The True Story Behind The Millions Johnny Depp Spent Launching Hunter S. Thompson’s Ashes Into The Sky

 Hunter S. Thompson and Johnny Depp seen out in New York City together.
Hunter S. Thompson and Johnny Depp seen out in New York City together.

It’s an old story and one that lives on in both the mythos’ of Hunter S. Thompson and Johnny Depp. Years ago, after the author died by suicide, many of his famous friends and aquaintances attended his funeral and later a memorial service in which Johnny Depp shot off a rocket. But it wasn’t just any rocket. It was a custom made cannon that shot the late author’s ashes into the sky.

It’s a true story. Johnny Depp made $650 million in his heyday, and he spent millions of those bucks in order to shoot his friend into the air, an homage to Thompson the troubled and brilliant author had dreamed into life with the help of Ralph Steadman years before his passing. Thanks to Jann Wenner’s biography Like a Rolling Stone, we now know more details about Depp and his relationship with the former Rolling Stone writer, as well as his relationship to the Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas actor. We also know more about the cannon and its cost. The whole story is long and worth explaining, so let’s dive in.

After all, when the going gets weird, the weird get pro.

1976 image of Hunter S Thompson outside on his motorcycle.
1976 image of Hunter S Thompson outside on his motorcycle.

How Did Johnny Depp Come Up With His Salute To Hunter S. Thompson?

Wenner’s a real help with this one. The magazine magnate worked with Thompson for years at Rolling Stone, and the two knew each other well, going on the campaign trail and more, particularly in the writer’s more prolific years. He opened up in his autobiography about how Hunter probably would have felt about the over-the-top gesture the Pirates of the Caribbean actor put together after his death in February of 2005.

Johnny moved ahead with his salute to Hunter, a cannon the height of the Statue of Liberty. It cost him a million bucks. Hunter would have been thrilled to see such a spectacle as a way to say goodbye to him. In fact, it had been his idea in the first place. He dreamed it up in 1977 and asked Ralph Steadman to make a drawing of a Gonzo Fist Memorial.

Depp told the AP at Thompson’s funeral that he’d made the decision to move forward with this plan because he’d brought up the cannon thing a few times and it was clear it was near to the writer’s heart.

All I'm doing is trying to make sure his last wish comes true. We had talked a couple of times about his last wishes to be shot out of a cannon of his own design. I just want to send my pal out the way he wants to go out.

Johnny Depp and Jann Wenner pose for a picture in the nineties
Johnny Depp and Jann Wenner pose for a picture in the nineties

How Much Did It Cost To Create The Cannon In Order To Shoot Off Hunter’s Ashes?

Interestingly, there are conflicting reports about how much Hunter S. Thompson’s tribute event had cost Depp, who had played the author in the movie adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. As noted above, Wenner says it cost the actor a “million bucks.” The report that’s run around the internet most often clarified that number, and said that Depp actually spent $3 million dollars on the tribute to his friend, a number bandied about by his ex-managers amidst reports of extravagant spending from the a-lister.

Depp himself seemingly clarified this frequently written on subject during an interview on his career and finances, and if you were to ask the actor, he would tell you he spent $5 million. In fact, he literally has said it was a higher number than was widely reported:

By the way, it was not $3 million to shoot Hunter into the fucking sky. It was $5 million.

Numbers can be fudged a bit, and there was likely a figure for the cannon cost and another figure for all the monies it takes to host a large tribute event with a slew of celebrity guests. So I suppose there’s a world where it was $1 million for the cannon and more millions for all of the other stuff involved. It’s also worth noting, though,  the five million figure was bandied about by Depp’s legal team while he was having money problems. The figure on the books was $3 million; the actor and his lawyers argued it was $5 million. Depp's major monetary losses later came up again during his subsequent court cases featuring Amber Heard.

What’s clear? At least seven figures were involved, a magnanimous gesture no matter what the truth is.

Hunter S. Thompson and Johnny Depp at the Fear And Loathing in Las Vegas premiere.
Hunter S. Thompson and Johnny Depp at the Fear And Loathing in Las Vegas premiere.

How The Tribute To Hunter S. Thompson Played Out

A veritable Who’s Who of famous names attended the event in Hunter S. Thompson’s hometown of Woody Creek, Colorado. Given the author’s famous connections, it certainly wasn’t the first time a famous person had come to town, but reports in the time since have indicated a huge number of celebrities from different facets attended, including  John Kerry, Jack Nicholson, John Cusack, Bill Murray, Benicio del Toro, Sean Penn, Josh Hartnett, George McGovern and, of course, Ralph Steadman. Jann Wenner, too, was there.

Johnny brought in movie-production people and erected the cannon in the field behind Hunter’s house. In front of it was a tented pavillion. For a party, hung with memorabilia, stuffed peacocks, blow-up sex dolls, and photos of Hunter’s literary heroes. Ten mortar shells packed with gunpowder launched Hunter’s ashes from the cannon while Norman Greenbaum’s voice rang out ‘Spirit in the Sky.’ ….It was a king hell spectacle, and people came from far and wide. I spoke again, but I had already said goodbye.

Depp himself once spoke about the moment, noting (via the Daily Record) that it was "the best practical joke" to bring everyone together, but also to distract them from the heavy thought that Thompson had gone out via a gunshot wound inflicted on his own person.

But he did actually end up having the best practical joke of all with his last wish. This was to be blown out of a giant cannon, in his backyard. Now, there were no giant cannons of the right size - he wanted 150ft of cannon - and then I found out that the Statue of Liberty was 151ft tall. I thought, 'Well, he would really hate me if it was smaller than the Statue of Liberty', so we built it up to 153ft and broke records. And so the great joke is that we were all forced to focus on something else, as opposed to the loss of a great, great friend.

It’s unclear why Johnny Depp felt the need to go out of his way and throw such a "spectacle" for his pal. The two had spent time together in 1994 when the then-young actor had signed on to play him in Fear and Loathing (he'd later play the author again opposite his now-ex Amber Heard in The Rum Diary). They were connected via phone and spent time going on adventures after the first film -- Depp once mentioned a trip to Havana that was "seared" in his brain -- but one more passage from Wenner's Like A Rolling Stone may shed some light on this too.

You see, Depp and Thompson had reportedly not been connected in the final year of his life. He and Wenner spent a day mourning together after their mutual pals' death, which is when the actor allegedly shared his story.

Johnny was troubled and finally explained that he hadn’t returned calls from Hunter in the last year or so. It was a tough confession to make, that he had turned his back on Hunter when he was reaching out for help or perhaps just a hand to hold. Hunter had made Johnny a totem for his life, and Johnny had created an enchanted version of Hunter, a living, breathing sculpture.

It's possible there was a level of regret that led Depp to shoot Thompson's ashes into the sky, or perhaps, of course, it was just the correct thing to do for his pal, an individual who left an anomalous mark on culture during his lifetime.