08/30/2004 at 01:00 AM EDT
I, Fatty Screenwriter [(CSI)
] Jerry Stahl (left) explores the tragic life of silent-movie comedian (and closet junkie) Fatty Arbuckle in his new novel I, Fatty. Stahl also is author of Permanent Midnight, a darkly comic memoir chronicling his former heroin addiction.
WHY FICTIONALIZE FATTY? Arbuckle was a 375-lb. vaudevillian from Kansas, an alcoholic who hated his body and lived in shame. Yet he produced a body of art [as one of the Keystone Kops] from everything that should have killed him. I stumbled upon the fact that he'd become addicted to heroin, and I could identify with this guy: For an artist, pain is ammo.
HOW WAS HE DESTROYED? In the early 1900s he was more popular than Charlie Chaplin. But in 1921 he was accused of raping and murdering Virginia Rappe, an actress and sometime prostitute, at a drunken party. Though vindicated by a jury, he was ruined. Alcohol and heroin claimed his spirit, and he died in 1933.
HOW DID YOU RESEARCH THE NOVEL? There are wonderful biographies of Arbuckle; there's even an unpublished manuscript by his first wife called Nobody Loves a Fat Man
. And just living in L.A. helped me [feel connected to him]. I live a block from where he lived when he was starting out.
WOULD FATTY'S FATE BE DIFFERNT TODAY?
His downfall presaged-every Hollywood scandal since. But now there would be the stop on Oprah
, rehab, a book, a movie of the week. And then he'd be bigger than ever with even more fans—not that there's anything wrong with that.