Bill Murray Played Hunter S. Thompson Long Before Johnny Depp

When Johnny Depp’s career ends, what films will people remember? You’d imagine Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) will make the list. In the Terry Gilliam picture, Depp took a turn as gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson. But Depp wasn’t the first; Bill Murray had played Thompson nearly two decades earlier.

Murray’s crack at Thompson came in Where the Buffalo Roam (1980), a widely panned picture that hit theaters after Meatballs but a few months before Caddyshack. So, at that point, Murray was mostly known as a performer on SNL.

Portraying Thompson on film was something neither Depp nor Murray soon forgot. As Depp was struggling to shake the mannerisms of Thompson he’d picked up during Fear and Loathing shoot, he asked Murray how long it had taken him. Murray said it took years.

Bill Murray and Hunter S. Thompson had a wild time shooting ‘Where the Buffalo Roam’

Johnny Depp has a slight smile and looks away as Bill Murray speaks very closely to his left ear
Johnny Depp and Bill Murray close talk during 76th Annual Academy Awards in 2003. | Donato Sardella/WireImage

While every actor approaches a role differently, Murray and Depp both forged close relationships with Thompson while playing his character (at least a fictionalized version of the writer). On Where the Buffalo Roam, Thompson worked on the set as a paid consultant.

During the shoot, Thompson and Murray lived together in L.A. and engaged in a number of stunts, a few of which turned out to be highly dangerous. In the Radiator Heaven blog, the author cited a particularly scary story from Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live (1989).

One day, the story goes, Thompson and Murray were competing to see who could be the best escape-artist. So Thompson tied Murray to a chair and tossed him into a swimming pool. By the time Thompson decided Murray wasn’t making it up, the comedian had almost drowned.

Murray took the Thompson character with him when he returned to SNL after the Where the Buffalo Roam shoot. In fact, one of the show’s writers recalled Murray carrying the cigarette holder, wearing sunglasses, and speaking like Thompson during meetings.

‘Where the Buffalo Roam’ was an adaptation of a Thompson article

Bill Murray wearing a sleeveless vest and visor in film 'Where the Buffalo Roam'
Bill Murray works in a scene from the movie “Where the Buffalo Roam.” | Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Technically, Depp didn’t play Thompson himself in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. He played “Raoul Duke,” Thompson’s alter ego in his book. In Where the Buffalo Roam, there was no such remove: Murray’s character was “Hunter S. Thompson.”

The screenwriter of Where the Buffalo Roam partly based the script on “Fear and Loathing: The Banshee Screams for Buffalo Meat,” a 1977 article Thompson wrote for Rolling Stone. Thompson wrote the lengthy piece as an obituary for Oscar “Zeta” Acosta, his longtime friend and attorney.

Fans of Thompson and the Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas film know that character well. (Benicio Del Toro portrays him in Gilliam’s picture.) In Where the Buffalo Roam, Peter Boyle plays the lawyer character, who goes by the name Carl Lazlo.

Though the film was neither an artistic nor commercial success, fans of Thompson and Murray will likely walk away from Where the Buffalo Roam (which also features a Neil Young score) partly satisfied. As Roger Ebert once said, “This is the kind of bad movie that’s almost worth seeing.”