I was born in 1976, so I wasn’t alive when Dennis Hopper blew minds around the world with “Easy Rider.” When I was old enough to finally watch it, I hated it. But that makes sense. “Easy Rider” was a movie made for a very specific time and a very specific set of people, and I wasn’t one them.
Virtually every memorial of Hopper in the days since his passing has cited “Easy Rider” as his most noticeable work. But if you’re my age, you probably don’t care about “Easy Rider” at all. It’s certainly not why I think of Dennis Hopper so fondly. I think of him as the tireless character actor who appeared in dozens of movies and was memorable in virtually all of them. Hopper did his fair share of crummy movies, but that was kinda what made him great. Bad movies get made all the time. Hopper was nice enough to participate in a few of them to help make them less bad. The world needs actors like that, people who brighten up a crummy film from time to time with their own particular oddities. I even remember him in “Boiling Point.” There is nothing memorable about that movie, but I still remember Hopper was in it, and he was as good as he always was.
So it’s easy to immortalize Hopper for “Easy Rider” and “Apocalypse Now” and “Blue Velvet” and “Hoosiers.” But let’s accept those roles as a given in his legacy. Instead, I want to talk about the four other roles of his:
True Romance: This movie never came up in the critics’ remembrances, which annoys me because there isn’t a guy my age that can’t recite the Walken/Hopper scene from this movie verbatim. It’s a masterpiece of acting, a daring scene that features ugly race baiting, brutal violence, and a then-unknown James Gandolfini hovering in the corner. Watch it a hundred times, and you can still feel the uneasy tension between Walken’s mob boss and Hopper’s cop/dad. These were two of the strangest (in a good way) actors to ever grace the screen, and together they created a duet few actor pairings have ever matched.
The Crazy Nike Ref: There are people who loved these ads without even having seen “Apocalypse Now.” Bad things, man.
Red Rock West: Hopper was always at his best playing dirtbags, probably because he was known to be quite a shady fellow himself. There was always a sense that Hopper himself was capable of all the things his nutjob characters did, and that’s why he threw you for a loop any time he walked into a movie. Like this tiny little Nicolas Cage noir no one saw. It’s an awesome movie, and it features Hopper AND JT Walsh, two now deceased masters of playing shady fellows. When Cage says to Hopper “I am better than you” at the end, you feel Hopper more than earned the insult.
Speed: And what a great death. Few people get their heads knocked clean off the way Hopper did.
Those are the Hopper roles I remember best, but you’re almost certain to have your own. That’s the amazing thing about Hopper. He had such a full career that he means something different to anyone who ever saw him, and that’s a heck of a legacy for any actor.