will remember his no-rules ideals about what movies could and should be, and his acid-tinged Don Quixote attitude, tilting against the Hollywood norm.
Film buffs will savor his vitality in dozens of roles — many that didn't deserve him — and a directing style that was eventful on rare occasions when it happened, and excusable when it didn't turn out well.
Those who knew him intimately will laugh at fuzzy memories that sound reckless outside his heyday's context, when anything was possible in a properly altered state of mind, and if nobody got hurt, what the hell.
Mr. Hopper was the puckish sidekick to counterculture history; a jester and a sage sometimes at once, who could pump up pride and later nostalgia in a generation that thought it had the right idea. He was the hippie St. Christopher, the go-to dude for assurance when things got hairy.
He made the term "Hollywood rebel" meaningful before tamer souls and lesser talents abused it. Without him, there might not be an independent film scene as we know it, as stunningly influential and ahead of the curve as his direction of Easy Rider was in 1969.
That's when I first noticed Mr. Hopper, straddling a chopper and flipping off intolerance, marking the end of an era as it was just beginning. Peter Fonda was the star, Jack Nicholson was the revelation, but Mr. Hopper was the voice whispering that all glory, even flower-powered, is fleeting.
Not for Mr. Hopper at least, but rebellion hustled fame out the door until the world loosened up. He parlayed the success of Easy Rider into a project never really completed, waylaid in the Peruvian jungle under a druggy haze while uptight studio executives howled. I've never seen The Last Movie in the form it was intended, and perhaps Mr. Hopper didn't either. But the idea that a stoner could use money from Hollywood suits for a South American head trip was the coolest thing imaginable at the time.
Mr. Hopper was a young has-been, unable in good conscience to play Hollywood's game except with directors sharing his disdain for it: obscure foreigners, Altman, Coppola, Peckinpah and eventually David Lynch, who nudged the maverick toward the mainstream in 1986 with Blue Velvet. It's telling that his less adventurous turn in Hoosiers was nominated for an Oscar that year. Hollywood wanted Mr. Hopper back, on a shorter leash.
Eventually he agreed, leading to juicy roles — his confrontation with Christopher Walken in True Romance and the bus of Speed are gems of sinister cinema — and occasional cash-ins like Super Mario Bros. and Waterworld.
One thing nagged me during Mr. Hopper's career resurrection. I asked him about it at the Florida Film Festival in 1994. By that time, he was shilling Nike footwear, playing a crazed football referee in TV commercials. The words "selling out" crossed my mind, and those of other baby boomers who believed he would always be a barbarian outside those gates.
The festival's career achievement award included a public Q&A session. I asked: If possible, what the antiestablishment Dennis Hopper who made Easy Rider would say to the Dennis Hopper selling shoes now.
He stared at me for several seconds, stroking his gray Van Dyke beard with a meditative "Hmmm, yeah" that made me slightly uncomfortable. Then he said the answer is found in an Edward Albee play he had seen recently on Broadway, Three Tall Women, featuring three stages of a woman's tumultuous life played simultaneously.
"The line is something like: 'I'm not who I was then, and that isn't who I am now and I'm not yet who I will be,' " Mr. Hopper said, with a determined stare punctuating the reference.
We held eye contact so long that I expected him to say more. Mr. Hopper was just waiting for my submissive blink. He got it, and nodded approvingly about being right again on his terms. Nothing had changed. That was Dennis Hopper aged to perfection; casually rebellious, surprisingly urbane and patiently victorious. He will be missed.
Steve Persall can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. His blog, Reeling in the Years, is at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.