For the general public, Dennis Hopper was identified to the end with the '60s counterculture, thanks to his career-making role as a hippie biker in Easy Rider. So when he died this past weekend, you're forgiven if you were surprised to read that he spent the last few decades of his life as a Republican. Unlike many famous figures who moved from one end of the spectrum to the other, Hopper never underwent a big public conversion. The man who once "was probably as Left as you could get without being a Communist" voted for Ronald Reagan in 1980, but he didn't make a stink about it at the time; the closest he came to giving his past persona a public burial came when he disavowed the drug abuse that just about wrecked his career in the 1970s. When no less a leftist than Abbie Hoffman criticized celebrity ex-dopers for issuing atonements that "look like cartoon confessions extracted under threat," the old radical nonetheless singled out Hopper's renunciation as one of a few "sincere" repudiations "by people I know and admire." This was in 1987, seven years after the actor started quietly casting his ballots for the GOP.
Not many people could vote for Reagan while maintaining the admiration of Abbie Hoffman, but Hopper's cultural impact was much larger than his private political sympathies. In virtually all his roles, including the roles he played in the gossip columns, Hopper exuded an individualism too explosive to be reduced to mere ideology, be it left, right, or libertarian. It was the individualism of a talented actor eager to play eccentric characters and the individualism of a self-destructive rascal who alienated his colleagues, the individualism of the counterculture's cosmic cowboys and the individualism of a Kansas Republican. It was the individualism of someone willing not just to stare into the abyss but to fall into it, climb out, then merrily dive back in.
Born in Dodge City, Hopper started acting onscreen in the mid-1950s, playing small parts in cowboy movies and JD flicks. He was blackballed after battling director Henry Hathaway on the set of 1958's From Hell to Texas, so he fell into TV work and low-budget films. Even after he started getting roles in respectable movies again, he continued to do lowbrow pictures for people like Roger Corman, the B-movie producer whose young actors and directors would become some of the most prominent names of the New Hollywood of the late '60s and the '70s. Hopper himself would help usher in that New Hollywood by directing, co-writing, and co-starring in Easy Rider, a 1969 release that at first seemed to be just another biker picture but eventually revealed itself as something more.
A central theme of the western is the tension between the sometimes lonely freedom of the road and the sometimes suffocating security of the rooted community. Easy Rider took place in a modern western landscape, not in the days of the frontier, but it grappled with the same idea. J.F.X. Gillis has argued that the film is, despite its reputation, a deeply conservative movie with parallels to Chaucer's "The Pardoner's Tale." In their stops along the road, Gillis argues, the protagonists "were given choices, opportunities to find meaning in their lives beyond that gas tank filled with money, beyond the pleasure of the brothel or the bottle, beyond the aimless wandering, meaning offered through spiritual commitment. Could there be a more conservative theme? The rancher and his family, the commune: first they were given a model of a meaningful life, then they were given an invitation to build that life. Invited to stay and join a family and find God, they refused."
"If this narrative had been Medieval, could there be any doubt at all of the theme or the moral teaching intended?" Gillis asks. "Sinners wander the countryside on a secular quest, encountering God's message but failing to acknowledge Him. They seek worldly pleasure at the expense of spiritual fulfillment, finding treasure and discussing it under a tree, only finally to die a horrid death by the wayside." That might not match the popular understanding of the movie's message, but it isn't far from at least one of the filmmakers' views. "My heroes are not right, they're wrong," Hopper's co-writer and co-star Peter Fonda said. "Liberty's become a whore, and we're all taking the easy ride."
Easy Rider was a hit and Hopper suddenly had Hollywood clout, which he burned through rapidly. He fell into disfavor again, and then he had another comeback. Along the way he had several memorable roles: as the amoral Tom Ripley in The American Friend, a crazed photographer in Apocalypse Now, a deranged '60s burnout in River's Edge, an alcoholic seeking redemption in Hoosiers, a cold-blooded hit man in Red Rock West, a post-apocalyptic dictator in Land of the Dead. But only one Hopper part would become as iconic as his character in Easy Rider: Frank Booth, the violent, impulsive, scenery-chewing sociopath at the center of Blue Velvet—a film written and directed by another unexpected Reaganite, David Lynch. If Easy Rider is the story of some footloose travelers who can't bring themselves to settle down, Blue Velvet is about a boy returning to a rooted community only to find that it too contains demons.
In 1984, it was possible for Gene Siskel to contrast Easy Rider (which, he informed us, "trashed establishment America") with the anti-Communist thriller Red Dawn (which was "nothing less than a military manifesto for our nation's youth"), concluding that "After more than two decades of pervasive liberalism, the Hollywood film industry is suddenly producing popular pictures that can only be called conservative." As it happens, Red Dawn director John Milius is a self-described "Zen anarchist" and a product of the same New Hollywood that gave us Easy Rider, but it's easy to miss those sorts of nuances when you're looking through the distorting prism of the Culture War. In retrospect, the New Hollywood was too big to be contained by either the counterculture or the left; it included John Milius as well as Robert Altman, Clint Eastwood as well as Jack Nicholson, Hopper the budding Republican as well as Hopper the hippie. In the best movies of the period, the animating idea wasn't some clichéd battle between the hipsters and the squares. It was the concept that powered those westerns of an earlier era: the tension between the home and the road, and the happiness and horrors to be found in both.
In that tug of war, Hopper embodied the most extreme sorts of rootlessness, playing a series of unconstrained ids and the wrecked shells they left behind. Sometimes, as in Hoosiers, the Hopper character managed to climb back into the community; other times, as in Apocalypse Now, he stayed out on the edge. His great gift was to make those excesses exciting and perversely attractive, even when his characters were at their darkest and most damaged.
Managing Editor Jesse Walker is the author of Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America (NYU Press). This column first appeared at Reason.com.