Johnny Depp battles editor over comma

The actor pens a tribute to the Beats for a new collection.

Published July 22, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Actor Johnny Depp has been known to pick up a guitar every now and then, but the "What's Eating Gilbert Grape?" star may have decided that the pen is mightier than the ax. In "The Rolling Stone Book of the Beats," which Hyperion brings out on July 28, Depp has an essay called "Kerouac, Ginsberg, the Beats and Other Bastards Who Ruined My Life," a rambling tribute to the movement that provided "the teachers, the soundtrack and the proper motivation for my life."

Depp, who appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone last year when he starred in "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," was introduced by Rolling Stone chief Jann Wenner to the book's editor, Holly George-Warren, that spring. When she asked Depp to write a piece for her upcoming collection, he seemed reluctant. "He was like, I'm just a dumb actor, but if you want, I could," George-Warren told Salon Books. A few months later, George-Warren received word from Depp's assistant in Paris (where he was on location for the upcoming Tim Burton film "Sleepy Hollow") that she would get the piece within two weeks.

Depp appears to have quickly absorbed the professional writer's attitude toward deadlines: It took him three weeks. "He didn't give me any excuse like 'my computer broke down,'" his editor said. "It was more like Tim Burton made him do a bunch of retakes." But George-Warren (who has also co-edited "The Rolling Stone Album Guide" and "The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll") added that once Depp turned in his piece, he took the editorial process seriously: "Lo and behold, it was damn good. And he really dug into the issues."

For example, in one paragraph Depp took exception to a serial comma. "I have been a construction laborer, a gas station attendant, a bad mechanic, a screen printer, a musician, a telemarketing phone salesman, an actor, and a tabloid target," he wrote, and he had to fight for that final comma. The two had a 20-minute exchange about it. Depp prevailed. ("In the end I believe he was right," George-Warren conceded.) They also locked horns over his use of Kerouacian ellipses.

Punctuation aside, Depp writes fondly in the piece about his friendship with Allen Ginsberg, whom he met during the filming of "The United States of Poetry." "He called me to say that he was dying, and that it would be nice to see each other again before he checked out," Depp recalls. "He then cried a little, as did I; he said, 'I love you,' and so did I. I told him I would get to New York as soon as possible, and fuckin' A, I was gonna go -- the call came only days later."

By Craig Offman

Craig Offman is the New York correspondent for Salon Books.

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