The wild man's erratic career included an early turn in Rebel Without A Cause, an improbable smash with Easy Rider and a classic role in Blue Velvet.
Hopper, 74, died on Saturday at his home in the Los Angeles beach community of Venice, surrounded by family and friends.
Hopper's manager announced in October 2009 that the actor had been diagnosed with prostate cancer.
The success of Easy Rider and the spectacular failure of his next film, The Last Movie, fitted the pattern for the talented, but sometimes uncontrollable actor-director, who also had parts in such favourites as Apocalypse Now and Hoosiers.
He married five times and led a dramatic life right to the end. In January, Hopper filed to end his 14-year marriage to wife Victoria, who claimed he was seeking to cut her out of her inheritance, which he denied.
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.
All was forgiven, at least for a moment, when he collaborated with another struggling actor, Peter Fonda, on a script about two pot-smoking, drug-dealing hippies on a motorcycle trip through America's Southwest and South to take in the New Orleans Mardi Gras – Easy Rider.
With Hopper hailed as a brilliant film-maker, Universal Pictures lavished 586,000 on his next project, The Last Movie.
Editing it took him nearly a year, in part because he was using psychedelic drugs for inspiration.
The Last Movie was such a crashing failure that it made Hopper unwanted in Hollywood for a decade.
At the same time, his drug and alcohol use was increasing but 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.
He stopped drinking but he still used cocaine, and at one point he became so hallucinatory he was committed to a psychiatric ward.
Upon his release, Hopper joined Alcoholics Anonymous, quit drugs and launched another comeback, playing an alcoholic ex-basketball star in Hoosiers.
From that point on, he maintained a frantic work pace, appearing in many films.