Hopper was born in Dodge City, Kansas in 1936, though he and his family moved to San Diego in 1940. He began acting while in high school, and soon became a contract player with Warner Bros. His earliest work came in the early days of television, though it was his small role opposite James Dean in the classic Rebel Without a Cause that brought him to the attention of the higher-ups at Warners. He soon was cast in a co-starring role in another Dean film, this time as the son of Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor in George Stevens' classic melodrama Giant.
Now part of the Hollywood young crowd, he dated Natalie Wood and Joanne Woodward and was seen to be a rising star. Then he began filming From Hell to Texas. He clashed epically with director Henry Hathaway, causing so much friction that his Hollywood career was effectively finished. He left for New York, to study with Lee Strasberg and continue working in television.
By the mid 1960s, Hopper began to make a gradual return to Hollywood films via small roles in such pictures as The Sons of Katie Elder, Cool Hand Luke and Hang 'Em High. He had become friendly with Peter Fonda, who was then starring in a series of motorcycle B-pictures. Together, they hatched an idea for a movie that followed traditional western archetypes while substituting outlaws for hippies and horses for motorcycles.
The rock n' roll soundtrack, counterculture themes, heavy drug use and completely anarchic style of Easy Rider was like a bomb going off in Hollywood. Hopper, along with Fonda and Terry Southern, wrote the screenplay. He and Fonda played the central characters and Hopper directed the whole thing. Not only was a huge success financially, but it was also a critical success and total game-changer, winning Best Picture at the 1969 Cannes film festival.
Easy Rider changed Hopper's career. Now he was seen as the chief auteur of the hippie generation. But he was also a committed drug addict and alcoholic by this point, which only served to heighten his already manic state of mind. When he and a relatively untrained hippie crew travelled to Peru to shoot his follow up, The Last Movie, things got quickly out of control. Though it won top prize at the Venice Film Festival in 1971, it was largely an indulgent, incoherent mess that flopped with critics and public alike.
His behaviour and addictions made him mostly unemployable during this time, but he did close out the 1970s with a supporting role in Apocalypse Now, though his addled behaviour would greatly contribute to the legendarily troubled production.
In the 1980s Hopper finally sobered up. The first film he shot after leaving rehab was David Lynch's Blue Velvet in 1986. His performance as the psychotic, terrifying Frank Booth was mesmerizing and served as Hopper's great comeback vehicle. His performance the same year as an alcoholic father in Hoosiers earned him an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor.
Hopper also returned to directing, shooting the celebrated cop and gangsta film Colors. He had a meaty role as the villain in Speed, which introduced him to the world of big-budget blockbusters, and he followed it up with similar roles in films such as Waterworld.
In 2001, he returned to television, serving as the antagonist in the first season of 24. During this time, he also became an avid photographer and collector of artwork. He was working on the TV adaptation of Crash when he fell ill.