When Dennis Hopper passed away earlier this past May at the age of 74 due to prostate cancer, he left a remarkably varied body of work as an actor. Over five decades, Hopper appeared in more than two hundred films and television shows, some, maybe most forgettable, but rarely because Hopper chose to appear in them. Beginning in the mid-1950s, Hopper mixed appearances in film and on television, usually in supporting roles. Substance abuse, however, undermined Hopper's career multiple times (he went more than seven years without a film role at one point). Despite those setbacks, he continued to act, on television or in small, supporting roles. He also cultivated a talent for photography and, briefly, directing, most notably 'Easy Rider,' an existential biker flick that far exceeded its modest, low-budget origins as a B-level programmer.
Early in his career as an actor, Hopper crossed paths with James Dean, appearing in supporting roles in 'Rebel Without a Cause' and 'Giant.' The director of 'Rebel Without a Cause,' Nicholas Ray, obviously saw something in Hopper, featuring him prominently in several, non-speaking scenes. Hopper's character, a member of a rival group, says little (if anything), appearing in the foreground, once in a car, oddly rubbing his nose and later, at the Griffith Observatory, again central to a visual composition. Hopper had more to do in Dean's last film, 'Giant,' but it was in a Western, 'Gunfight in the O.K. Corral,' that he gave his first, truly memorable performance as an ill-fated Clanton. Family loyalty trumps his character's survival instinct, leading to a tragic, unnecessary end. A lead role in 'Night Tide,' a woefully underseen, low-key dark fantasy in 1960, did little to spur Hopper's career as a lead actor.