“Being born in Dodge City, I really wanted to know where the trains were going. The first real light I saw was in a movie theater. I just wanted to know where they were making those movies.”
“He was a Midwestern boy on his own…”
Dennis Hopper was born in Dodge City, Kansas and spent his early years on farm. When he was nine he moved to Kansas City, Missouri (where he took Saturday art classes with Thomas Hart Benton) and then on to San Diego area when he was 13, eventually being named “Most Likely to Succeed” at Helix High School in La Mesa.
Hopper succeeded at a lot of things—unfortunately they weren’t all good for him.
His acting career started by performing Shakespeare as a teenager at The Old Globe at San Diego’s Balboa Park, and he then headed to Los Angeles when he was 18 and did some TV work before landing a role in classic James Dean films Rebel Without a Cause and Giant. On a PBS interview, Hopper would say of the actor from Marion, Indiana, “James Dean was the best actor that I ever saw work, really. He was just incredible.”
Hopper also worked with four other Midwestern actors who made their mark in Hollywood (Marlon Brando & Montgomery Cliff/Omaha, John Wayne /Iowa-Nebraska, and Paul Newman/Ohio). When Hopper died yesterday he had more than 200 credits as an actor. But he’s probably known best for just a handful or so roles on top of the James Dean films; Apocalypse Now, Blue Velvet, True Romance, Speed, and his Oscar-nominated role in Hoosiers. When the dust all settles he may be best remembered for directing and starring in Easy Rider for which he also received an Oscar nomination for co-writing the screenplay.
“There are moments that I`ve had some real brilliance, you know. But I think they are moments. And sometimes, in a career, moments are enough.”
Hopper rode motorcycles with Steve McQueen, hung out with Miles Davis, Lenny Bruce and Jack Nicholson, he collected and created art, he was at the civil-rights march from Selma to Montgomery which was led by Martin Luther King Jr., along with his Hollywood career that spanned 56 years.
And while Hopper had his days in the sun, he had his years (decades?) in the darkness. His was a life of excess— alcoholism, cocaine, heroin, LSD, hallucinations, abuse, violence, multiple failed marriages, detox clinics, jail, psychiatric wards, and orgies. But somehow he managed to rebound time and time again and somehow lived to be 74. (Even in his final days as he was in the midst of a divorce, he reportedly had “marijuana joints throughout his compound’ and loaded guns nearby to help ease the pain of his cancer and perhaps provide an exit—Hopper was Shakespearean to the end.)
I’ll always prefer to remember Hopper as his role in Hoosiers as the brilliant, yet alcoholic, Shooter. The story of a town drunk and a disgraced coach who both have a shot at redemption. That’s the hope I have for everyone, especially the artists—the crazy ones who seem to have a harder time than most dealing with demons.
“I am just a middle-class farm boy from Dodge City and my grandparents were wheat farmers. I thought painting, acting, directing and photography were all part of being an artist. I have made my money that way. And I have had some fun. It’s not been a bad life.”