This Documentary Chronicles the Life of Oscar Acosta, the Real-Life Dr. Gonzo from ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’

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The Rise And Fall of the Brown Buffalo is, for all intents and purposes, a documentary on radical Chicano lawyer, author, and countercultural icon Oscar “Zeta” Acosta. It features interviews with the people who knew him best, including Hunter S. Thompson, who immortalized him as Dr. Gonzo in his novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. And if you’re wondering how director Phillip Rodriguez got the since-deceased novelist to speak candidly about Acosta, who himself disappeared under mysterious circumstances in 1974, the answer is simple: as a title card explains to us at the start of the film, “This film is a dramatization.” Fitting the unorthodox style of its subject, the film throws generic templates out the window. Mixing archival footage with mockumentary interviews with actors playing Thompson, Acosta, and many of his colleagues from his time as a lawyer fighting for Chicano rights, The Rise and Fall of the Brown Buffalo serves as the flyest history lesson since Hamilton.

Many know of Acosta because of Thompson’s novel (he was played by Benicio del Toro in the Johnny Depp-starring film adaptation). But Rodriguez’s film hopes to move away from the caricature that Fear and Loathing painted of this as-yet-underappreciated icon of the early Chicano movement. Functioning as a zany history lesson, The Rise and Fall of the Brown Buffalo is filled with random trivia that makes it worth watching. Did you know Acosta was arrested while trying to visit his (white) girlfriend because her parents didn’t approve of the match? Or that he always resented that Thompson’s novel became a bestseller while his own, The Revolt of the Cockroach People, was barely read?

Eager to rectify history’s take on Acosta, PBS will not only be releasing Rodriguez’s doc at the end of the month, but they’re also producing the ZETA Podcast series. Podcast host Marcos Nájera goes deeper into the Zeta’s life, chatting with his friends and family as well as artists and academics. Ahead of the film’s public television premiere, we gathered five fun facts about Acosta’s life that should make you want to learn even more about this self-described Brown Buffalo.

1. He Was “The Mexican Billy Graham”

Oscar Zeta Acosta, 1970. Photo by Annie Leibovitz. Courtesy of PBS

In Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo, a fictionalized autobiography of sorts, he recounts how he traveled to Panama where he worked as a missionary. “They elected me to the Board of Deacons at the First Baptist Church in Balboa after I became so successful in the jungle,” he writes. “They even sent some of my color slides to the churches back home and told them that a ‘Mexican Billy Graham’ was converting natives right and left.”

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