His first film role was "Johnny Guitar" (1954), followed by "Rebel Without a Cause" (1955), "Giant" (1956) and Gunfight at the O.K. Corral" (1957).
While working on "Rebel Without a Cause," the actor became good friends with one of his own idols, James Dean, who was famously killed in a car crash in September 1955, after they had become friends.
Hopper made a big impact on the screen throughout the 1960s, often appearing as villains in western dramas like "True Grit" (1969), but the film that made his career was a very different sort of movie.
"Easy Rider" (1969) saw Hopper in the director's chair and growing as an actor alongside Peter Fonda and a young Jack Nicholson, in a wildly successful film that became a cult classic. Ironically, Hopper was putting his new artistic maturity on display even as he portrayed the often mindless and sometimes even mindful excesses of youth.
With its anti-establishment credo and its attractive low budget, the film about hippie bikers on a cross-country odyssey also went far toward prodding often risk-averse Hollywood toward producing a raft of copycat flicks.
"We rode the highways of America and changed the way movies were made in Hollywood," Fonda told celebrity website TMZ in recalling his late friend.
Hopper's work was heavily overshadowed by drug and alcohol issues in the 1970s. By 1979, he appeared as a pot-smoking photographer alongside Brando in Francis Ford Coppola's Vietnam War film "Apocalypse Now."
If there was a professional comeback to speak of after his time on the dark side, Hopper owed it to director David Lynch.
Lynch cast Hopper as Frank Booth, the psychopathic killer in the eery 1986 film "Blue Velvet." That same year, he was cast as an alcoholic in "Hoosiers" alongside Gene Hackman, and earned an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor.
It was his second Academy Award nod. He was also nominated for the "Easy Rider" original screenplay back in 1970.
The jack-of-all-trades Hopper even played a young Napoleon Bonaparte in the star-studded "The Story of Mankind" (1957).
Not content with simply being a multifaceted actor and director, Hopper also was an accomplished artist with a pop-art style inspired by impressionism. His work went on display at a gallery in the Netherlands in 2009, alongside pieces by the likes of Georgia O'Keefe.
He was also an avid modern art collector and joked that his collection could not withstand his divorces.
His private life, including his relations with his wife, became increasingly public in the final year of his life as he waged a bitter divorce battle against his partner of nearly 14 years, Victoria.
In April, a court ordered him to pay her and his daughter some 12,000 dollars a month in spousal and child support.
On the political front, as with much else in his life, Hopper was a rebel. Unlike most of Hollywood, he was a lifelong Republican, though he broke with his political past in 2008, casting his ballot for Barack Obama, he said in interviews.
In addition to his Oscar nominations, Hopper had been made a commander of France's National Order of Arts and Letters. In March he was present at the unveiling of his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Flanked by stars he had worked with throughout his nearly half-century career, he thanked his fellow actors for turning out to pay tribute.
"Everything I've learned in my life I learned from you and the wonderful world that I traveled and saw... well, I got it all from you. This has been my home and my school," Hopper said.
"And I love all of you. I just want to thank you. This means so much to me, and thank you very much, everyone."