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Dennis Hopper, Southern California theater veteran

May 29, 2010 |  9:58 pm

HopperWhen he wasn't busy raising hell, getting high or cashing a check for Hollywood movies like "Waterworld," Dennis Hopper was an artist. The former celebrity bad boy, who died Saturday at age 74, was an avid painter who frequented the Los Angeles gallery scene. His works have been exhibited around the world and will be the subject of a retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art, opening in July.

But what is less known about Hopper was that in addition to being a visual artist, he was an experienced theater artist -- at least in the early part of his career.

Hopper trained at the Old Globe in San Diego, where he got his acting feet wet performing in various stage productions, including a few works by Shakespeare.

Hopper spent part of his childhood near San Diego: He attended Helix High School in the suburb of La Mesa. The Old Globe was one of the first institutions to give the aspiring actor his break. According to the company, Hopper appeared in at least five stage productions there.

In 1949, he had a small role as a caroler in "A Christmas Carol," adapted from the novel by Charles Dickens. Then in 1954, he appeared in four productions at the Old Globe: "Twelfth Night," "Cheaper by the Dozen," "Othello" and "The Merchant of Venice." (The above photo shows Hopper in "Merchant," in which he played Lorenzo.)

Hopper also spent time in New York studying at the Actors Studio, the famed institution founded by Lee Strasberg that taught Method-style acting. Hopper eventually moved to L.A., where he landed a bit part in the 1955 movie "A Rebel Without a Cause."

In 1958, he appeared at the La Jolla Playhouse in Thornton Wilder's "The Skin of Our Teeth," also starring Cloris Leachman, Eartha Kitt and James Whitmore.

Hopper appeared in numerous television series and films before hitting it big with "Easy Rider" (1969), which he directed and co-wrote.

-- David Ng

Photo: Hopper, with Roxanne Haug, in "The Merchant of Venice" at the Old Globe. Credit: Old Globe


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