Dennis Hopper knew how to talk to reporters, if my memory of a 1990 Toronto Film Festival press conference is an accurate gauge.
It was early one gray morning, and he was jawing about "The Hot Spot," a neo-noir thriller that he'd directed, starring Don Johnson and Virginia Madsen. The questions were friendly and the banter jocular and relaxed in the packed hotel conference room.
Then someone asked Hopper about how he'd dealt over the years with the premature death of his friend and former colleague James Dean. The men first acted together in "Rebel Without a Cause" — Dean already a star in his early 20s, Hopper a bit player in his teens — then reunited in "Giant" just before Dean was killed in a road accident.
The room grew still as Hopper, without a trace of mawkishness or self-importance, talked quietly about their relationship and what losing Dean had meant to him. Yes, he said, ending his remarks with graceful understatement, that had been a tough one.
Dean, the celluloid hero, was cut down before he could witness the full flowering of the rebellious rock 'n' roll youth movement that he helped unleash upon the world. Hopper and the rest of his pre-boomer generation were left or, one might say, condemned to deal with the fallout of that cultural explosion, the manifestations of which were alternately beautiful and toxic, peace-loving and violent, altruistic and recklessly hedonistic. And although somewhat fainter than 40 years ago, they remain with us today.
To his credit as an artist and occasional detriment as a human being, Hopper, who died May 29 at 74, threw himself headlong into that hallucinogenic cultural maelstrom. And although at times he came close to being swallowed up in his own excesses, he kept himself together well enough to create several of the most memorable cinematic characters of the last four decades as well as to direct, co-write and costar in "Easy Rider," one of the key films of the 1960s counterculture along with "Bonnie and Clyde," "Blow-up" and a few others.
After nearly running off the rails through drug abuse, he re-emerged with a vengeance in the 1980s, and ended his career as one of the most prolific actors in Hollywood history, with more than 200 TV and film roles to his credit.
In the tributes and career appraisals that have gushed forth, Hopper's reputation for heroic debauchery and monumental self-indulgence has been exhaustively noted. But that's hardly the most significant aspect of his life.
A classic '60s-'70s bad boy in the mode of Mick Jagger- Keith Richards, Hugh Hefner, et al, Hopper went to extremes that some of his hard-charging but more level-headed fellow leading men studiously avoided. Paul Newman, who performed with Hopper in "Cool Hand Luke," liked to race fast cars, but he had the temperateness to regard risk-taking as a hobby, not a lifestyle. Another rebel spirit, Jack Nicholson, who was thrust into stardom by means of a secondary role in "Easy Rider," was better than Hopper at keeping his private life sealed behind a seething, ironic exterior.
Hopper, an accomplished photographer, exposed himself both on camera and off. It's doubtful that any of his peers stared any deeper into the psychological abyss of character study than he did in both small parts, such as a whacked-out photographer haunting the Vietnam killing fields in Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now" (1979), and large ones, like the brutal, nitrous oxide-fixated predator Frank Booth in David Lynch's "Blue Velvet" (1986).
He paid a heavy personal and professional price for his immersions, and he had the health problems and the busted marriages to prove it. Flaming youth nearly ended in middle-age immolation.
But if Hopper was, for a time, one of the more visible artistic casualties of a tumultuous era, he certainly wasn't the only one. Go read Stanley Booth's "The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones," a chronicle of how the British rock band's 1969 U.S. tour started with Jagger tossing rose petals to the crowd and ended with a fan being stabbed to death at Altamont.
Or watch "Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse," the extraordinary documentary about the making of "Apocalypse Now." You'll probably have a sense of why Coppola, after making a masterpiece about the defining U.S. crisis of the last half-century, never made another great film.
The point isn't to invoke the sentimental cliché that borderline madness stokes the making of great art. It's to recognize that when entire societies start losing their bearings, as the United States did in the 1960s and periodically still does, artists are compelled to respond with urgency and boldness.
Dennis Hopper did that. It's probable that Dean would've done the same.