Tim Robbins is in NYC for a reading of Hunter S. Thompson’s iconic Kentucky Derby article. (©Philippe Bialobos)
Tim Robbins, appearing in The Town Hall’s May 5 concert performance of American author and journalist Hunter S. Thompson’s iconic article, “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved,” didn’t just grow up reading Thompson’s works—he lived them for a while.
Like many of the baby-boom generation, actor/writer/director/musician Robbins took the words of Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” and “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72” to heart. “I loved him as a writer,” Robbins said. “We would test the limits of appropriate behavior in Las Vegas, let’s put it that way. And it was definitely inspired by Hunter.”
Though born in California, Robbins and his three siblings were raised in Greenwich Village by equally artistic parents. “I was a city boy growing up,” he said. “I thought trees came out of concrete.”
Robbins returned to California to attend the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television and then launched a critically acclaimed television and film career, starting with the television drama “St. Elsewhere” (1982). Bit parts in films like “Top Gun” (1986) soon turned into starring roles, including the minor-league baseball classic “Bull Durham” (1988), Robert Altman’s “The Player” (1992) and “The Shawshank Redemption” (1994). Robbins worked off-screen as well, writing and directing “Bob Roberts” (1992), which he also starred in; and “Dead Man Walking” (1995), which earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Director and an Oscar for his then-partner, Susan Sarandon.
His gripping turn in Clint Eastwood’s “Mystic River” (2003) earned Robbins several Best Supporting Actor accolades, including an Oscar. “Marjorie Prime” (2017), Robbins’ latest film, co-starring Jon Hamm and Geena Davis, premiered this past January at the Sundance Film Festival.
“The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved” is the first piece of Thompson’s work that was coined “gonzo journalism,” distinctively subjective and personalized journalism. In this case, Thompson attended the 1970 Kentucky Derby to write an article and instead of focusing on the race—which he could not actually see from his location—he very opinionatedly reported on the debauchery surrounding the event.
Robbins likens the piece to an exposé on Southern traditions. “Behind the glamour and nice hats lies an underbelly of ugliness,” Robbins explained. “That’s why I love this piece.”
He became involved with the piece years ago when his friend, music producer Hal Willner, asked if he wanted to be part of an audio book recording of the article. “He’s an incredibly talented producer and what he did with the piece is just extraordinary,” said Robbins. “He just always gets sound and the aural landscape of music, but also how words go with music.”
Words with music is the perfect description of what to expect at his Town Hall performance, also produced by Willner. Robbins will be reading Thompson’s words set to Bill Frisell’s music, creating a live version of something akin to a radio play. And it will be the first time audiences see Robbins live in a while. The last time Robbins performed in the city was at Le Poisson Rouge with his band, Tim Robbins & the Rogues Gallery Band, in 2011.
Before that, Robbins directed a run of his political satire “Embedded” at The Public Theater in 2004. The critically acclaimed play debuted the year prior at The Actors’ Gang in Los Angeles, where Robbins has served as artistic director since its inception in 1981. He continues to write and direct productions there, as well as teach through the nonprofit theater company’s Prison Project, which helps inmates increase self-esteem and tolerance.
When asked if he had a preference of what medium he worked in, he chuckled, “[I] just go with the flow. If I’m acting, I love acting. If I’m directing, I love directing.”
These days, he’s on the West Coast doing a lot of both, acting in a new series for HBO, “Here, Now,” and directing The Actors’ Gang’s latest production, “Refugee Project.” When Robbins does spend time in NYC, it’s with his two sons from his relationship with Sarandon, Jack Henry and Miles.
A huge hockey fan, Robbins likes to go to New York Rangers games. He also cheers on the Mets and enjoys the city’s great bookstores, citing The Strand as an important one to visit. And he has seen “Hamilton”—twice—calling it “an exciting, vital story.”
He feels the same way about “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved.” Said Robbins, “When [Thompson] exposes truth and he is angry, it’s writing that I believe is essential.”