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Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Hollywood hellraiser Dennis Hopper dead at 74

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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Hollywood actor Dennis Hopper, best known for directing and starring in the 1969 cult classic "Easy Rider," died on Saturday from complications of prostate cancer, a friend of the actor said. Hopper was 74.

Entertainment | Film | People

The hard-living screen star died at his home in the coastal Los Angeles suburb of Venice at 8:15 a.m. PDT (1515 GMT), surrounded by family and friends, the friend, Alex Hitz, told Reuters.

In a wildly varied career spanning more than 50 years, Hopper appeared alongside his mentor James Dean in "Rebel Without a Cause" and "Giant" in the 1950s and played maniacs in such films as "Apocalypse Now," "Blue Velvet" and "Speed."

He received two Oscar nominations -- for writing "Easy Rider" (with co-star Peter Fonda and Terry Southern), and for a rare heartwarming turn as an alcoholic high-school basketball coach in the 1986 drama "Hoosiers."

But his prodigious drug abuse, temper tantrums, propensity for domestic violence and poor choice of movie roles often made him a Hollywood pariah.

Hopper felt over-indulgence was a requirement for great artists. He once claimed he snorted lines of cocaine "as long as your arm every five minutes, just so I could carry on drinking ... gallons" of alcohol.

Still, his legacy rests securely on "Easy Rider." Regarded as one of the greatest films of American cinema, it helped usher in a new era in which the old Hollywood guard was forced to cede power to young filmmakers such as Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese.

The low-budget blockbuster, originally conceived by Fonda, introduced mainstream moviegoers to pot-smoking, cocaine-dealing, long-haired bikers.

"We'd gone through the whole '60s and nobody had made a film about anybody smoking grass without going out and killing a bunch of nurses," Hopper told Entertainment Weekly in 2005. "I wanted 'Easy Rider' to be a time capsule for people about that period."

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Hopper and Fonda were joined on screen by a then-unknown Jack Nicholson as an alcoholic lawyer, but it was not a harmonious set. Hopper clashed violently with everyone and Fonda later described him as a "little fascist freak." Their friendship was destroyed.

"Dennis introduced me to the world of Pop Art and 'lost' films," Fonda said in a statement. "We rode the highways of America and changed the way movies were made in Hollywood. I was blessed by his passion and friendship."

Hopper's 1971 directorial follow-up, "The Last Movie," shot amid what he later called "one long sex and drug orgy" in Peru, was a flop.

He was often gripped by paranoid delusions. In 1982, while filming "Jungle Warriors" in Mexico, he ran naked into the jungle, convinced World War Three had started. He was put on a plane home but jumped out onto the wing as it was about to take off, fearful that the plane was on fire. Upon his return, he was admitted to a psychiatric hospital for three months.

He starred in bad movies just for the money, such as "Super Mario Bros." and "Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2," and turned down important projects that could have enhanced his legend, such as "Taxi Driver" and "Reservoir Dogs."

Hopper also found himself typecast as the psychotic villain thanks to such films as "Blue Velvet," in which he played a gas-huffing rapist, and the 1994 smash "Speed," in which his character rigged a city bus to explode.

Hopper mellowed somewhat in later years, becoming a Republican and a pitchman for the likes of Gap and Nike.

Outside of Hollywood, he was a noted photographer, painter, sculptor and art collector. He lived in a warehouse-style compound in the coastal suburb of Venice, in a neighborhood that was gang-infested until a decade ago.

Hopper fell ill last September. He continued working almost to the end, both on his cable TV series "Crash" and on a book showcasing his photography. But his final months were also consumed by a bitter divorce battle with his fifth wife, Victoria Duffy.

Indeed, his private life was never dull. His marriages included an eight-day union in 1970 with Michelle Phillips of the Mamas and Papas, who later told Vanity Fair that she was subjected to "excruciating" treatment.

Hopper is survived by four children. Funeral arrangements were pending.

(Editing by Vicki Allen and Alan Elsner)