The success of "Easy Rider" and the spectacular failure of his next film, "The Last Movie," fit the pattern for the talented but sometimes uncontrollable Hopper, who also had parts in such favorites as "Apocalypse Now" and "Hoosiers." He was a two-time Academy Award nominee and in March was honored with a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame.
"We rode the highways of America and changed the way movies were made in Hollywood," Peter Fonda, his "Easy Rider" costar, said in comments carried by several news outlets. "I was blessed by his passion and friendship."
Other tributes were posted on celebrities' websites and Twitter feeds. Actress Marlee Matlin called Hopper a "maverick, a wonderful actor. You always got something unexpected from him."
"So long Dennis," tweeted actress Virginia Madsen, who starred in "The Hot Spot," one of the films Hopper directed. "U taught me so much."
After a promising start that included roles in two James Dean films, Hopper's acting career languished as he developed a reputation for throwing tantrums and abusing alcohol and drugs.
On the set of "True Grit," Hopper so angered John Wayne that the star reportedly chased Hopper with a loaded gun.
"Much of Hollywood," wrote critic-historian David Thomson, "found Hopper a pain in the neck."
All was forgiven when he collaborated with Fonda on a script about two pot-smoking, drug-dealing hippies on a cross-country motorcycle trip.
On the way, Hopper and Fonda befriend a drunken young lawyer (Jack Nicholson in a breakout role) but arouse the enmity of Southern rednecks and are murdered before they can return home.
"'Easy Rider' was never a motorcycle movie to me," Hopper said in 2009. "A lot of it was about politically what was going on in the country."
Fonda produced "Easy Rider" and Hopper directed it for a meager $380,000. It went on to gross $40 million worldwide, a substantial sum for its time.
The film caught on despite tension between Hopper and Fonda, and between Hopper and the original choice for Nicholson's part, Rip Torn, who quit after a bitter argument with the director.
It was a hit at Cannes, netted a best-screenplay Oscar nomination for Hopper, Fonda and Terry Southern, and has since been listed on the American Film Institute's ranking of the top 100 American films.
The establishment gave official blessing in 1998 when "Easy Rider" was included in the United States National Film Registry for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant." Its success prompted studio heads to schedule a new kind of movie: low cost, with inventive photography and themes about a restive baby boom generation.
With Hopper hailed as a brilliant filmmaker, Universal Pictures lavished $850,000 on his next project, "The Last Movie." The title was prescient.
Hopper took a large cast and crew to a village in Peru to film the tale of a tribe corrupted by a movie company. Trouble on the set developed almost immediately, as Peruvian authorities pestered the company and drug-induced orgies were reported.
The film took a drug-and-drink addled Hopper nearly a year to edit, and when it was released, "The Last Movie" was such a crashing failure that it made Hopper unwanted in Hollywood for a decade, and forced him to find work in Europe.
He made a remarkable comeback, starting with a memorable performance as a drugged-out journalist in Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 Vietnam War epic, "Apocalypse Now." Hopper was on drugs off camera, too, and his rambling chatter was worked into the film.
He went on to appear in several films in the early 1980s, including the well regarded "Rumblefish" and "The Osterman Weekend," as well as the campy "My Science Project" and "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2." But alcohol and drugs continued to interfere with his work.
Treatment at a detox clinic helped him stop drinking, but he still used cocaine, and at one point he became so hallucinatory that he was committed to a psychiatric ward.
Upon his release, Hopper joined Alcoholics Anonymous, quit drugs and launched yet another comeback.
It began in 1986 when he played an alcoholic ex-basketball star in "Hoosiers. He was nominated for an Oscar for best supporting actor.
His role as a wild drunk in "Blue Velvet," also in 1986, won him more acclaim, and years later the character wound up No. 36 on the AFI's list of top 50 movie villains. He also returned to directing, with "Colors," "The Hot Spot" and "Chasers."
From that point on, Hopper maintained a frantic work pace, appearing in many forgettable movies and a few memorable ones, including 1993's "True Romance," where he played a well-meaning ex-cop trying to protect his son from a gangster played by Christopher Walken.
"No better scene in the movies than his showdown with Walken in 'True Romance'," actress Elizabeth Banks tweeted Saturday.
Hopper made it to the top of the box office in the 1994 hit "Speed" as the maniacal plotter of a freeway disaster.
In the 2000s, he was featured in such films as "Elegy" and "Hell Ride" and the television series "Crash."
Eric Roberts, who starred opposite Hopper in "Crash," said Hopper was "everything you wouldn't expect him to be, based on what he played." Roberts said that on a flight from a shoot for the show, Hopper helped the plane's crew by comforting a passenger through a panic attack.
"For a guy who was masterful in creating very disquieting characters, Dennis sure had a healing way in life," Roberts said in a written statement.
For years he lived in Los Angeles' bohemian beach community of Venice in a house designed by acclaimed architect Frank Gehry.
Hopper also tried his hand at photography, sculpting and painting. The art is the subject of a show opening July 11 at the Museum of Contemporary Art's Geffen Contemporary space in downtown Los Angeles.
Dennis Lee Hopper was born in 1936, in Dodge City, Kan., and spent much of his youth on the nearby farm of his grandparents. He saw his first movie at age 5 and became enthralled.
After moving to San Diego with his family, he played Shakespeare at the Old Globe Theater.
Scouted by the studios, Hopper was under contract to Columbia until he insulted the boss, Harry Cohn. From there he went to Warner Bros., where he made "Rebel Without a Cause" and "Giant" while in his late teens.
Later, he moved to New York to study at the Actors Studio, where Dean had learned his craft.
Hopper married five times. In January 2010, he filed to end his 14-year marriage to Victoria Hopper, who said in court filings that the actor was seeking to cut her out of her inheritance, a claim Hopper denied.
His first wife was Brooke Hayward, the daughter of actress Margaret Sullavan and agent Leland Hayward, and author of the best-selling memoir "Haywire." They had a daughter, Marin, before Hopper's drug-induced violence led to divorce after eight years.
His second marriage, to singer-actress Michelle Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas, lasted only eight days.
A union with actress Daria Halprin also ended in divorce after they had a daughter, Ruthana.
Hopper and his fourth wife, dancer Katherine LaNasa, had a son, Henry, before divorcing.
He married Victoria Duffy, who was 32 years his junior, in 1996, and they had a daughter, Galen Grier.