The late great Dennis Hopper (1936-2010), best know for his career as an actor in film and television, was also a writer and director. I started this list thinking I had a well-rounded knowledge of Hopper’s film career, but the deeper I dug the more I realized that with over 150 acting credits to his name, I had only scratched the surface of this legend’s great performances. Hopper was quoted as saying he wasn’t offered many good roles, and after watching many of his films, I think he was right. But this never stopped him, because he could do a lot with a little. Some roles were great by design, others became great when Hopper inhabited them. Think of this list as the starting point on a long journey that will take you through many ups and downs with one of America’s greatest actors.
10. Speed (1994)
I would never recommend this film on it’s own merits, but Hopper manages to take an easily forgettable role as a bomb-happy villain and turns it into a noteworthy performance. Most of his scenes are just talking on a phone. This may not sound interesting, but Hopper makes the most of it, and although we’re cheering for the heroes (we are, aren’t we?), it’s more fun watching Hopper lay down his own law while staying one step ahead of his would-be captors.
9. Waterworld (1995)
Waterworld may not be a great film, but it’s not bad, and Hopper’s performance as Deacon makes it even more enjoyable as he balances comedy and being a villain all while wearing an eyepatch.
8. Land of the Dead (2005)
“In a world where the dead are returning to life, the word ‘trouble’ loses much of its meaning.” One of the great lines uttered by Hopper, as Kaufman, in Romero’s fourth film in his “Dead” series. The self-proclaimed head of upper class life in what is left of an otherwise desolate wasteland of the undead, Kaufman sits in his ivory tower barking orders to his underlings while assuring them all is well in the straight-faced unsympathetic way Hopper does so well. As an avid fan of zombie films, a chance to see Hopper in one is a dream come true. And, of course, we get to see him do what he does best, be an unrepentant asshole.
7. True Romance (1993)
A retired cop, who is now a security guard, Clifford is a friendly guy with his dog by his side. It’s not often that Hopper appeared as a friendly father, who wasn’t suffering from substance abuse, but here he’s clean, sober, and enjoying the simple life. Later, when things turn sour for Clifford we get a dream come true, Dennis Hopper and Christopher Walken together onscreen. Quentin Tarantino’s dialogue is delivered perfectly by Hopper and Walken.
6. Hoosiers (1986)
I’m not into basketball, but I have a soft spot for Hoosiers and Dennis Hopper’s role as Shooter, the aged high school basketball star who ended up an alcoholic living in the woods who shoots first and yells, “Identify yourself!” later. As a Hoosier myself, who grew up within 15 miles of one of the towns used in the film for the fictional town of Hickory, the film brings back memories (some of which include people like Shooter). A forgettable character in the hands of a lesser actor, Hopper does a great job making Shooter stand out. I was rooting for Shooter to overcome his alcoholism and was genuinely excited during his scenes as assistant coach. His enthusiasm while talking to an uninterested nurse about his coaching and an upcoming game brings the character full circle and we get our payoff.
5. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986)
Several years after his relatives were murdered by the Sawyer family, Lieutenant Enright returns seeking vengeance. This role, as vigilante, gives Hopper the opportunity to play both sides of the coin, concerned hero seeking justice and cold blooded killer seeking revenge. There’s something about Hopper in a cowboy hat being armed with three chainsaws while screaming and ranting that just seems so right.
4. River’s Edge (1986)
As Feck, Hopper is subdued compared to some of his better known roles. Feck, however, is as unstable (if not more so) than any of Hopper’s other characters. As a one-legged shut-in drug dealer whose only companion is an inflatable doll named Elly that he talks to, Feck is a unique character to say the least. In this role Hopper makes it clear he doesn’t need to be loud to be a commanding presence onscreen, nor does he require a lot of screen time to be effective.
3. Apocalypse Now (1979)
It’s possible to forget that Dennis Hopper is in Apocalypse Now, but it’s impossible to forget his character. Often when I mention Hopper’s inclusion in the film I’m greeted with blank stares, but when I say, “You know, the crazy photojournalist guy”, their eyes light up (usually followed with a comment on the weirdness of the character). Not only is the character weird, but for my money, it’s the best character in the film, and that’s saying a lot because Apocalypse Now is full of great performances, but when I see Dennis in the distance running around on the shore and shouting at the approaching boat I feel the grin on my face grow as I sit up in my seat ready for one of my favorite performances ever captured on film.
2. Easy Rider (1969)
Dennis Hopper’s role as actor, writer, and director in Easy Rider was a turning point for American film. Billy’s search for freedom leads him down a path that he could not have foretold, and, like most of Hopper’s great roles, Billy is unstable and unsure of what he’s after or how to get it. The cultural impact of Easy Rider can be paralleled with Hopper’s character. Much like Billy, Hollywood and America were also going through uncertain changes in the late 1960s, and just like in the film, the outcome for Hollywood and America was not what we expected.
1. Blue Velvet (1986)
There is something about Frank Booth that both draws in and repulses the viewer. Frank is a full time onscreen antagonist, but he also has hidden weaknesses that pull us in. When it’s ‘dark’ we see the power of Frank, but in the ‘light’ of Ben, and his Candy Colored Clown, we see a hidden place in Frank. This is reflected in the opening of the film, when we see the grassy lawn, but upon a closer look we see there is more to the average lawn than we thought. Dennis Hopper is spectacular as Frank Booth, legend has it that Hopper told director David Lynch he needed to play Frank because he was Frank. Lynch took a chance putting Hopper in this role (as his reputation in Hollywood at the time had caused doubts about his stability), but it turned out to be one of the most rewarding chances Lynch ever took. And honestly, can you think of anyone else as Frank Booth? Dennis Hopper was right; he was, and always will be, Frank.