Today brought the tragic news of Dennis Hopper’s passing after a decade-long battle with prostate cancer. Hopper had many contributions to American cinema, so in honor of his memory we’re going to look back on the early films that helped him rise to fame.

Hopper made his film debut in two roles with James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and Giant (1956). Hopper admired Dean greatly, and was deeply affected by Dean’s death in a September 1955 car accident. Over the next ten years, Hopper had played a number of supporting roles in several films before writing himself a starring role.

Hopper wrote Easy Rider with Peter Fonda and Terry Southern in the late 1960s. It was to be an American road movie, telling the story of two drug-dealing bikers named Billy and Wyatt (played by Hopper and Fonda) as they travel through America in the pursuit of freedom. As the film poster tagline would read, “A man went looking for America, and couldn’t find it anywhere.”

Along the way, they pick up lawyer George Hanson, played Jack Nicholson, a role that would earn him an Oscar nomination. The film was Hopper’s directorial debut and Fonda produced it.

The making of the film was a turbulent affair; stories of the production process are now infamous. During test shooting on location in New Orleans, Hopper fought with the production crew, which occasionally led to yelling fits and physical altercations, exacerbated by the use of drugs and alcohol.

However, the overall lack of organization led to a high degree of improvisation, and nurtured some of the most iconic scenes and images. With the assistance of cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs, the film provides an incredible vision of the American landscape, accented by a rock soundtrack featuring Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan and Steppenwolf’s “Born To Be Wild”.

When the film premiered at the 1969 Cannes Film Festival, it was extremely well received, and won the award for Best First Work. When it released theatrically, it proved to be a box office hit with a $19 million intake, after only costing $400k to make. It signaled a breakthrough for independent film, and showcased what could happen with a production free of the restraints of the film studios. Along with films like Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate, Easy Rider helped kick-start the New Hollywood, in which the studio began surrendering control and funding low-budget films made by avant-garde directors.

Following Easy Rider, Hopper was unable to build on his success for several years, until he rose again in a featured role in Apocalypse Now (1979), and then again in Blue Velvet and Hoosiers (both from 1986). His career continued up until the time of his death, but few would argue against the fact that it was those early films that he will be remember most, as he earned his place as one of American cinema’s most influential rebels.

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