Hopper made his acting debut on an episode of the Richard Boone television show Medic in 1955 playing a young epileptic. Hopper was then cast in two roles with James Dean (whom he admired immensely) in Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and Giant (1956). Dean's death in a 1955 car accident affected the young Hopper deeply and it was shortly afterwards that he got into a confrontation with veteran director Henry Hathaway on the film From Hell To Texas. Hopper refused directions for 80 takes over several days. This infamous incident resulted in his being blacklisted from films for several years.
In his book Last Train to Memphis, American popular music historian Peter Guralnick says that in 1956 when Elvis Presley was making his first film in Hollywood, Dennis Hopper was roommates with fellow actor Nick Adams and the three became friends and socialized together. Hopper moved to New York and studied at the famous Lee Strasberg acting school. He appeared in over 140 episodes of television shows such as Bonanza, The Twilight Zone, The Defenders, The Big Valley, The Time Tunnel, The Rifleman and Combat!. Hopper also became an accomplished professional photographer (he has had many exhibitions of his work). He also was very talented as a painter and a poet as well as being an enthusiastic collector of Art, particularly Pop Art. One of the first art works Hopper owned was an early print of Andy Warhol's Campbell's Soup Cans bought for $75.
Hopper had a supporting role as "Babalugats," the bet-taker in Cool Hand Luke (1967). Hopper was able to resume acting in mainstream films including The Sons of Katie Elder (1965) and True Grit (1969), and in both of these films he had death scenes with John Wayne. During the production of True Grit, he became acquainted Wayne in earnest. Although the screen legend would regularly (and good-naturedly) assail Hopper for his archliberal social and political leanings, a genuine kinship developed between the two men. Ironically, Hopper would eventually emerge as a staunch supporter of the Republican Party and the administration of President George W. Bush in the 1990s and 2000s.
It was not until he teamed with Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson and made Easy Rider that he really shook up the Hollywood establishment. This film came to represent the lost generation of the Vietnam War and to this day is one of the most successful independent films ever made. Hopper won wide acclaim as the director of the film for his improvisational methods and innovative editing. However, the production was plagued by creative differences and personal acrimony between Fonda and Hopper, the dissolution of his marriage to Brooke Hayward, and an unwillingness to leave the editor's desk – all of which could be attributed to accelerating abuse of drugs and alcohol that would prove to be fatally detrimental to the production of his next film.
In 1971, Hopper released The Last Movie. Expecting an accessible follow-up to Easy Rider, audiences were treated to inscrutable artistic flourishes (the inclusion of "scene missing" cards) and a hazily existentialist plot that verged on the nonlinear and absurd. After finishing first at the Venice Film Festival, the film was dismissed by audiences and critics alike during its first domestic engagement in New York City and never entered national release. During the tulmultuous editing process, Hopper ensconced himself in Taos, New Mexico for nearly a year, publicly cavorting with young women. In between contesting Fonda's rights to the majority of the residual profits from Easy Rider, he married Michelle Phillips in October 1970. Citing spousal abuse and his various addictions, she filed for divorce a week after their wedding. This whirlwind of negative publicity, combined with the failure of The Last Movie, ensured that the former wunderkind became a pariah within the industry, widely regarded as the New Hollywood's first "drug burnout".
Although he was shunned by the mainstream American film industry, Hopper was able to sustain his lifestyle and a measure of celebrity by acting in numerous low budget and European films throughout the 1970s as the archetypical "tormented maniac", including Mad Dog Morgan (1976), Tracks (1976), and The American Friend (1977). With Francis Ford Coppola's blockbuster Apocalypse Now (1979), Hopper returned to prominence as a hypomanic Vietnam-era photojournalist, essentially portraying himself in the eyes of many viewers and critics. Stepping in for an overwhelmed director, Hopper won praise in 1980 for his directing and acting in Out of the Blue, the first indication that a fragment of his creative talents had remained intact.
Immediately thereafter, Hopper starred as an aging freebase-addled rock star in the low-budget Neil Young-Dean Stockwell collaboration Human Highway with the new wave group Devo. Production was often delayed by his unreliable behavior. Hopper's character clearly parallels the then-concurrent problems of David Crosby, who served as the basis for his Billy in Easy Rider. Peter Biskind states in the New Hollywood history Easy Riders, Raging Bulls that Hopper's cocaine intake had reached three grams a day by this time period, complemented by an additional thirty beers, marijuana, and Cuba libres.
After staging a "suicide attempt" (really more of a daredevil act) using 17 sticks of dynamite at an "art happening" near Houston and later disappearing into the Mexican desert during a particularly extravagant bender, Hopper entered a drug rehabilitation program in 1983. The not-entirely-rejuvenated Hopper gave powerful performances in Rumble Fish (1983) and The Osterman Weekend (1983). However, it was not until he portrayed the amyl nitrite-huffing, obscenity-screaming Frank Booth in David Lynch's film Blue Velvet (1986) that his career truly revived. After reading the script, Hopper called Lynch and told him "You have to let me play Frank Booth. Because I am Frank Booth!" Hopper won critical acclaim and several awards for this role and the same year won an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor for Hoosiers. It is widely believed that the nomination was actually in recognition for his work in Blue Velvet, but that the Academy was reticent to recognize his portrayal of such a vile and irredeemable character.
In 1988, Hopper directed a critically acclaimed film about Los Angeles gangs called Colors. He has continued to be an important actor, photographer and director. He was nominated for an Emmy award for the 1991 HBO films Paris Trout and Doublecrossed (in which he played real life drug smuggler and DEA informant Barry Seal). He also co-starred in the 1994 blockbuster Speed with Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock. He recently contributed to the film 1 Giant Leap with provocative anecdotes on spirituality, unity and culture.
Hopper teamed with Nike in the early 1990s to make a series of successful television commercials. He appeared as a "crazed referee" in those ads. He portrayed villain Victor Drazen in the first season of the popular 24 drama on the Fox television network. Hopper also starred in the NBC 2006 television series E-Ring, a drama set at The Pentagon, but the series was cancelled after 14 episodes aired.
On the 2005 Gorillaz album Demon Days, Hopper performs the spoken word track "Fire Coming Out of the Monkey's Head." In July 2006, Hopper appeared in the music video for "Smiley Faces" by Gnarls Barkley, portraying faux music historian Milton Pawley.
Hopper has been married five times and has four children.
Brooke Hayward (1961 - 1969) (divorced), daughter of Leland Hayward, 1 child (daughter Marin Hopper 1961)
Michelle Phillips (31 October 1970 - 8 November 1970) (divorced)
Daria Halprin (1972 - 1976) (divorced) 1 child (daughter Ruthanna Hopper 1974)
Katherine LaNasa (17 June 1989 - April 1992) (divorced) 1 child (son Henry Lee Hopper 1990)
Victoria Duffy (13 April 1996 - present) 1 child (daughter Galen Hopper 2003)
Despite being famous as an actor and director, Hopper sees himself primarily as an artist, and is an accomplished and much-respected painter, art collector and photographer.