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Remembering Dennis Hopper

June 1, 2010 - Keith Frederick

 This weekend, Hollywood lost one of its most underestimated actors when Dennis Hopper passed away due to prostate cancer complications.

With the holiday weekend, I didn't find out about his death until I noticed a pair of Facebook status updates from friends of mine. As one of them pointed out, people were full of condolences when Gary Coleman died last week, but Hopper was just a blip on the radar. 

And that's a shame.

It's difficult to think of a most memorable Dennis Hopper performance because, really, they were all memorable. When Hopper was on screen, it was difficult to take your eyes off of him. He had a hard-to-define kind of charisma, whether he was playing a drugged out biker (in 1969's "Easy Rider"), a disgraced former basketball star ("Hoosiers") or one of a number of crazed villains.

Because of a bad reputation and a life full of addiction and self-destruction, Hopper's career is very hit-and-miss. But even in big-budget shlock like "Waterworld" and "Land of the Dead," he was fun to watch. Honestly, is there any reason to watch "Waterworld" other than to see Hopper play psycho?

(If you answer yes to that question, kill yourself.)

So to remember a bit about the man who launched a thousand crazed laughs, I present my ...

Best of Dennis Hopper!

"Easy Rider" (1969) - Hopper directed this breakthrough himself, and came up with a share of a Best Original Screenplay nomination from the Academy Awards. Watching "Easy Rider" for the first time is a strange experience. It's certainly an original film - and it was groundbreaking for its time - but it's hard to know what to make of it.  Whether it's a warning to those wrapped up in the drug scene or a love letter to the tripped out counterculture, it's hard to forget.

"Blue Velvet" (1986) - Honestly, I've only ever seen "Blue Velvet" one time. The reason? Because it's honestly just too damned creepy. And a lot of that is because of Hopper's portrayal of the vicious, oxygen-sucking villain, Frank Booth. Director David Lynch and Hopper made a truly frightening character with Booth, one I'll never be able to forget. No matter how hard I try.

"Hoosiers" (1986) - Good year for Hopper, huh? His turn as the alcoholic father of one of Hickory High School's star players is a deeply moving performance. This might be the most vulnerable character Hopper ever played and he makes the most of it. Shooter's breakdowns and struggles to sober up are heart-wrenching, particularly with his son looking on. The role earned Hopper his only acting Oscar nomination.

"Speed" (1994) - In the end, Hopper will probably be best remembered by the current generation for this role as the mangled villain who takes on Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock in this '90s blockbuster. The film was far from great cinema, and it may have marked the beginning of the end for Hopper's Hollywood respect, but he steals the movie from the Reeves/Bullock pairing.

Since the mid-90s, Hopper's career has been filled with straight-to-DVD junk and small roles in respected independent films. But his gravelly, world-weary voice has been used in national ad campaigns and documentaries like "Inside Deep Throat." He did have a well-received turn on the Starz Original Series "Crash," though that show was as much about shock value as anything else.

Many of Hopper's post-"Speed" roles called for him to be a caricature of himself, which is a travesty. Dennis Hopper may not be remembered for the things he should, but he'll always be remembered. 

Rest in Peace, Easy Rider.

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Also, he was WAY cooler than you.