When he made the movie in 1969 that would catapult him into celebrity, I wasn't even born. Another five years would pass before I would make my entrance onto the stage. It would be nearly another 20 years before I would finally watch Easy Rider and, while Dennis Hopper was already fully ensconced in my brain as one of the great American actors, his role as Billy in that revolutionary film forever branded my belief. Dennis Hopper passed away Saturday, May 29, at his home in Venice, California due to complications from prostate cancer.
My favorite exchange, in a movie filled with memorable lines, was between Jack Nicholson's character of George Hanson and Hopper's Billy.
George Hanson: You know, this used to be a helluva good country. I can't understand what's gone wrong with it.
Billy: Man, everybody got chicken, that's what happened. Hey, we can't even get into like, a second-rate hotel, I mean, a second-rate motel, you dig? They think we're gonna cut their throat or somethin'. They're scared, man.
George Hanson: They're not scared of you. They're scared of what you represent to 'em.
Billy: Hey, man. All we represent to them, man, is somebody who needs a haircut.
George Hanson: Oh, no. What you represent to them is freedom.
Billy: What the hell is wrong with freedom? That's what it's all about.
George Hanson: Oh, yeah, that's right. That's what's it's all about, all right. But talkin' about it and bein' it, that's two different things. I mean, it's real hard to be free when you are bought and sold in the marketplace. Of course, don't ever tell anybody that they're not free, 'cause then they're gonna get real busy killin' and maimin' to prove to you that they are. Oh, yeah, they're gonna talk to you, and talk to you, and talk to you about individual freedom. But they see a free individual, it's gonna scare 'em.
Billy: Well, it don't make 'em runnin' scared.
Not quite the leading man of, say, a Sean Connery or others of his time, Hopper was a consummate professional who seemed to revel in the oddball roles and the offbeat characters, like the photojournalist in Apocalypse Now (I attribute at least some of my desire to become a photojournalist to this character) or Frank Booth in Blue Velvet. Nor was he one solely for use in front of the camera; Hopper directed Easy Rider and was the director on several other films including, the now cult-classic, The Last Movie.
The man was as much myth as he was reality, having once famously attempted to kill himself by taking up in a coffin near a Texas highway, surrounding said coffin with dynamite, and daring anyone to blow him up. An elaborate hoax? A massive publicity stunt? Or true blue Hopper? Perhaps only Hopper will ever know the answer to that question. When this didn't work, it's reported Hopper took off to Mexico where he disappeared for a spell into the jungle, reemerging to enter rehab in 1983.
And like so many actors before and after, Hopper's legacy of self-destruction is too well known. In the 1998 book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, author Peter Biskind claimed that during the early '80s Hopper reached a daily intake of half a gallon of rum, 28 beers, and three grams of cocaine. His wild antics off camera are near legendary and, in the small town of Hollywood, Hopper was considered an outsider by many on the in.
But despite both his on screen and off screen legacy, Hopper will be remembered as one of the icons of his generation, no small task in a generation chock full of icons.
And to this 36-year-old, one who didn't live through the generation from which Hopper came, the man will be remembered as one who gave voice to the wild side, to freedom, and a love of country that didn't preclude one from questioning your country's motives.