The Life of HUNTER S. THOMPSON
An Oral Biography
Jann S. Wenner & Corey Seymour
Introduction by Johnny Depp
and selected excerpts from the text
Excerpt from Editor’s Note by Jann S. Wenner:
Also, from the [Rolling Stone] memorial issue, we have included as prefatory essays here my own open eulogy for a man who had been one of my closest friends and a lifelong partner in crime, as well as a tribute/memoir/love letter written, on deadline, by Johnny Depp. Johnny and Hunter were both bad boys from Kentucky, and they admired and loved each other deeply. I saw with my own eyes how special Johnny had become to Hunter, and likewise how devoted and worshipful Johnny had been toward him.
A Pair of Deviant Bookends by Johnny Depp
“Buy the ticket, take the ride.” These are the words that echo in my skull, the words that our Good Doctor lived by and, by God, died by. He dictated, created, commanded, demanded, manipulated, manhandled and snatched life up by the short hairs and only relinquished his powerful grasp when he was ready. There’s the rub. When HE was ready. And so it seems he was.
We are here, without him. But in no way are we left with nothing, far from it. For the multitudes of die-hard gonzo admirers out there, of which I too am one, we have his words, his books, his insights, his humor and his truth. For those of us lucky enough to have been close to him, which most often meant rather lengthy and dangerous occasions that would invariably lead to doubling over with uncontrollable fits of laughter, we have his gift of the experiences and memories to fill us and send our thoughts forever toward that image of his Cheshire grin leading us wherever he felt we needed to go. Which, by the way, was always the right direction, however insane it may have seemed. Yes, the doctor always knew best.
I have, seared onto my brain, millions of these hideous little adventures that I was blessed enough to have lived through with him and, frankly, in certain instances, blessed to have simply lived through. He was/is a brother, a friend, a hero, a father, a son, a teacher, a partner in crime. Our crime, fun. Always, fun.
Hunter and I met in December of 1995 through a mutual friend while I was vacationing in Aspen, Colorado. I had long been a huge fan of not only “the Vegas book,” as Hunter always referred to it, but basically every single word the man had spewed onto pages. Somewhere around eleven one night, while I was nursing a drink at the deep back of the Woody Creek Tavern, an unusually loud noise stole my attention and then demanded the room’s attention—a hush on one side, fearful murmurings on the other, were replaced by mounting screams, as what appeared to be an electric saber swung wildly near the entrance of the bar. Patrons jumped aside in horror as a deep, raspy voice hollered people out of its way, threatening to shock the living shit out of any swine that dared linger in its path. In an instant, it was clear that our rendezvous had commenced.
Tall and lanky, wearing a woolen Native American-looking knit hat that trailed down past his shoulders, the ubiquitous aviators tight to the face, he shot a massive hand toward me. I placed my hand in his firm hold and gave back what I got—the beginning, I sensed, of a long and deep-rooted friendship.
He plopped himself into a chair, laid his armaments—a giant cattle prod and a hefty Taser—on the table. In that very second, the proverbial good times began to roll. We had a few rounds, talked about this and that, and connected on more than a few levels, not the least being the discovery that we both hailed from the dark and bloody ground of the great state of Kentucky. That fact alone sent Hunter into eloquent tirades ranging from southern chivalry to hillbilly moonshine-running to our fellow Kentuckian Cassius Clay. Within no time, the group was invited back to Owl Farm, Hunter’s fortified compound just up the road from the tavern, where we babbled ourselves silly and, at about two-thirty a.m., blew up propane bombs with a nickel-plated shotgun. This, I was to learn later, was my first test before being initiated into the “Too Much Fun Club.”
Sometime later, I was working on Donnie Brasco in New York City when my phone rang one morning at about five-thirty a.m. “Johnny . . . Hunter. . . Listen, if they were going to do a film of the Vegas book . . . would you be interested? Would you want to play me?” I was stunned and tried to gather myself. “Well . . . What about it? Are you in?” Of course I was. Who wouldn’t have been? I was beyond interested. It had actually been a dream of mine that I’d always thought an impossibility. We spoke a bit more about the hows, the whos, the whens, et cetera. It was then that I learned that there really weren’t any. There was nothing—no script, no director, no production at all. It simply didn’t exist. Not yet, anyway. He’d inquired for his own edification. He did that sort of thing a lot. Rhyme, reason, and rationale might have been totally invisible to the majority, but Hunter was always way ahead of the curve. Even amid what appeared to be absolute chaos, he was all too aware of exactly where the chips would fall.
We both acknowledged that there would be a great need for me to spend ungodly and potentially unhealthy amounts of time with him. We’d already established a pretty strong friendship from various other adventures together, such as a three-hour stint onstage at the Viper Room in L.A. I’d come to see Hunter and was then wrangled into doing the entire gig with him. He had insisted over dinner, minutes before he was due to be introduced at the club: Either I went onstage with him or he would cancel the whole thing right then and there. John Cusack had come ‘round and was also shanghaied into participating. The three of us drove to the entrance of the club in some rented (I think) convertible. We inched our way down Sunset Boulevard with a life-size blow-up doll in tow and the ever-bespectacled Dr. Thompson spilling whiskey everywhere out of his large highball glass. Oh yeah, we were ever subtle. As we began to park, Dr. Thompson decided that the right thing to do was to heave the poor, defenseless sex maiden into the Sunset Strip traffic. One nasty screeching of tires and one horrified, ultra-high-pitched scream from Hunter, and all hell broke loose—more screeching, more screams, all eyes in our direction. A trail of madness in—literally—seconds.
Reunited with the sex toy, we calmly made our way inside and took the stage. The night got weirder and weirder, but my God, was it fun. Too much fun.
Meanwhile, the Vegas film finally got set up properly, and the time came for some serious soul stealing. I flew into Aspen and was greeted at the airport by Hunter in his ‘71 Chevy convertible, aka the Red Shark. We serpentined our way through the mountains and arrived at Owl Farm, where I was swiftly invited to put my things in the basement, where I lived for much longer than was planned and grew to be kind of comfortable with the brown recluse spiders that shared the room.
For days and nights on end, we would sit in that Command Center and talk about anything and everything, from politics to weapons, our home state, lipstick, music, Hitler’s paintings, literature, sports, always sports. We were talking one night about which sports he preferred and didn’t. We were watching plenty of basketball and loads of football, so I asked him if he had ever been a baseball fan, to which he replied flatly, “No. . . Baseball is like watching a bunch of angry Jews arguing on the porch.” Once, a year later, we’d made a bet on the World Cup soccer tournament, France versus Brazil. He was absolutely, vehemently positive that Brazil was just going to cream France. I took that bet, one thousand dollars. We teased and prodded each other for weeks leading up to the match. The outcome bent in my favor; he promptly wrote me a check and sent it with this letter:
WELL, COLONEL, I TOLD YOU THE FUCKING GAME WAS FIXED. I just didn’t think those prissy quadroon boys would go totally into the tank. They acted like stupid animals. They shit all over themselves and disgraced a whole nation of gutless whores in the eyes of the world. And it taught me another good lesson in WHY amateurs shouldn’t fuck around with gambling on games they know nothing about.
here’s a check for $1,000.
Thank you very much for yr. business. I’ll be back.
His generosity was astounding. Never once did he try to wriggle away from my unending barrage of questions. He was always exceptionally patient and very giving. He was totally open regarding the details of his exploits, personal experiences, and memories, even the more private and intimate particulars from his past. He did not have to be. The more time together, the more intense the bond. For the most part, we were inseparable. And it felt good. The connection was profound and becoming more so.
I used to tease him that we were becoming a perversely dark and twisted version of Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, which really made him uncomfortable. I had by this point purloined an impressive amount of his clothing from the Vegas period and adopted his mode of dress: the aviator shades, a bush hat, short pants, athletic socks, Converse sneakers, cigarette holder clenched tightly between the teeth. If I took my hat off and aired out the chrome dome, he’d always beg me to cover up again. We’d saunter out of the house like freakish twins. For good or ill, there we were—a pair of deviant bookends on the prowl. Truly, the man should be sainted for putting up with my continual scratching away at the layers of his life. He stuck it out like a champion and couldn’t have been a better friend.
There are countless other moments and experiences that I was fortunate enough to have gone through with Hunter, far too many to write about here. I was well aware that it was all going to happen only once in a lifetime. These were fantastic experiences. Some of the best moments of my life were happening to me, and luckily, I knew it.
Speaking as a fan: You owe it to yourselves to not be cheated, or shortchanged, by believing merely the myth. Understand that his road and his methods were his and only his, and that he lived and breathed his writing twenty-four hours a day. There are those of you who, based on Hunter’s journeys and the mad stories that surround his life and memory, the excess and wild rantings of his lifestyle, might think that he was simply some hedonistic lunatic, or, as he always put it, “an elderly dope fiend.” I promise you, he was not. He was a southern gentleman, all chivalry and charm. He was a hilarious and rascally little boy. A truth seeker. He was a hypersensitive medium who miraculously channeled the underlying current of truth buried in lies that we have become accustomed to believing.
Hunter was a genius who revolutionized writing in the same way that Marlon Brando did with acting, as significant, essential, and valuable as Dylan, Kerouac and the Stones. He was without question the most loyal and present friend I have ever had the honor of knowing. I am privileged to have belonged to the small fraternity of people in his life who were allowed to see more than most. He was elegance personified. I miss him. I missed him when he was alive. But, dear Doctor, I will see you again.
The Life of Hunter S. Thompson
An Oral Biography
[Johnny Depp was on vacation in Aspen in December 1995 when he met Hunter.]
I had read the old standards—Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail—and then moved on to the books of essays like Better Than Sex. His writing was a presence in my life and an important one long before I ever met him.
I happened to be in Aspen around Christmastime and really couldn’t stand the whole celebrity jet-set ski thing. I thought I’d ended up in the wrong place—I felt like I was in someone else’s Christmas. But I saw this guy Alan Finkelstein, who I’d known on and off in Hollywood, and he told me that Hunter was in town and would I like to go out to Woody Creek and meet him?
We arrived at the Woody Creek Tavern and were having a drink, and suddenly there’s this big commotion at the front of the bar, where it kind of twisted back. The doors open, and I see this kind of force, this brute force, making his way through the place with a giant electric cattle prod in one hand and a Taser gun in the other and cursing, “Out of the way, you swine!” It was like time stood still; I was thinking, “Holy God . . . it’s all real.”
He made his way to the table, and we were introduced and shook hands. I’ll never forget that: It was the handshake of my grandfather or my father; it was a man’s handshake. In the first thirty seconds we discovered that we’re both from Kentucky, which was something that was important to him. We had a couple of drinks, and he invited us up to his house. I was admiring some of the weapons that were around—handguns, shotguns, rifles, and things of that nature—and I made a comment about this beautiful nickel-plated twelve gauge. He said, “Oooh yeah, Christ!” and got it down off the wall and said, “Yeah, let’s take this out back and fire it off. We need a target. We’ll make a target.” He had these propane tanks, and he handed me some duct tape and these things that were a little bit bigger than a matchbook and started showing me how to tape these things to a propane canister. I had a cigarette dangling out of my mouth. We were in his kitchen, the command center. I said, “What are these things?” He said, “Oh, that . . . yeah, that’s nitroglycerin.” I immediately heaved my cigarette into his kitchen sink, finished the job, and then we went outside, set one up, and he loaded a shell into the shotgun and handed it over.
His eyes were telling me, “This is a test. This is a test.” Because we weren’t all that far from the propane tank, and we had a twelve-gauge shotgun loaded with double-ought buck, which is a pretty powerful little combination. I pumped the gun and leveled off on it and KABOOM!!—this enormous fireball went shooting in the air, and Hunter started whooping and screaming, “Hot damn! Good shooting, man!” And that was it—from that moment on we were pals, and stayed in almost constant touch.
[Deborah Fuller was Hunter’s assistant from 1982 to 2003, living in the cabin adjacent to Hunter’s house at Owl Farm.]
Sometimes he would say, “Get the Colonel on the phone!”—he called Johnny “the Colonel”—so he could bounce around a few ideas and try to get some question answered.
I’d get these weird calls—in retrospect they were super-weird, but from Hunter they were normal, an everyday thing. I got a phone call one time where he said, “Where are you?” I said, “I’m in the car; I just got off work and I’m heading home.” With Hunter, very rarely would I say, “I’ll call you right back” or “I can’t talk now,” and it was never a five-minute call. It was at least an hour, more like three. But this time he said,” What do you know about hairy black tongue?” And I said, “Uhhh . . . hairy . . . what is hairy black tongue?” He said, “Oh fuck! You don’t know anything about it?” I said, “No, I don’t. What is it?” He started going into this huge and very knowledgeable speech about this disease known as hairy black tongue. What it all boiled down to was Hunter had been to the dentist, and he’d read some pamphlet on hairy black tongue, and it concerned him gravely. This turned into a three-hour conversation about hairy black tongue and how we could avoid getting it. There were certain guidelines and rules that were set up: Peroxide was out. You could never brush your teeth with baking soda or peroxide or any such thing; it got into that weirdly specific realm. As weird as it was, that sort of thing became normal.
[Doug Brinkley, a professor of history at Tulane University, is the editor of Hunter’s letters and the literary executor of Hunter’s estate.]
[. . .]At the same time, Johnny Depp was coming into the picture. Laila Nabulsi had been working for a long while to get Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas made into a movie, and Hunter wanted to determine who the actor was who was going to play him, and he was looking in particular at Depp and Matt Dillon. But once Hunter met Depp, the deal was done. Johnny was from Kentucky, which meant a lot to Hunter, and Johnny came from humble roots like Hunter. Johnny was very much into Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Gener, Breton, Artaud, and a perverse sort of French literature which Hunter always admired. They had a real and immediate bond.
It wasn’t until 1996, when I was almost done with Donnie Brasco in New York, that I got this phone call from Hunter asking me if I would be interested in playing him in the film of the Vegas book. He always referred to Fear and Loathing as “the Vegas book.” I said, “Of course I would.” We talked that night over the phone, and that was the last I heard of it for quite a long while.
[Laila Nabulsi met Hunter in 1977 while she was working at Saturday Night Live and later produced the movie Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.]
It was basically thanks to Johnny that the movie got made at all. In Johnny, I finally had somebody who matched my passion. I knew he’d stay the course even though he shouldn’t. It wasn’t like everybody in his camp was jumping up and down saying, “Make this movie!” His agent and lawyers didn’t want him to do it.
I was in New York, I think for the twenty-fifth-anniversary party for Fear and Loathing, and I cornered Hunter and asked him if he really wanted me, if he really felt I was the guy to do that, because I knew he had other friends who were actors, and I would have been more than happy to back out. It was Hunter’s book, and if it was going to be me, I needed to have his blessing. And he said, “No, of course you’re wanted. You have my blessing.” I said, “If I do a remotely decent job of portraying you, you know there’s a very good chance you’ll hate me for the rest of your life,” and he said, “Well then, let’s hope for your sake that I don’t, ho, ho.”
When we did Hunter S. Thompson Day in Louisville—he was very proud of this—at the end of the night it was Hunter and me onstage taking questions from the audience. I was the interpreter. His mother, Virginia, was right there in the front row, and it was wonderful.
Hunter decided that since we were both brothers from “the dark and bloody ground,” as Kentucky is known, there were several fish to fry in Louisville. We were going back there to clear his name—they were going to celebrate him, and his mother was going to be there, and she would be proud. He said he wanted to make me a Kentucky Colonel—which almost anyone can be. There’s a society of Kentucky Colonels. Hunter was one and he made me one. You don’t need to do anything—you just write in and ask for it, and they give it to you. From then on, he always referred to me as the Colonel.
After the Louisville event, Depp came out to Woody Creek and lived in Hunter’s basement, which Hunter forever after called Johnny’s Room. I came out and stayed in the cabin, so it was really Deborah, Colonel Depp, myself, and Hunter for a week. I was going through Hunter’s files and finding things related to Vegas for the second volume of letters, Fear and Loathing in America, so Johnny could read some of that stuff. We dug up clothes from the basement so Depp could dress just as Hunter did.
Johnny was a great guest, he never missed a thing and would help with anything. I would retrieve things for Hunter, and Johnny would see where I had gotten something, and after Hunter was done with it, he would put it away. He would be the first one to take the dishes out of the dishwasher. Watching him study Hunter was hysterical. I would get Johnny the same hats and jackets, and of course he used Hunter’s cigarette filters. I found all the original clothes that Hunter wore in Vegas—they fit Johnny to a tee—and he had copies made of everything.
They would stay up until all hours. Johnny quickly became a trusted friend who could roll with Hunter and keep the same schedule. They had the best time talking, calling people, drinking, going to the tavern, going for wild drives, buying matching guns, shooting on the range, plotting scenes for the movie—you name it and they covered it. They would be up for as long as it took. Hunter had found “a bright boy and a gentleman,” as he put it, a Kentucky Colonel that he could play with, one that he respected. Hunter also loved to have Johnny read his work. Of course, Hunter trained him—”Slower, slower, goddam it! Emphasize that this is music . . . “
I knew then how special every second of that time was. You can make more room in your body and in your brain and in your heart to store that stuff, and I did. I never got sick of it. Even talking about things that I wasn’t particularly interested in—point spreads or various sporting events and things like that. You’d be talking about Michael Jordan and his brilliance or his athletic abilities one second, and the next thing you know you’ve made some turn and you’re talking about moonshine running.
The only thing that I knew that I wanted, that I needed, was the years of 1970 and ‘71, the Vegas time, and Hunter’s relationship with Oscar Acosta, the model for Dr. Gonzo. That was really the main focus, but then it just went everywhere. We talked about everything, from his earliest memories, his youth in Louisville and beaning people’s mailboxes and petty thievery, and his air force days. I asked him if it was okay to videotape. I said, “I’m not going to interview you, but if you don’t mind, I’ll set a camera down on the counter, click it on, and then we’ll just be. We’ll just talk.” He said, “Yeah, that’s fine.” And neither one of us, by the way, looked at the camera after that. We just sat and talked for hours and hours and days. I have endless amounts of footage of that, which was very, very helpful.
He spoke a lot about Oscar. He basically said that he had great respect for him and thought he was brilliant, but the one thing that he always stressed about Oscar was that he was scary. Hunter never knew what to expect of him—he could snap at any moment, and things could go ugly. He said that he’d never been with anyone in his life who could make things uglier and darker and more dangerous in such a short period of time—like seconds. He loved Oscar, obviously. I think he really believed that there was a chance that Oscar was still around, that he was too large a force to have been taken out so easily.
I started to get fascinated with the way that he would approach a meal. It was incredible to watch, because if Hunter had a plate of crab cakes, oysters, and some rice or something, the meal would arrive, and he would then sort of study it. “Yeahhh . . .” It seemed that aesthetically, it needed to be at the right kind of angle, and then he would take the salt and pepper and kind of hover over the dish—and he would salt and pepper his food for fucking twenty minutes. For me, it became an obsession. And then the lemon. He’d squeeze a lemon over everything—the whole fucking lemon. I started really getting into these odd details.
He got a little freaked out when I started to act like him. You had to learn to be as quick as Hunter. There was a borrowing it for a period of time—sponging to a degree that went beyond mimicry. But it used to freak him out.
Johnny would jump into his Hunter character at any given second. The way he held a cigarette and the way he picked up Hunter’s walk—it would give us the creeps. Hunter was always screaming, “Stop that!” Johnny would turn it on and off just to fuck with him.Hunter shaved Johnny’s head again after he arrived so it was just right, and he had me trim the sides because I always cut Hunter’s hair.
I’d been staying there for weeks, and my nightstand was this barrel. It was where the lamp was and it was where my ashtray was. I was in there doing my homework at night before I’d fall off to bed, and I had stacks of photos of Hunter and Oscar and all the bits and pieces from the manuscript of Fear and Loathing, Hunter’s early works, tons of reading materials—important stuff. I’d be going through that, and at a certain point, as I was putting a cigarette out, I thought, “Fuck, man—that’s a keg. There’s no way in hell this thing can be, like, live, can there be?” It’s where my ashtray was and the whole bit—matches and lighters. I went upstairs and said to Hunter, “I need you to come downstairs for a minute, man; you’ve got to check this out.” He said, “What’s the problem?” He came downstairs, and I said, “Come in my room. What the fuck is that?” I pointed to the keg. “Is that what I think it is?” He looked at it and he goes, “Oh fuck—that’s where it is!” I said, “Is it gunpowder?” He said, “Oh yeah . . .”
By the time I had to go back to L.A., I had amassed a collection of copies of stuff and photographs and bits of his notes from the Vegas years—a lot of stuff. I had a bunch of his clothes from that period, and not only that, but I was getting ready to drive the Red Shark to L.A. from Colorado. It was cute in a way, because I guess some part of it had to do with the fact that I was leaving, but he got a little like, “Fuck you—you come here, you sponge off me and move into my house, and now you’re leaving and taking all of my clothes and all of my shit with you.” We sort of battled and verbally challenged one another to outdo the other. I’d say, “Yes, Hunter, that’s true. But it’s for the greater good now, isn’t it? You want to be represented well, don’t you?”
[Tim Ferris was the New York bureau chief of Rolling Stone and is the author of numerous books on astronomy.]
Johnny was completely earnest. The first time we ever hung out together, Hunter had left the room, and Johnny, with this tremendous sincerity, said, “He really is quite remarkable, don’t you think?” I was really touched by it. This was a guy who was putting himself on the line for Hunter. I mean, it was a lot of time, a lot of work, and a lot of abuse to make a film that nobody expected was going to make any money or advance anybody’s career.
When it was just Hunter and me in our relationship, I was the Colonel. In other instances, such as out on the road, he would refer to me as Ray. It was always, “Well, go talk to Ray. He’s got the music set up.” I’d made these CDs for Hunter—there would be the CD that we would listen to in the motel before we split, and there’d be the CD we’d listen to in the car on the way to an event, and then I would go in and set up the blaster and put the CD on for the event itself. It was “Spirit in the Sky” and “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “One Toke Over the Line,” “Sympathy for the Devil,” “White Rabbit”—all that stuff. And he fucking loved it—we’d drive down the street, and he’d be whooping. He had a polo shirt made for me that said, “Just Call Me Ray,” and when he introduced me to people as Ray and they said, “Well, but that’s Johnny . . . ,” he’d go, “No! His fucking name is Ray.”
We were on the road on a book tour for The Proud Highway, and Hunter’s back went out on him—sciatica. He was in a lot of pain. His back had been acting up before that, but now we were locked in his hotel room in San Francisco together, just the two of us, for about five days.
One night the phone rang. I picked it up, and the guy on the other end said, “Dr. Thompson?” I said, “No, this is not Dr. Thompson. This is Ray. What can I do for you?” He said, “My name is Ramundo. I can do things.” I was dead sober, thinking, “What the fuck?” But again, when you were in those situations with Hunter, nothing was bizarre anymore. I guess I sounded confused, because he said again, “Yes, my name is Ramundo—I can do things.” I said, “Excuse me?” He said, “I can do things.” I said, “All right . . . uh, we don’t need anything right now, but thank you very much for your call, and take it easy.” Click.
Maybe forty-five minutes later, Hunter and I were sitting there still talking, and Hunter flinched and suddenly said, “What the fuck . . . Did you hear that?” I said, “No, I didn’t hear anything.” He said, “That sound—I heard a dog; fuck, it’s a mastiff; I heard a mastiff.” For him to be that specific—I was laughing my guts out. I said, “Hunter, c’mon.” He said, ”No, no—we’ve got to check this out.” So we got up—and Hunter was hobbling because of his back—and we were trying to look out the peephole head-to-head, and there was nothing in the hallway. Then we looked down, and there was a black business card that had been stuck under the door. It had gold lettering, and it said, “Ramundo: I can do things,” with a phone number below.
Hunter started walking back to the living room, and suddenly I heard a dog, a big dog, way down the hall. I called the number on the card, and it’s this fucking guy Ramundo. I said, “Were you just in the hallway?” He said, “Yes—I left my card, which is how you are calling.” I said, “Do you have a dog?” He said, “Yes, I do. A bullmastiff.” I said, “Where are you now?” He said, “I’m across the street” at such-and-such a bar, “and I just want you to know that if you need me, I can do things.”
Hunter and I fucking howled. We had no fucking idea who “Ramundo” was.
When Allen Ginsberg’s memorial was being held in Los Angeles, Hunter couldn’t come down for it. But since we’d both known Ginsberg, Hunter and I talked and he said, “Listen—I’m going to write this piece, and you’re going to be at this deal anyway, and I’d like you to read it.” Ten days later, nothing. I called and said, “Hunter, the thing’s tomorrow, man. “ He said, “Yeah, yeah—it’s coming. I’ll get it to you; it’ll be there tomorrow morning.” I wake up in the morning, and it’s not there. The thing was at eight p.m., and I talked to Hunter in the afternoon at three or four, and he said, “I can’t do it. I can’t do it. I don’t like anything that I’ve written, and fuck it—I’m just not going to do it. I’m abandoning the piece.” I jumped all over him and said, “Fuck you, man—you can’t do that. These people are expecting me to be there to read your words.”
I had to leave the house at 7:30. At 7:29, it came in on the fax machine, and I read the piece in the car on my way to this memorial, howling with laughter. He called Allen “a dangerous bull-fruit with the brain of an open sore and the conscience of a virus.” It was unbelievable. He wrote, ‘He was crazy, queer, and small,” and said that Allen was happy, that he was looking forward to meeting the grim reaper “because he knew he could get into his pants.”
He only came to the set of the film toward the end—only when we were in L.A. I had wanted to get him back to Vegas, but I think Gilliam was probably a little frightened of the idea of Hunter being on set in Vegas. I kept him well informed, that’s for sure. I talked to him every day and every night to tell him what we did, and I would also call him if I was unsure about the context of the book versus the screenplay and the situation we were working on.
[Terry Gilliam directed Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, as well as other films, including Brazil, Twelve Monkeys, and The Fisher King.]
[. . .]But at the end of the day, we had to do the scene where Hunter actually appears for the one and only time. He dressed exactly like Johnny, or Johnny was dressed exactly like him, with the corduroy patch jacket and the hat with the green visor and things like that. It was just a funny idea—that Johnny, playing Hunter, would have a weird flashback to himself. We had all these extras and we were running into overtime, and suddenly Hunter decided that he didn’t want to do it.
Laila and Johnny and I were doing everything to convince him, and finally he walked on and looked at the set and where we’d positioned him and said, “No. I wouldn’t have been in the middle of things. I would have been an observer over on the edge. I would be watching. I’m a journalist.” So we rearranged the whole fucking set, and then he found another reason to stall.
There were probably a hundred and fifty people waiting around to make this happen. It might have been Laila who was the clever one who lured him out on the floor by introducing him to the best-looking girl extra on the set, whom we then sat opposite him at a table in the club. He actually seemed quite happy, and he settled in and was chatting her up. While this was going on, we came shooting through there with a camera—and Johnny was doing all this very complicated stuff, and all these extras, a hundred people, were singing and dancing—and when we came by, Hunter paid no attention whatsoever because he was too busy charming the girl as best he could. He had completely forgotten about the film.
So okay—take one was fucked, and on take two he was still not paying attention, so Johnny actually went over, while staying in character, and gave him a nudge. Hunter spouted one of his trademark “huh?”s and sort of woke up, and we moved on. We did one take which wasn’t particularly great but was passable. On the next take, Johnny was walking by the table, and Hunter jumped out and did something really stupid. I mean, once we actually got him on the set, it was like, “Why did we do this?” In fact, the one we used works very well in the film, but at the time, everything felt like we had just brought this two-year-old onto the set and given him a house to play with.
When we finally finished it and felt really good about it, we had to show it to him. Both Johnny and I were terrified of what he might think. We’d arranged these screenings, and Hunter, at the last minute, kept failing to make them. It turned out he was as terrified as we were about seeing the film because he didn’t want to be disappointed. But he finally saw it, and I’ve seen a tape of him from the end of that screening, and he’s so happy—it’s one of the moments that made it all worthwhile.
It was the moment that in Kentucky they’d refer to as the “come to the quiltin’”—the moment of truth. They flew the film up to Aspen for Hunter to see, and I was scared to death because I really did believe that he would potentially hate me for the rest of his life. After he’d seen the film, I got him on the phone, ‘cause I had to know. I said, “Okay, do you hate me? Was I right?” And he said, “Oh, fuck no, man. Christ—it was like an eerie trumpet call over a lost battlefield.” Those words just came out of his mouth. I thought, “Well, okay. We’re solid.”
There was a photo-op [at the premiere], and they wanted a few of us from the movie to line up—myself, Benicio [Del Toro], maybe Gilliam, and Hunter. As we were about to do it, Hunter grabbed this massive bag of popcorn and started whaling on us. Popcorn flew everywhere, of course. I think that was just Hunter staking his territory—and he was right to do it, because those kind of movie premieres, with the hullabaloo and the actors and filmmakers and celebrities or whatever—I think Hunter just felt, “Well, hey man, let’s not forget why we’re all here in the first place.”
About a week before it happened, he left me a message that once again promised to be one of those long, drawn-out Hunter experiences. I listened to about half of it, and then the clock was ticking and I had to run. The part of it I did hear was so sweet, and up, and light. I saved the message and went on to do my stuff, and by the time I got the news that Hunter had made his exit, that message was gone—it just evaporated. I never heard the end, and that will fuck with me forever.