The Lost Legend of the Real Dr. Gonzo
Oscar “Zeta” Acosta--an outrageous lawyer who once subpoenaed every member of the Los Angeles County grand jury to prove a pattern of discrimination against Mexican Americans--is somewhat of a Chicano folk legend.
He was a driven, hell-raising attorney who was involved in high-profile civil rights cases in Los Angeles in the late 1960s and early ‘70s and inspired the character of Dr. Gonzo in Hunter S. Thompson’s surreal book “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.”
Acosta eventually gave up law and wrote two semiautobiographical books, and then disappeared like a puff of smoke off the coast of Mazatlan, Mexico, in the spring of 1974. But not before leaving an indelible mark on the pages of L.A. political history and Chicano literature.
His disappearance took place three years after the notorious drug-enhanced trip to Las Vegas that is the subject of Thompson’s book and the current Terry Gilliam movie starring Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro.
But the book completely obscured Acosta’s background and the film only hints at his real story. The legend of Oscar “Zeta” Acosta--a compelling figure in Chicano history--remains in the shadows.
In “Fear and Loathing,” the character of Dr. Gonzo--a man with a gargantuan appetite for food, drugs and dangerous living--is the perfect complement to Thompson’s journalist alter ego, Raoul Duke, who uses his assignment to cover an off-road race as an excuse to overindulge in booze and drugs in Las Vegas.
“I recognized in Oscar [someone] who would push things one more notch toward the limit,” said Thompson of his Mexican American friend, who in the name of ambiguity liked to refer to himself as a 300-pound Samoan. “You never knew with Oscar what was going to happen next.”
Acosta was an ambitious, hard-working man, born in El Paso, Texas, and raised in the San Joaquin Valley. He attended San Francisco State University, where he took up creative writing. After getting his law degree from San Francisco Law School, he worked at the East Oakland Legal Aid Society, but eventually decided that rather than work within the system, he would use his law degree to challenge it. According to those who knew him, he was also restless, someone who was always looking for more out of life.
“The thing about him is that he never took things too seriously,” said his son, Marco Acosta, 38, a San Francisco-based musician and vocational counselor, who manages his father’s estate. “Whenever he set out to do something, he went at it full force, but he was never satisfied with any one thing.”
Oscar “Zeta” Acosta’s personal explorations of cultural identity and divergent career choices brought him to Los Angeles during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, one of the most explosive periods in the city’s political history: In 1968, 13 Chicano activists were indicted on conspiracy to disrupt the schools after a walkout by teachers and community members who were protesting educational inequality; in 1969, two Brown Berets were charged with felonies stemming from the disruption of a speech by then-Gov. Ronald Reagan at the Biltmore Hotel; and, in 1970, Los Angeles Times columnist Ruben Salazar was killed by a Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy following a Vietnam War protest rally in East L.A.
Acosta was involved as defense attorney in the first two notorious cases, but his 1970 bid for sheriff of Los Angeles County (in which he won half a million votes, coming in second) is what assured him a place in Los Angeles political history.
And it was Thompson’s invitation to Vegas--the two had been introduced by a mutual friend--that assured Acosta a place in U.S. literary history.
“I dragged Oscar away while he was working on the ‘Biltmore Seven’ trial because we couldn’t talk in that war zone,” Thompson recalled. “So I said, ‘Let’s get the hell out of town.’ ”
Thompson, a practitioner of the kind of “New Journalism” that writers such as Tom Wolfe and Norman Mailer popularized in the ‘60s, said he was inspired by his adventures with Acosta to take his writing to a new level, hence the term “gonzo journalism.” It’s Thompson’s own take on a style of writing in which the journalist participates in his stories’ development.
“Thompson is damned talented and one of the best writers of his generation, but the book itself without Oscar would be like . . . taking the heart away from the book,” said Del Toro (“The Usual Suspects,” “Excess Baggage”), who gained 45 pounds to more realistically portray the rotund lawyer.
But in the book “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” Duke refers to his associate as a “Samoan, or something"--never as a Mexican American--so Gonzo is a character with no cultural context. The real Acosta is, in a sense, swallowed up by his alter ego, a man with no defined identity aside from his role as Duke’s buddy.
“There’s no point in the book that you ever realize this guy was a real lawyer and an activist,” Del Toro said.
“I think that’s a big part of the book that was missing,” said Thompson of his work, which was first published in Rolling Stone in October 1971.
In the film, however, director Gilliam and producer Laila Nabulsi opted to add that cultural context, in a sense bringing Acosta back out of the relative obscurity he sank into after his disappearance.
Props used in production of the film are the only clues to Dr. Gonzo’s true identity. In one scene, Duke phones Gonzo at his L.A. office. On Gonzo’s walls are posters with the images of the United Farm Workers’ symbol and UFW leader Cesar Chavez’s face.
But Acosta told his own story. Just as Thompson was inspired by his adventures to write “Fear and Loathing,” Acosta too was inspired to document his experiences, most notably in two semi-fictionalized books, “Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo” (1972) and “Revolt of the Cockroach People” (1973), which his son is developing into feature films.
“Oscar had that kind of natural weird spirit,” Thompson said. “There aren’t that many of us in the world, and we recognize each other. His writing was just an extension of that.”
In his 1995 book, “Bandido: Oscar ‘Zeta’ Acosta and the Chicano Experience,” author Ilan Stavans likens him to a “flirtatious yet angry” version of “A Streetcar Named Desire’s” Stanley Kowalski. And it was Acosta’s wild spirit and extreme persona that attracted Del Toro to the role of Dr. Gonzo. That, and Thompson’s amazing written account of their friendship, according to the actor.
“Dr. Gonzo is all about rage,” Del Toro said. “And about forcing the silent majority to wake up. He’s all about loathing.”
Rage and complete disregard for authority were Acosta’s trademarks. They’re the stuff legends are made of, the kind of attributes that make some people larger than life.
“He would do things like drop me off at the airport in my rental car, and then two months later I’d get a bill for three weeks that he used the car,” Thompson said, laughing at the memory. “He’d forget to take it back.”
Acosta literally vanished without a trace. His body was never found and his family assumes he met a bad end in Mexico. Thompson speculated that he was either the victim of a political assassination or that he died at the hands of drug dealers.
In the foreword to a reprint of Acosta’s “Revolt of the Cockroach People,” Thompson summed up his friend’s life:
“His birthday is not noted in any calendar, and his death is barely noticed. . . . But the hole he left was a big one, and nobody even tried to sew it up.”
These days, that hole is still gaping, according to Thompson. “For some horrible reason I miss him. I miss him like I miss the smell of tear gas.”