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Hunter S. Thompson once pulled a bizarre birthday prank on his friend Jack Nicholson, so terrifying the actor hid in his basement

Domagoj Valjak

The prolific and controversial writer Hunter S. Thompson, the father of “gonzo journalism,” committed suicide on February 20, 2005. Six months later, on August 20, his ashes were fired from a cannon while Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” and Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky” played in the background. The extravagant private funeral was organized by Thompson’s long-time friend Johnny Depp and, since the late writer had many famous friends, some high-profile celebrities attended the service. Among others, the group of mourners included U.S. senators John Kerry and George McGovern and actors Bill Murray, John Cusack, Sean Penn, Benicio del Toro, and Jack Nicholson.

During the memorial service that took place after the funeral, Nicholson drew two portraits of Thompson: he signed them and gave them to the late writer’s wife, Anita Bejmuk. Both drawings featured Thompson smoking a cigarette and wearing his trademark sunglasses and were accompanied by quotes “All were not wrong” and “How’d ya like the elk heart.” The second quote is not some obscure joke or a reference to some of Thompson’s favorite writers; it actually refers to a scary and unorthodox prank that the writer once pulled on Nicholson to spice up his birthday.

Hunter S. Thompson, May 1989. Photo:Rs79 CC BY-SA 3.0

Hunter S. Thompson, May 1989. Photo:Rs79 CC BY-SA 3.0

Thompson and Nicholson were close friends and neighbors in Pitkin County, Colorado, and, according to an interview with Thompson that was published as a part of his book Ancient Gonzo Wisdom, they frequently gave bizarre birthday gifts to each other. Once during the 1980s, Thompson went a bit too far in trying to shock his friend. His idea of a surprise birthday celebration turned out to be a traumatic experience for the actor and his family.

On that day, Nicholson returned home from L.A. to celebrate his birthday with his family. He met Thompson early in the afternoon and the two agreed that they would “see each other later.” However, since they made no definitive plans, Thompson decided to pay Nicholson a surprise birthday visit late in the evening. He climbed a ridge across the road from the actor’s historic Victorian home and began with his elaborate and terrifying program.

He started the show by firing a 40-million-candlepower parachute flare into the air. The light produced by the flare was almost as intense as a mid-range nuclear blast: the area of 40 miles around Nicholson’s house was bright as daylight for some 40 seconds. After that, he aimed a military-grade million-watt spotlight directly at the windows of the house and simultaneously played a tape which contained recorded shrieks of dying pigs through a huge loudspeaker. As if the blinding lights and the abhorrent and deafening noises weren’t enough, Thompson then fired several rounds from his automatic handgun into the air.

Nicholson as Wilbur Force in The Little Shop of Horrors (1960)

Nicholson as Wilbur Force in The Little Shop of Horrors (1960)

The writer expected Nicholson to come out of his house and marvel at his incredibly strange way of saying “Happy birthday.” However, the actor didn’t come out: he and his family were scared out of their minds. At the time when Thompson was carrying out his prank, they locked themselves in the basement and Nicholson promptly called the FBI to inform them that some raging lunatic was likely getting ready to tear down his home.

Since several stalkers had terrorized him and his family in the past, he was genuinely afraid that a particularly persistent stalker had decided to enter his house and meet him at any cost.

Jack Nicholson. Photo: Georges Biard Permission CC BY-SA 3.0

Jack Nicholson. Photo: Georges Biard Permission CC BY-SA 3.0

Thompson was incredibly disappointed that Nicholson failed to recognize the awesomeness and inventiveness of his prank, so he left a birthday present at his doorstep. The gift consisted of a freshly removed elk’s heart, which was still bloody, and a handful of empty cartridges left over from when he fired his handgun into the air. The horrifying experiences of encountering the raw elk’s heart and of Thompson going berserk in his front yard clearly etched themselves into Nicholson’s mind: the sentence written below the portrait of Thompson, which the actor drew at the writer’s funeral, was inspired by this birthday night of terror.

Related story from us: In 1970 Hunter S. Thompson ran for sheriff of Aspen wanting to ban cars and legalize certain substances

Some might think that Thompson’s prank surely affected their friendship in a negative way, but the two remained close until the writer’s death in 2005. When the actor discovered that Thompson was behind the events that took place that night, he was relieved and probably somewhat mad at himself for not recognizing that the whole crazy show was organized by the writer who was already infamous for his love of guns, excesses, and unpleasant surprises.