Before being cast in the docudrama, “The Rise and Fall of the Brown Buffalo,” actor Jeff Harms knew little about the man he was hired to portray: Hunter S. Thompson.
Harms, a native of suburban Chicago living in Los Angeles, was, as most literate people are, acquainted with the legend of Thompson, who was a long-time resident of the Roaring Fork Valley. But Harms’ knowledge did not extend to the inner workings of the man credited with re-writing the rules of journalism.
The film — produced by Phillip Rodriguez and Benicio del Toro — is about civil rights lawyer/firebrand/revolutionary Oscar Zeta Acosta. Its title comes from Acosta’s 1972 novel, “Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo.”
Harms got the role of Thompson in “The Rise and Fall of the Brown Buffalo” — which will air Friday, March 23, at 9 p.m. on KRMA-TV — in a fairly mundane fashion. He was not required to audition holding a glass of Chivas while tripping on acid and discharging high-powered weaponry.
Like pretty much all professional actors in Southern California, Harms is listed on numerous industry websites, including actorsaccess.com and lacasting.com. When casting directors are looking for actors to play specific roles, they visit those websites — with which they are already intimately familiar — and troll for appropriate talent.
Much of the search process has to do with physiological basics.
“If they are looking for a bearded guy in his 40s, then that’s what they focus on,” Harms said in a Thursday phone interview from his L.A. home.
In this case, Rodriguez’s team was looking for a tall white man with a receding hairline who could recite lines from Thompson’s work while clenching a cigarette holder between his teeth.
“The team contacted my agent, who contacted me,” Harms said. “I made a couple self-tapes in which I was using actual lines. They viewed the tapes, then asked me to come in because they wanted to make sure I was right.”
He got the part.
It was only then that Harms began to delve more deeply into Thompson’s character.
“I didn’t know anything about his life,” Harms said. “I read ‘Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas,’ which was eye opening. I had no idea who this guy really was. I loved the musicality of his words. It reminded me of Dylan Thomas.”
The actual filming took about a month. Harms described the process as very relaxed — which borders on irony, given that the title character of the movie was considered one of the most-intense personalities of his time.
“They rented a big, old building that I think used to be a church,” Harms said. “The team just lived there for the entire month. I would be drinking a cup of coffee and Philip would come in and ask very politely if I was ready to shoot.”
Aspen is featured
Aspen plays a starring role in the movie, mostly via Acosta’s relationship with Thompson. Verily, Thompson’s character takes up almost as much screen time as does the character of Acosta, played by Jesse Celedon.
Acosta gained notoriety at least partially by way of his role as Thompson’s “300-pound Samoan attorney” in “Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas.”
Despite his buffoonish representation in that book, Acosta was in reality first and foremost a very serious and dedicated Chicano-rights activist in Los Angeles who, as the film’s title indicates, both rose high and fell hard.
“There was so much more to Oscar than his relationship with Thompson,” Rodriguez said as the movie was being filmed last summer. “He was influential. While Thompson’s campaign for sheriff in Aspen garnered a lot of publicity, few people know that Oscar ran for sheriff in Los Angeles County right after the Watts race riots. And he ran on a platform of disbanding the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, which put him in the crosshairs of one of the country’s most brutal and corrupt police departments. Oscar wasn’t running in some ski resort in Colorado. Hunter got the idea to run for sheriff of Pitkin County from Oscar’s failed attempt in L.A.”
While Thompson came within a whisker of winning his election, Acosta lost his bid by more than a million votes.
Acosta was eventually arrested by the same sheriff’s department he wanted to disband, and charged with possession of amphetamines. He was found not guilty.
“The Rise and Fall of the Brown Buffalo” is not Rodriguez’s first foray into race-based filmmaking.
He is the founder of Los Angeles-based City Projects, a video production company whose films and educational programs challenge ideas about race and diversity in America.
His previous documentaries, which have appeared in prime time on HBO and PBS, include “Ruben Salazar: Man in the Middle,” which won Best Documentary at the 2014 San Antonio CineFestival and the 2014 Denver XicanIndie Festival, and “RACE 2012: A Conversation About Race and Politics in America,” which received a 2013 CINE Golden Eagle Award in the Best Televised News.
“I do not minimize Acosta’s relationship with Thompson,” Rodriguez said. “Most people know him through that engagement. Those two cats were kindred spirits. After Oscar had a divorce and a break down, he went in search of himself. Instead, he found Thompson in a bar in Aspen.”
That was in 1967.
The exact line, uttered by Acosta in “The Rise and Fall of the Brown Buffalo” is: “After a week of booze on the road, I stopped in a place called Aspen. Was Aspen the place where I could find my peace with society?”
The relationship between Acosta and Thompson, according to Rodriguez, influenced both men clear up until the man caricaturized in “Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas” disappeared and presumed dead in Mazatlán, Mexico, in 1974.
Though Rodriguez worked hard to isolate Acosta as an individual in the film, he admits it was hard to separate the Brown Buffalo from his friendship with Thompson.
“Their relationship was not just about drinking and ingesting illegal drugs, though there was certainly a lot of that,” Rodriguez said. “They corresponded a great deal and those correspondences were deep. They also had some big battles. He once told Hunter, ‘You’re just a writer; I’m a revolutionary.’”
Two long-time local still photographers — Bob Krueger and David Hiser — contributed images to the film.
Krueger and Hiser were contacted by Rodriguez’s production team because of the images both photographers had in the book, “Freak Power: Hunter S. Thompson’s Campaign for Sheriff,” by Daniel Joseph Watkins.
Krueger sold 15 photos to the production team — most of which included both Thompson and Acosta — while Hiser had only one image that included Acosta, though he sold a few others that were solely of Thompson.
Hiser said he barely remembers Acosta.
“At the time, I didn’t take much notice of the guy,” he said. “I didn’t know who he was till he left.”
Harms said he is seriously stoked that the documentary will finally make its way to the airwaves this week.
“There are moments in the film where you don’t know whether it’s Jesse playing Oscar or Oscar,” said Harms, an accomplished musician who has released numerous CDs. “The camera man, who was also the cinematographer, was amazing. His work reminded me of cut-out dolls. He worked in the most-playful, engaging way, which opens the film up to a suspension of disbelief. The main thing is, the story is really interesting.”
That he portrayed such a flamboyant character makes Harms chuckle.
He said, when he was in high school in Illinois, he was too shy to participate in school plays. He said he was interested in art, but not acting.
“Acting terrified me more than anything,” he said. “It wasn’t until I was studying painting that I decided I wanted to be more physically involved with the creative process. So, I decided to go back and visit my old terror. I was a late bloomer. I got my Master’s degree from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.”
There, he met writer/director Brian Torrey Scott. The two began a decade-long collaboration, making experimental theater and video in Chicago. Harms and Scott made three films together — “The Objects of Living,” “Isthmus” and “Ganzfeld.”
Harms has appeared in 12 movies, five TV shows, dozens of plays, many commercials and a long list of new media projects.