Believe it or not, but the movie Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a story based on actual events. Indeed, Raoul Duke is really writer Hunter S. Thompson, and Dr. Gonzo is actually the real-life attorney Oscar Zeta Acosta. However, what’s less known is the story of Acosta himself.
Acosta lived a very interesting life – and to this day people are interested in him as a historical figure. He’s the main subject in a 2017 documentary called The Rise and Fall of the Brown Buffalo. Furthermore, his life was depicted in the 1980 flick Where the Buffalo Roam. Indeed, his time on Earth is definitely a film-worthy subject, but his presumed death is another matter.
Acosta disappeared in 1974 while he was traveling in the Mexican city of Mazatlán. There have been many theories about what happened to him, but Hunter S. Thompson, whose relationship with Acosta almost defied description, always thought that foul play was involved.
For his part, Hunter S. Thompson is the more famous of the Thompson-Acosta duo. He’s known as the father of “gonzo journalism” and an icon of the countercultural movement. As well as penning books, he also wrote for many publications. And most notable of these was Rolling Stone, where he worked for 30 years.
Meanwhile, Thompson met Acosta in 1967 in Colorado, heralding the beginning of an odd relationship between the two men. Indeed, the latter detailed their first meeting in his 1972 book Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo. In it, Thompson had the pseudonym “King” and Acosta described him as “tall and on the verge of losing his hair.”
Thompson and Acosta then became friends – and in 1971 the former wrote an article about the attorney and his activism work for Rolling Stone. Specifically, he wanted to bring to attention the death of Los Angeles Times journalist Rubén Salazar. For its part, the article was titled “Strange Rumblings in Aztlan.”
To prepare for the writing of the article, both Thompson and Acosta went on a road trip to Las Vegas, Nevada. Indeed here, they could talk about Salazar and racial issues away from the police. That trip then became the basis for the 1972 book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. And this of course later became the film.
However, Acosta initially objected to the publication of the book. Reportedly, he hated that Thompson had changed his race, referring to his character Dr. Gonzo not as Chicano but as a “300-pound Samoan.” Indeed, he allowed the book to go forward only if his real name and picture were featured on the cover.
Acosta also requested, as part of the deal and in exchange for not suing, that he be allowed to publish two books of his own. These were The Revolt of the Cockroach People and Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo. And some editions of the book mention on the back that Acosta was also “Dr. Gonzo.”
Meanwhile, the film of Fear and Loathing was released in 1998. And the actor who played Acosta was not Samoan, but Puerto Rican. This was Benicio del Toro – and he went through a lot of work in order to play the character properly, deliberately gaining weight by eating 16 doughnuts a day.
In an interview with The Guardian, del Toro said that he put the weight on “stupidly.” He told the newspaper in 2018, “I gained the weight really quick and it took a while to take it off. So, during that time, in between work, I had meetings and people saw me and said, ‘Oh my God, this guy went off the rails.’ They hadn’t seen the movie; they don’t know what I’m doing.”
And all del Toro’s method acting paid off, albeit not in the way he hoped. The actor continued, “The fact is that, after I tried to get a couple of jobs, the feedback I got was that people didn’t want to see me because, ‘We know he’s got a drink problem, and we know he’s got a drug problem’. And the only reason for that was because they had seen Fear and Loathing. Maybe it was a compliment.”
Obviously, del Toro couldn’t talk to the real Acosta when it came to playing him. But, luckily, there were others he could engage with. The star explained to Gonzo Today in 2016, “I met [Acosta’s] sister and his son. I read two of his books: The Revolt of the Cockroaches and The Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo.”
And of course del Toro could talk to Thompson about Acosta, and he did so a lot. The actor continued, “I think [director] Terry Gilliam, Johnny Depp, myself and everyone involved in the film all wanted to do the best we could in order to honor Hunter and the great writing in his book.”
Meanwhile, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas didn’t do well when it was first released in 1998. In an interview with The Big Issue in 2016, del Toro noted, “The movie comes out, the reviews are terrible, it doesn’t find an audience. But the movie has found an audience by itself. It’s become a cult [classic], which is very gratifying.”
However, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas isn’t the only piece of work keeping the memory of Acosta alive. Indeed, in 2017 del Toro produced the documentary The Rise and Fall of the Brown Buffalo about the attorney. The creators of the film wanted to introduce Acosta and his work to a new generation.
Director Phillip Rodriguez spoke to We Are Moving Stories about the film in 2018. He said, “I want to introduce to audiences a significant and transformative figure in Californian and American legal, literary and cultural history. The goal of this project will rescue this important historical figure from obscurity and provide context for a figure whose complexity is emblematic of today’s Latino – young, urban, impatient and ready to rumble.”
Meanwhile, the other intention of the film was to present Acosta as separate from Thompson. Rodriguez continued, “When I finally got around to reading Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, I was incensed that a white counterculture hero like Thompson would resort to the demeaning, racist characterization to which he subjected Oscar, a person who I considered Thompson’s better. Acosta was no sidekick.” He added, “I figured someone should correct the record. Turned out to be me.”
Yet no movie has ever been able to explain what happened to Acosta in Mexico, because simply nobody knows. And one of them came from Paul Ferry, author of Fear and Loathing: The Strange and Terrible Saga of Hunter S. Thompson. In the book, he wrote that Rolling Stone received a hospital bill for a patient called Oscar Acosta, but nothing ever came of it.
Then in 1977 Thompson wrote a eulogy for Acosta titled “The Banshee Screams For Buffalo Meat,” published in Rolling Stone. The former wrote, “The weird grapevine will not wither for the lack of bulletins, warnings, and other twisted rumors of the latest Brown Buffalo sightings. He will be seen at least once in Calcutta… and also in Houston, tending bar at a roadhouse on South Main that was once the Blue Fox.”
Thompson continued, “It might even come to pass that he will suddenly appear on my porch in Woody Creek on some moonless night when the peacocks are screeching with lust… Maybe so, and that is one ghost who will always be welcome in this house. Even with a head full of acid and a chain of bull maggots around his neck.”
And yet, Thompson always assumed Acosta had been murdered. In his obituary for his friend, titled, “The Banshee Screams for Buffalo Meat,” he wrote in 1977, “Richard Nixon got rich from his crimes, and Oscar Acosta got killed.” Indeed, Thompson loathed Nixon – and he penned a vicious obituary for him in 1994.
Indeed, Thompson could not resist coming for Nixon, even in his friend’s obituary. He said, “I want to enter into the permanent record, at this point, as a strange but unchallenged fact that Oscar Z. Acosta was never disbarred from the practice of law in the state of California, and ex-president Richard Nixon was.”
In the article, Thompson also gave his reasons for casting the Mexican Acosta as a Samoan in his book. It was, he said, “to protect him from the wrath of the L.A. cops and the whole California legal establishment he was constantly at war with. It would not serve either one of our interests, I felt, for [Acosta] to get busted or disbarred because of something I wrote about him.”
And Thompson also brought up Acosta’s addiction to drugs, writing, “… He ate LSD-25 with a relish that bordered on worship… Oscar used acid like other lawyers use Valium – a distinctly unprofessional and occasionally nasty habit that shocked even the most liberal of his colleagues and frequently panicked his clients.”
Indeed, “The Banshee Screams For Buffalo Meat” is a curious obituary, since it slams Acosta just as much as it eulogises him. In it, Thompson stated, “What began as a quick and stylish epitaph for my erstwhile three-hundred-pound Samoan attorney has long since gotten out of control. Not even Oscar would have wanted an obituary with no end, at least not until he was legally dead, and that will take four more years.”
Meanwhile, Acosta’s family believe that he is dead. And his son, Marco, wrote an afterword to his father’s book The Revolt of the Cockroach People in 1989. He wrote, “I was 14 when he disappeared from Mazatlán, Mexico, via a friend’s sailing boat, in June of 1974. I was the last person, as far as I know, to speak with him.”
Acosta’s son Marco continued, “Literally moments before [my father] got on the boat that he was planning to ride back to the States, I told him I hoped he knew what he was doing by going back on such a small boat. He said he hoped I knew what I was doing with my life.” And sadly, that was the end of it.
“In the following years there were rumors that he was shot by one of the ‘thugs’ he was hanging around with in Mexico, or that he was spotted somewhere off the coast of Hawaii or Florida,” Acosta’s son Marco wrote. He continued, “The bottom line, however, is that no one, to my knowledge, knows for sure what happened, including the FBI and the U.S. Coast Guard – or so they say.”
In that same afterword, Marco spoke about his father’s legacy. He added, “The search for truth and justice consumed my father’s life and is an important part of both his books. [Acosta] was never more angry and savage than when he felt he was being lied to. The unfortunate fact is that this search is probably what, oddly enough, led to his ruin.”
Meanwhile, Marco has reiterated over the years his belief that his father was murdered. He told journalist Shermakaye Bass in 1999, “The body was never found. But we surmise that probably, knowing the people he was involved with, he ended up mouthing off, getting into a fight, and getting killed. ” He added, “You’re not exactly going to call the FBI and say, ‘Hey, my dad disappeared dealing drugs. Can you find him?’”
Marco also spoke to the New York Daily News in 2016, to mark what would have been his father’s 81st birthday. In his last phone call with Acosta, he said, his dad told him he was “about to board a boat full of white snow,” potentially alluding to drugs.
Marco told the New York Daily News that he had spoken to his father’s friends who had been with him that night. And it seems most likely that he died over a fight about drugs. He said, “Like everybody back then, they were all trying to make money. Everybody was trying to make money dealing drugs.”
Marco also had some thoughts on the relationship between Acosta and Thompson, something he described as “strange.” He added, “My dad was living in San Francisco and he decided to take a break from law and go on a road trip and he ran into some people in Idaho or Wyoming and they introduced him to Hunter, who was living in Colorado.”
Now, Marco works as a lawyer, just like his father did. And he described himself to the New York Daily News as a “family man,” with a wife and children. And although he has mixed feelings about Acosta’s parenting, he does appreciate his dad’s literary achievements.
Meanwhile, Thompson would undoubtedly still have a lot to say about Acosta even today. However, he sadly committed suicide in 2005. His friend, Ralph Steadman wrote in an obituary that year, “He told me 25 years ago that he would feel real trapped if he didn’t know that he could commit suicide at any moment.”
Steadman added in his obituary, “If you wonder if he’s gone to Heaven or Hell, rest assured he will check out them both, find out which one Richard Milhous Nixon went to – and go there. He could never stand being bored.” And Thompson’s star-studded funeral, too, was the exact opposite of boring.
Thompson’s funeral was funded by Johnny Depp, and attended by a vast multitude of A-listers. Indeed, Benicio del Toro, John Cusack, Sean Penn, Bill Murray, Jack Nicholson, and Senator John Kerry were all there. Thompson’s ashes were placed in a cannon and fired to an explosion of fireworks and music.
Indeed, Thompson’s dramatic funeral stood in sharp contrast to Acosta’s death. And the journalist himself recognized during his life that Acosta ended up being mostly forgotten at the time. He wrote in the introduction to The Revolt of the Cockroach People, “His birthday is not noted on any calendar, and his death was barely noticed.”
The introduction to The Revolt of the Cockroach People was deeply touching, considering the strange nature of Thompson and Acosta’s relationship. The former continued, “… The hole that he left was a big one, and nobody even tried to sew it up. He was a player – he was Big. And when he roared into your driveway at night, you knew he was bringing music, whether you wanted it or not.”