All The Times Gonzo Journalist Hunter S. Thompson Was Portrayed In Pop Culture

Hunter S. Thompson, the iconoclastic gonzo journalist and one-time candidate for sheriff of Pitkin County, CO, would have been 78 on Saturday. His method of writing that put him squarely in the center of the stories he was covering made him a popular figure not just in journalism but in entertainment, too.

Thompson has been portrayed — directly or indirectly — in a number of films, documentaries, comic books, and other mediums. Caricatures of a wild freak who seemed to subsist on passion and so many illicit and indulgent substances that they would spook a great bear if it barreled into a room and saw Thompson’s daily plate of fixins laid out on the table. Some of those caricatures came close to capturing a snap-shot of Thompson’s fast-moving shadow and others were well off the mark.

Let’s take a look back at the different ways in which Thompson’s persona was portrayed as a character across all sorts of media.

Where The Buffalo Roam

Bill Murray was in his final season of Saturday Night Live when he took on the role of Thompson in Where The Buffalo Roam. Taking the role could have been the last thing he ever did.

While Thompson himself was fairly hands-off when it came to the movie’s production, he had sold the film rights to his piece “The Banshee Screams For Buffalo Meat,” assuming it would never actually get made. “Then all of a sudden,” Thompson told Rolling Stone in 1999, “there was some moment of terrible horror when I realized they were going to make the movie.” He did, however, work closely with Murray in order for him to get Thompson’s mannerisms just right.

Thompson and Murray would frequently try to one-up each other with pranks and stunts. At one point, in an attempt to see who could “out Houdini” the other, Thompson tied Murray to a beach chair and tossed him into a swimming pool. According to A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live, Murray nearly drowned before Thompson finally pulled him out of the water.

As for the final result, well… Thompson wasn’t too fond of it. In fact, his exact description of it was “a horrible pile of crap.”


Gary Trudeau’s Doonesbury has been skewering American politics and culture since the 1970s — not unlike Thompson himself (presumably with fewer narcotics and firearms, but what do we know?). So, it wasn’t that big a surprise when Trudeau introduced the character Uncle Duke into the strip in 1979. Originally a full-on caricature of the writer — Thompson would often use the alias Raoul Duke — the character eventually took on a life of its own, becoming a diplomat and even a presidential candidate inside the strip.

Thompson, on the other hand, wasn’t exactly a fan of the character. In fact, he once claimed that he might “set [Trudeau] on fire” if the two ever met in person (luckily for Trudeau, they never did). By 2003, however, Thompson had pretty much let the animosity go, stating “I used to be a little perturbed by it. It was a lot more personal … It no longer bothers me.”

Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas

While Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream, arguably Thompson’s best-known work, was first published in 1971, it wasn’t until 1998 that someone put the story to film. In fact, the rights to the story were purchased well before Where The Buffalo Roam was even considered for film treatment — they were just never put in motion. Eventually, the film was made with Terry Gilliam directing.

Much like Bill Murray before him, Loathing star Johnny Depp immersed himself in the role, practically transforming himself into the writer. Murray, however, took pains to warn Depp about the effect playing Thompson could take on the actor. He advised him to make his next role “drastically different from Hunter” or he’d find himself “10 years from now still doing him.” Murray famously returned to the set of SNL after shooting Buffalo still immersed in his Thompson persona, much to the dismay of his co-stars.

Unfortunately, the film itself — which also starred Benicio del Toro and Christina Ricci, as well as a multitude of celebrity appearances (including Hunter) — fared poorly at the box office, earning only $10.6 million at the box office (on a budget of $18 million). Still, it maintains a cult following to this day.


When DC Comics started showing signs of success with their imprint aimed at more “mature audiences”, Vertigo — thanks, in part, to the popularity of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman — they tried their hands at some other genres, as well. In 1997, they launched the Helix imprint, meant to focus on more sci-fi related stories. Among the first titles was Warren Ellis’s Transmetropolitan, featuring a foul-mouthed, violent and rabble rousing  bald-headed journalist named Spider Jerusalem. Sound familiar?

By the end if its first year, Transmetropolitan was outselling every other title on the Helix imprint. DC made the decision to drop the imprint altogether and simply move the series over to Vertigo. It ran for five years and spawned two specials and talk of a feature film, which has yet to materialize.

When Thompson died in 2005, Ellis wrote a touching obituary in which he described Thompson’s influence on both the character of Jerusalem and his writing in general.

The Rum Diary

Thompson had written the novel, The Rum Diary, back in 1961 — he had based it on his own experiences working for a newspaper in Puerto Rico. However, it remained unpublished until 1998. At that point, Johnny Depp put plans into motion to turn the novel into a film.

Bruce Robinson, who had previously written the Oscar-winning film, The Killing Fields, and directed Withnail and I, was hired to write the screenplay and direct the film. At that point, Robinson had been sober for six years — but found the process of writing the script in that particular state of mind fairly daunting. So, he drank a bottle of wine each day, then returned to sobriety until the work was done. At least, until it was time to start filming. Once the cast and crew arrived, well… as Robinson himself put it, “some savage drinking took place.” Robinson would once again return to his seat on the wagon once filming ended.

Which, in the big scheme of things, was a very Thompson thing to do.