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The Lost Legend of the Real Dr. Gonzo

Movies: Chicano activist Oscar 'Zeta' Acosta was the inspiration for Hunter Thompson's hell-raising buddy in 'Las Vegas,' but his true legacy remains in the shadows.

June 05, 1998|YVETTE C. DOSS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

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.

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