Dennis Hopper passed away on May 29, from complications brought on by prostate cancer. From the moment he broke out in Easy Rider to his last starring role in the TV-series version of Crash, he has truly marched to his own drummer on-screen.
Off-screen he was the same, by all reports. In the ’70s and ’80s he abused just about everything you could abuse: drugs, alcohol, sex…he dynamited a coffin (with himself in it) as performance art, then freaked out and disappeared into the desert during a Mexican drug spree. His career prospects dried up.
But then he dried out: checking into rehab in 1983, he reportedly worked hard to maintain his sobriety every day since. He resurrected his career with River’s Edge and Blue Velvet, and by the ’90s he was sniffing sneakers in Nike ads and playing villains in movies like Speed and was one of the few good things about Kevin Costner’s Waterworld. All the while he created large quantities of art, from photography to painting to sculpture, and collected works hungrily.
His life might not be the blueprint for happiness—by some accounts he rarely smiled—but it clearly offers some lessons you should remember:
Pursue Your Passion
Hopper lived for his art. It was what truly drove him, and each time he felt a roadblock placed in front of him, he did what he had to do to get over it, including kicking his alcohol and drug addictions. As a young actor featuring his first flush of stardom in the late 1950s, he let his head get in the way, conflicting with director Henry Hathaway, who forced Hopper to perform over 80 takes of a single scene because each time the young actor would do it his own way instead of following his director’s instructions. Hathaway reportedly told Hopper his career was over, and he was dropped by his studio.
Instead of giving up, moving to B-movies or stubbornly trying to force or argue the issue, Hopper reacted by moving to New York and enrolling in Lee Strasburg’s legendary school of acting. He then concentrated on working everywhere he could, on stage, art films and even small TV roles. Building up a body of work as well as rebuilding his reputation, he was eventually accepted back into Hollywood in the mid-60s, laying the groundwork for Easy Rider.
End Unhealthy Relationships
I’m sure you’ve heard the stories of men leaving wives not long after learning the women have suffered a serious affliction: one politician infamously divorced one wife after learning she had cancer, and another after she was diagnosed with multple sclerosis. Dennis Hopper bucked that trend, petitioning his wife for divorce as he was dying.
As always with divorces, allegations have flown back and forth, and it may be that Hopper was suffering from the delirium brought on by his pain medications, but what’s clear is that he wanted the people he felt truly loved him to be with him in his final days. Staying in a relationship that is harmful, emotionally or physically, shouldn’t be an option.
Don’t Neglect Your Health
Medical observers say Dennis Hopper had a very rare, aggressive form of prostate cancer that was first diagnosed in 2002. Normally prostate cancer is very treatable, with a treatment and cure rate approaching 95 percent, if it’s caught early. Since prostate cancer is usually very slow-growing, you don’t have to get your PSA checked (a simple blood test) more often than your doctor recommends a full checkup. But especially if you’re over 40, do get it checked on schedule. Also, help reduce your odds of getting this specific cancer with proper diet and exercise, including consuming lots of omega-3 fatty acids (tuna, salmon) and severing your relationship with hydrogenated oils.
And as the recent story of Bret Michaels’ brain hemorrhage and stroke demonstrate, anytime you feel unusually bad, get checked out pronto. Had he not called the medicos the moment he had that awful headache or the second he felt his hand go numb, he might still be in a hospital bed instead of the boardroom on The Apprentice or the stage of American Idol.
Live Big but Live Smart
From any man’s life, you can learn from both what he did and what he didn’t do. Dennis Hopper is no different: he traveled the world, went to beautiful places, saw things few men have seen, and made his passion his life’s work. You can and should do all of these things. He also succumbed to his demons more than once, and sometimes made choices that were more impulsive than smart. He succeeded despite these stumbles, and only after overcoming them. If you can avoid them altogether, you’ve got a leg up.
It will be impossible to replace Dennis Hopper. Strive to make yourself hard to replace.