Actor Dennis Hopper died yesterday from complications of prostate cancer. He was 74-years-old.
Dennis Hopper always looked like he had fun playing villains. That playful twinkle in his eye made those characters magnetic rather than repulsive. I first saw him as the quick-witted mad bomber, Howard Payne in the bomb-on-a-bus-thriller, Speed.
When I roamed the video store aisles as a boy, it seemed that Dennis Hopper was the villain in everything. I vividly remember him in menacing positions on the box covers of Blue Velvet, Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, Red Rock West, the list goes on.
After seeing these films at an older age, I discovered these were not mere monsters, but rich, flesh-and-blood characters. And Hopper may play a lot of villains, but they are all different. And amazingly, they all feel like real, empathetic people, even the helium-huffing maniac, Frank Booth (Blue Velvet).
The best example of a complex, empathetic Hopper villain is the hitman, Lyle from Red Rock West - a film I watched merely a week ago oddly enough. Lyle is a Vietnam veteran and instead of portraying him as a disillusioned, demented soldier, Hopper makes him a bleeding heart patriot and a good Samaritan. A scene that lingers in my mind is the one in which Lyle insists on buying Nicolas Cage's character, a fellow veteran, a drink. When Cage refuses him at first, it's as if he is pouring salt on Lyle's lonely wounds. In the scene, Hopper looks genuinely bruised and broken - you feel for him.
This is how I remember Dennis Hopper. Others remember him as the director of the groundbreaking Easy Rider - that kaleidoscopic motorcycle trip through the heart of 1960s America that defied Hollywood conventions, aiming for gritty reality instead of grand-scale escapism.
The point is that Hopper is an incredibly talented and versatile artist. He will be sorely missed.