In his book Last Train to Memphis, American popular music historian Peter Guralnick says that in 1956 when Elvis Presley was making his first film in Hollywood, Dennis Hopper was roommates with fellow actor Nick Adams and the three became friends and socialized together. Hopper moved to New York and studied at the famous Lee Strasberg acting school. He appeared in over 140 episodes of television shows such as Bonanza, The Twilight Zone, The Defenders, The Big Valley, The Time Tunnel, The Rifleman and Combat!. Hopper also became an accomplished professional photographer, and noted writer Terry Southern profiled Hopper in Home and Garden magazine as an up and coming photographer "to watch" in the mid 1950's. He also was very talented as a painter and a poet as well as being an enthusiastic collector of Art, particularly Pop Art. One of the first art works Hopper owned was an early print of Andy Warhol's Campbell's Soup Cans bought for $75.
Hopper had a supporting role as "Babalugats," the bet-taker in Cool Hand Luke (1967). Hopper was able to resume acting in mainstream films including The Sons of Katie Elder (1965) and True Grit (1969). Both of these films starred John Wayne, and in both Hopper's character is killed. During the production of True Grit, he became well acquainted with Wayne. Although the screen legend would regularly (and good-naturedly) assail Hopper for his archliberal social and political leanings, a genuine kinship developed between the two men.
It was not until he teamed with Peter Fonda, Terry Southern, and Jack Nicholson and made Easy Rider that he really shook up the Hollywood establishment. This film came to represent the generation of the Vietnam War and to this day is one of the most successful independent films ever made. Hopper won wide acclaim as the director of the film for his improvisational methods and innovative editing. However, the production was plagued by creative differences and personal acrimony between Fonda and Hopper, the dissolution of his marriage to Brooke Hayward, and an unwillingness to leave the editor's desk — all of which could be attributed to accelerating abuse of drugs and alcohol that would prove to be fatally detrimental to the production of his next film.
In 1971, Hopper released The Last Movie. Expecting an accessible follow-up to Easy Rider, audiences were treated to inscrutable artistic flourishes (the inclusion of "scene missing" cards) and a hazily existentialist plot that verged on the nonlinear and absurd. After finishing first at the Venice Film Festival, the film was dismissed by audiences and critics alike during its first domestic engagement in New York City and never entered national release. During the tumultuous editing process, Hopper ensconced himself in Taos, New Mexico for nearly a year, publicly cavorting with young women. In between contesting Fonda's rights to the majority of the residual profits from Easy Rider, he married Michelle Phillips in October 1970. Citing spousal abuse and his various addictions, she filed for divorce a week after their wedding. This whirlwind of negative publicity, combined with the failure of The Last Movie, ensured that the former wunderkind became a pariah within the industry, widely regarded as the New Hollywood's first "drug burnout".
Although he was shunned by the mainstream American film industry, Hopper was able to sustain his lifestyle and a measure of celebrity by acting in numerous low budget and European films throughout the 1970s as the archetypical "tormented maniac", including Mad Dog Morgan (1976), Tracks (1976), and The American Friend (1977). With Francis Ford Coppola's blockbuster Apocalypse Now (1979), Hopper returned to prominence as a hypomanic Vietnam-era photojournalist, essentially portraying himself in the eyes of many viewers and critics. Stepping in for an overwhelmed director, Hopper won praise in 1980 for his directing and acting in Out of the Blue, the first indication that a fragment of his creative talents had remained intact. Immediately thereafter, Hopper starred as an addled short-order cook "Cracker" in the low-budget Neil Young and Dean Stockwell collaboration Human Highway with the new wave group Devo. Production was often delayed by his unreliable behavior. Peter Biskind states in the New Hollywood history Easy Riders, Raging Bulls that Hopper's cocaine intake had reached three grams a day by this time period, complemented by an additional thirty beers, marijuana, and Cuba libres.
After staging a "suicide attempt" (really more of a daredevil act) using 17 sticks of dynamite at an "art happening" near Houston and later disappearing into the Mexican desert during a particularly extravagant bender, Hopper entered a drug rehabilitation program in 1983. The not-entirely-rejuvenated Hopper gave powerful performances in Rumble Fish (1983) and The Osterman Weekend (1983). However, it was not until he portrayed the intoxicating gas-huffing, obscenity-screaming Frank Booth in David Lynch's film Blue Velvet (1986) that his career truly revived. After reading the script, Hopper called Lynch and told him "You have to let me play Frank Booth. Because I am Frank Booth! Hopper won critical acclaim and several awards for this role and the same year received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor for Hoosiers.
In 1988, Hopper directed a critically acclaimed film about Los Angeles gangs called Colors. He has continued to be an important actor, photographer and director. He was nominated for an Emmy award for the 1991 HBO films Paris Trout and Doublecrossed (in which he played real life drug smuggler and DEA informant Barry Seal). He also co-starred in the 1994 blockbuster Speed with Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock. In 2003, Hopper was originally in the running for the dual lead in the indie horror drama Firecracker, but was most notably ousted at the last minute in favor of Mike Patton. He recently contributed to the film 1 Giant Leap with provocative anecdotes on spirituality, unity and culture. In 1995 Hopper played the villain "Deacon" in Waterworld.
Hopper teamed with Nike in the early 1990s to make a series of successful television commercials. He appeared as a "crazed referee" in those ads. He portrayed villain Victor Drazen in the first season of the popular drama 24 on the Fox television network. Hopper also starred in the NBC 2005 television series E-Ring, a drama set at The Pentagon, but the series was cancelled after 14 episodes aired. In 2008, Hopper played record producer, Ben Cendars in the television series, "Crash."
In 1999, actor Rip Torn filed a defamation lawsuit against Hopper over a story Hopper told on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Hopper claimed that Torn pulled a knife on him during pre-production of the film Easy Rider. According to Hopper, Torn was originally cast in the film but was replaced with Jack Nicholson after the incident. According to Torn's suit, it was actually Hopper who pulled the knife on him. A judge ruled in Torn's favor and Hopper was ordered to pay $475,000 in damages. Hopper then appealed but the judge again ruled in Torn's favor and Hopper was required to pay another $475,000 in punitive damages.
Despite being famous as an actor and director, Hopper sees himself primarily as an artist, and is an accomplished and much-respected painter, art collector and photographer.
According to Newsmeat, Hopper had donated $2,000 to the Republican National Committee in 2004 and an equal amount in 2005. In Al Franken's book Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot, the author recounts a warm, cordial encounter between Hopper and then-Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. In 2008, Hopper starred in An American Carol, a right-leaning comedy film also starring Republican actors such as Jon Voight, Kelsey Grammer, and James Woods.