Watch Hunter S. Thompson & Ralph Steadman Head to Hollywood in a Revealing 1978 Documentary

In 1978, Hol­ly­wood was look­ing to make a film about Hunter S. Thomp­son. No, it was not an adap­ta­tion of Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas–that would come lat­er. Instead, this was the now-almost-for­got­ten Bill Mur­ray vehi­cle Where the Buf­fa­lo Roam, which was based on Thompson’s obit­u­ary for his friend and “attor­ney” from Fear & Loathing, Oscar “Zeta” Acos­ta.

Know­ing that both Thomp­son and illus­tra­tor Ralph Stead­man would be involved and reunit­ing and dri­ving from Aspen, through Las Vegas, and into Hol­ly­wood, the BBC dis­patched a film crew for the arts pro­gram Omnibus. Direc­tor Nigel Finch returned with a ram­shackle road trip of a film, one that always seems in dan­ger of falling apart due to Thompson’s para­noid and antag­o­nis­tic state.

For a lot of British view­ers, this would have been their primer on the Amer­i­can writer, and quick­ly brings them up to date on Thompson’s rise to infamy, the cre­ation of Gonzo jour­nal­ism, and his alter-ego Raoul Duke.

Per­haps Finch thought that get­ting Thomp­son and Stead­man togeth­er in a car would con­jure up the Fear & Loathing vibe on screen, but the two make an awk­ward cou­ple. At one point the reserved Stead­man com­pares him­self to Thompson’s pet bird Edward. Thomp­son antag­o­nizes this bird into some sort of trau­ma, then holds it close and talks to it. “I feel absolute­ly tak­en apart,” being friends with the writer, Stead­man says. “…he’s hold­ing me like that bird and I’m try­ing to bite my way out.”

In Vegas, the crew and Stead­man try to rouse Thomp­son, then find him, con­fused, and with his face cov­ered in white make-up. In Hol­ly­wood, Thomp­son hates the atten­tion from the cam­era crew so much–not to men­tion the tourists who assume he is a celebri­ty of some kind–that they find him hid­ing behind a parked car.

This era was indeed the end of that phase of Thompson’s career. At one point he asks Finch if he’s there to film Thomp­son or to film Raoul Duke. Finch doesn’t know. Thomp­son doesn’t know either, but he does real­ize that “The myth has tak­en over…I feel like an appendage.” He can no longer cov­er events like he did with the Hell’s Angels, or the Ken­tucky Der­by, because of his fame. He can’t cov­er the sto­ry, because he’s become part of the sto­ry, and to a real jour­nal­ist that’s death.

So per­haps that’s the appeal of Hol­ly­wood? We see Thomp­son and Stead­man meet with a screen­writer (prob­a­bly John Kaye, who wrote Where the Buf­fa­lo Roam) to dis­cuss the script.

Thomp­son had agreed to option the script because, like Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, he nev­er believed it would get made. So when it went into pro­duc­tion he had pret­ty much giv­en away cre­ative con­trol. The script, he said, “It sucks – a bad, dumb, low-lev­el, low-rent script.”

How­ev­er, Bill Mur­ray and Thomp­son hung out in Aspen togeth­er dur­ing the shoot and engaged in a sort of mind-meld, Mur­ray becom­ing a ver­sion of Duke. When Mur­ray returned to Sat­ur­day Night Live that sea­son, he came back as a cig­a­rette-hold­er-smok­ing faux-Thomp­son. Years lat­er, John­ny Depp would also find him­self being trans­formed dur­ing Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas. (I noticed right after watch­ing this Omnibus spe­cial that I answered my phone in a sort of Thomp­son drawl until my friend called me out. The pow­er of the Gonzo is such.)

But the man who had an equal pow­er over Thomp­son was Richard Nixon. Since see­ing the wily politi­cian reap­pear on the nation­al stage dur­ing the Bar­ry Gold­wa­ter cam­paign in 1964, Thomp­son cor­rect­ly rec­og­nized an ene­my of every­thing he held dear, a dark side of Amer­i­ca ris­ing from the corpse of John F. Kennedy. And Nixon caused the fear and the loathing in Amer­i­ca to bear fruit. As Thomp­son says in the doc­u­men­tary:

Richard Nixon for me stands for every­thing that I would not want to have hap­pen to myself, or be, or be around. He is every­thing that I have con­tempt for and dis­like and I think should be stomped out: Greed, treach­ery, stu­pid­i­ty, cupid­i­ty, pos­i­tive pow­er of lying, total con­tempt for any sort of human, con­struc­tive, polit­i­cal instinct. Every­thing that’s wrong with Amer­i­ca, every­thing that this coun­try has demon­strat­ed as a nation­al trait, that the world finds repug­nant: the bul­ly instinct, the pow­er grab, the dumb­ness, the insen­si­tiv­i­ty. Nixon rep­re­sents every­thing that’s wrong with this coun­try, down the line.

Maybe the ques­tion is not, what would Thomp­son think of Trump, who doesn’t even feign Nixon’s hum­ble rou­tine. The ques­tion is, where is our Hunter S. Thomp­son?

Relat­ed con­tent:

Read 11 Free Arti­cles by Hunter S. Thomp­son That Span His Gonzo Jour­nal­ist Career (1965–2005)

Hunter S. Thomp­son Gets Con­front­ed by The Hell’s Angels: Where’s Our Two Kegs of Beer? (1967)

How Hunter S. Thomp­son Gave Birth to Gonzo Jour­nal­ism: Short Film Revis­its Thompson’s Sem­i­nal 1970 Piece on the Ken­tucky Der­by

Hunter S. Thompson’s Deca­dent Dai­ly Break­fast: The “Psy­chic Anchor” of His Fre­net­ic Cre­ative Life

Ted Mills is a free­lance writer on the arts who cur­rent­ly hosts the artist inter­view-based FunkZone Pod­cast and is the pro­duc­er of KCR­W’s Curi­ous Coast. You can also fol­low him on Twit­ter at @tedmills, read his oth­er arts writ­ing at and/or watch his films here.

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Comments (5)
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  • GoodAsGold says:

    Wow! What a man he was to scare a lit­tle bird like that. He real­ly was a dis­gust­ing human being. There are still plen­ty that would lick his but­t­hole.

  • James says:

    Where’s today’s Thomp­son? Too busy try­ing to be celebri­ties, mak­ing them­selves part of the sto­ry is the goal not an unin­tend­ed con­se­quence. The integri­ty of mod­ern jour­nal­ism does not exist. But, then again, hav­ing read sev­er­al of his drug adled tomes, do we real­ly want anoth­er Thomp­son?

  • Robert says:

    They were prob­a­bly abort­ed

  • Hoster says:

    Dear OP, why don’t you do it? I’m not artic­u­late enough but you seem to be.

  • Martin says:

    Great lit­tle minidoc. Hunter’s not for all tastes but his best lines are bru­tal. I’m sur­prised that his actu­al funer­al went ahead as planned here in ’78.

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