Beer in hand, the potbellied old boozer shuffles around his living room. His face is a topographic road map of pockmarks and warts. A tiny self-portrait hangs near the front door. He jeers at it. “Tough guy,” he says with a W.C. Fields rasp. “I think I’m Bogart.”
Others have thought worse of Charles Bukowski. At 67, he has misspent most of his life with cheap booze and cheaper broads, brawling in sleazy bars. His joy was in his writing, especially since he didn’t have to stop guzzling to do it. The bottle has to be there, “Has to,” he confirms. “Unless I’m entertained, nobody’s going to be entertained.” Four novels, five books of short stories and more than 1,000 poems have won Bukowski a small but devoted following in the U.S. Hank, as he’s called, likes being an acquired taste. To the liquor-laced laureate of the gutter, celebrity is a curse. And now this had to happen.
His name is popping up in gossip columns. He dines with Norman Mailer, takes Sean Penn to the racetrack and gets visits from Madonna. “Why,” his next-door neighbor asks, “would Madonna come to see you, Hank?”
Because, as it happens, Hank is the notorious character behind Barfly, the critical and box office hit that has turned Bukowski into a hot Hollywood ticket. “It makes me feel suspicious of my own abilities,” says Bukowski, who had previously seen his novel Tales of Ordinary Madness turned into a flop 1983 movie that made him “scream at the screen.” Bukowski based his Barfly screen play on a blurred recollection of himself around age 25. It’s the story of an unabashedly drunken writer (Mickey Rourke) and his loves: Wanda (Faye Dunaway)and Mr. McCleary (cheap whiskey). The New York Times called it a “classic.” Bukowski sees it as a simple slice of life: his. Regardless, he says, “It’s a damn good movie.”
And a success that almost never happened. After French director Bar-bet Schroeder commissioned the script from Bukowski in 1979 for $20,000, it took six years to find a producer. “Nicely done,” read the rejections, “but who cares what happens to a drunk?”
When Sean Penn read the script he cared. Penn offered to play the lead for a dollar. “Then we had a hot item,” says Bukowski. But Penn wanted his buddy Dennis Hopper, another renowned Hollywood ex-derelict, to direct. Bukowski wouldn’t desert Barbet. Enter Mickey Rourke and Cannon Films with a budget of about $4 million.
Rourke gets rave reviews from his real-life prototype. “He really puts out,” says Bukowski. Surprisingly, Rourke has admitted that he’s not a Bukowski devotee. Drink may be Bukowski’s choice, says Rourke, the son of an alcoholic father, “but I don’t have to respect him for it.” Bukowski laments such feelings. “Even drug addicts get public sympathy,” he says. “Drunks just aren’t recognized as human beings.”
Bukowski was born in Andernach, W. Germany and moved to L.A. when he was 4. He was terrified of his father, a Prussian milkman who beat him regularly. He was 13 when he took his first drink; he says it eased the pain. After two years of journalism courses at Los Angeles City College, he dropped out at the start of World War II. For the next 10 years he wrote and drifted around the country. At 36, his regimen of constant and indiscriminate drinking landed him in an L.A. hospital with a bleeding ulcer. Thirteen pints of blood later he was released and told never to drink again. He went straight to a bar.
Bukowski continued to scrape by with jobs as a janitor, truck driver, shipping clerk and postal worker. Through it all—or because of it all—he churned out poems, pornography and stories for underground magazines. “If you’re going to write, you have to have something to write about,” he says. “The gods were good to me. They kept me on the streets. If you’re a genius at 25, you burn out.”
Only moderately well-known at home, Bukowski has long been a celebrity overseas. Prisoners and the insane worldwide flood the author with letters, which he answers. “Those are the interesting people,” he says. “And the hardest to fool.” When an inmate in New Zealand wrote that Bukowski’s work was passed from cell to cell, the author says, “It was the first time I was proud of my writing.”
Women, he admits, are another addiction. In 1956 he married Barbara Frye, who published a small poetry magazine. It wasn’t until he visited her estate in Texas that he discovered she was wealthy. “Baby, it will spoil everything,” he told her. He was right. They divorced in less than a year.
His only child, Marina Louise, now 23 and a recent engineering graduate of California State University at Long Beach, is the daughter of ex-girlfriend Frances Dean Smith. “Marina is cool,” says Bukowski. “She knows if she said, ‘God, I love the way you write,’ it would offend me. We’re alike. We don’t come out and say things that should be understood.”
Bukowski’s wild days are long gone. “Fights, drink, picking up women—I think that came with youth,” he says. In 1976 he met Linda Lee Beighle, now 36, a former health store owner who has recently taken up acting. “He was drunk when we met,” she says. An ardent fan of Bukowski’s work, Beighle doses her husband with upwards of 35 vitamins a day and forbids him red meat and hard liquor. “I don’t know whether I do Linda any good,” says Bukowski, “but without her I wouldn’t be here.” Two years ago they married and settled into a comfortable, one-bedroom house with a garden in the dock-side community of San Pedro, Calif. Bukowski’s Barfly success already has Hollywood sniffing for more. “I’ve never wanted to be rich,” says Bukowski. “I just want a place to live, food to eat, so I can continue typing.”
The old reprobate may be domesticated, but he still spends nearly every day at the nearby racetracks. His wife isn’t worried. Most nights by 10 p.m., she says, her Hank climbs the stairs to his ramshackle writing room. “He closes his door,” says Linda, “opens his wine bottle, turns on his classical music, then pushes the keys. It just erupts.” His work in progress, Hollywood, based on the making of Barfly, flows easily. “I’m up there alone,” says Bukowski, beaming, “having a party.”