Three decades after a motorcycle crash that "turned his personality up to 11," the Oscar nominee and icon of unhinged aggression (in film and on YouTube) has become a foulmouthed Malibu mystic about to star in a new off-Broadway musical, 'Only Human,' playing "The Boss" in a corporatized version of heaven.
In a townhouse in a gated community in Malibu, Gary Busey, 75, is posing behind his cluttered desk for a photographer. The process is not as simple as it sounds. Once considered one of Hollywood's most promising leading men after his Oscar nomination for 1978's The Buddy Holly Story, Busey suffered a major head injury in a 1988 motorcycle accident, resulting in an inability to censor himself. "The post-accident version of him turned his personality up to 11," Jake Busey, Gary's 48-year-old son and an accomplished actor in his own right (he had a recurring role on Stranger Things' third season), later explains. "I feel like I lost my dad on December 4, 1988."
How Busey's injury manifests itself can be amusing, or insulting, or downright disturbing. During the shoot, he asks a slender male photo assistant, "Did you used to be a woman? You came out great." Later, he turns to a female hairstylist and says, "If you're not having fun, I have something for you to have fun: I'll tickle you till you pee." At one point, when I interject that I find something he says interesting, he snaps, "You've interrupted me, so I won't continue." (He later apologizes.) Whenever he's pleased with something he's said, which is often, he punctuates it with a high-pitched, "Yeah!" His pet parakeet, Greenie, mimics the sound from its cage, adding to the air of chaos. When Busey is around, anything can happen and probably will. Best to just give yourself over to it.
Search his name on YouTube and countless videos pop up with titles like "When Busey Attacks" and "Crazy, Incoherent Gary Busey Red Carpet Footage." He's had to atone repeatedly for past behavior, like the time he grabbed Jennifer Garner in an unwelcome embrace at the 2008 Oscars — a move that would have landed him in much hotter water in the #MeToo era. "We're working on it," Jake says with a sigh.
Understandably, Busey's career has suffered. These days he may be known less for his turns in iconic action hits — Lethal Weapon, Point Break, Under Siege — than for his sendup of himself as a gibberish-spouting weirdo on HBO's Entourage (and in the 2015 Entourage movie). "Gary was awesome, probably my most interesting guest star," recalls Entourage creator Doug Ellin, adding that Busey insisted on ad-libbing his lines. "We didn't do a lot of improv on the show. But Gary showed up and said, 'I won't give you the words, I'll give you the truth.' We went with it."
Since then, Busey has been relegated mainly to cameos in projects like Sharknado movies. But this fall, he'll star in the new off-Broadway musical Only Human. He plays "The Boss" — basically God in a corporatized version of heaven. Observing the photo shoot today is one of the show's producers, who admits Busey has been struggling to remember his lines. Nonetheless, he's confident the star will be stage-ready for his Oct. 8 bow.
Jake has a hard time with what's become of his father and his father's career. "The fact that there's an entire generation of people who don't know the man he was before the accident — this incredibly talented actor, this force of nature — it's just hard," he says. Busey's erratic reputation has even impacted his son's work prospects: "The same Busey name that helped me 30 years ago has become a scorpion's tail because it's associated with insanity." Jeff Bridges, who worked alongside Busey in a string of early-'70s movies including Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, considers him "my brother — we're very connected." Busey's accident, which fell on Bridges' 39th birthday, has made him "more Gary Busey-ish than ever," Bridges adds. "It's remarkable how he's thrived considering what happened."
Acting was a fallback plan for Busey: The goal had always been to make it as a rock star. In the late 1960s, Busey, who was raised in Tulsa, "came out to California from Oklahoma State University with a four-piece band called The Rubber Band," he explains. He had a list of 10 names, the last of which was Buddy Resnik, a music manager who was impressed with the band's covers of Beach Boys and Beatles songs. (Busey sang and played the drums.) They started playing "little gigs in the Valley" and recorded an album for Epic Records. Around then, Busey met an acting teacher who taught him camera and cold-reading technique. "I started landing jobs right away: boom, boom, boom."
His early credits were the kinds of TV Westerns lovingly re-created in Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. At first he was cast as a day player with no lines. He'd walk around the set introducing himself to all the departments, learning as much as he could. "I was working on a show called The High Chaparral, and I was supposed to hit the star, Leif Erickson, in the face with a big stick while he was sleeping," he says. When the director called "action," Busey purposely cast a shadow over Erickson's face, requiring retakes. It was a risky strategy, but it paid off. "I'd go from one day with no lines to working three days with seven lines. I didn't do it to rebel, I did it to survive."
Like Cliff Booth, Brad Pitt's rugged stuntman in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Busey, who played college football, threw himself into stunts and stunt driving: He sped a Camaro with three Panavision cameras strapped to its hood up to 140 mph in 1976's The Gumball Rally. That same year, Barbra Streisand was casting her remake of A Star Is Born and, spotting Busey on TV, thought he'd be perfect to play the road manager to Kris Kristofferson's rock star.
The day Busey met with Streisand, the two drove in his van from the Warner Bros. lot to see Leon Russell at his house in the Hollywood Hills — Busey was playing drums for the rock legend and Streisand had always wanted to meet him. Later that afternoon, Streisand sang one of Russell's tunes, "This Masquerade," as Russell accompanied her on piano. "It wasn't recorded," Busey recalls. "That would have been a monumental classic forever. But that's the way art works: Sometimes it comes through just to let you taste it and see it. But you can't keep it."
Jake was 4 at the time and beginning to develop the awareness that his childhood was atypical — "backstages, movie premieres, recording studios and tour buses," he says. "Willie Nelson, Little Feat, Fleetwood Mac and Leon Russell were over on any given night. Nick Nolte was a close pal. Our house in Malibu was home of the afterparty." He remembers being awakened from his sleep at 11 and asked to play drums on a group jam. It wasn't unusual for Busey — determined to earn a reputation as the "hardest-partying guy in town," Jake says — to stumble home in the early-morning hours and pass out for two to three days straight, then disappear again for days. Whatever normalcy Jake found, he adds, was thanks to his mother, Judy, whom Busey married in 1968 and divorced in 1990.
The family's fortunes changed with The Buddy Holly Story. Busey credits the part to Joyce Selznick, niece of Gone With the Wind producer David O. Selznick, a talent manager who "believed in me and saw what I could do." She arranged a meeting with the producers, Hollywood outsiders from Philadelphia who had never made a movie. Busey, who was working on his own Buddy Holly biopic with Jerry Allison, Holly's drummer, had intimate knowledge of the subject — he even corrected the producers on some inaccuracies in the script. The next day, they asked Busey to come to a recording studio, where he laid down a few Holly tracks — "It's Always Raining in My Heart" and "Heartbeat" — as 30 people looked on from the control room, "jammed in like sardines." They offered him the part on the spot.
When I ask how Holly's family responded to the film, Busey pulls out a guitar and launches into Holly's 1957 hit "Maybe Baby" (Holly's mother, who loved the film, gifted him the original handwritten lyrics). In that 90-second turn, Hollywood's long-running inside joke disappears, replaced by the man his son describes as "one of the most talented people I've ever known."
Busey didn't win the Oscar for Holly — it went to Jon Voight for the post-Vietnam War drama Coming Home — but that did little to diminish the heat that came off his performance. Jake recalls the dining table covered in stacks of screenplays 10 deep. Busey turned them all down. "I need to write music," he'd say. "Kurt Russell, Henry Winkler, there was a whole list of guys who would step in," says Jake. "That was frustrating for my mom and me."
The day of the accident is still burned into Jake's psyche. Busey has no memory of the event but frequently retells it — three times during our afternoon together. Pieced together from various accounts, it goes something like this: On Dec. 4, 1988, Busey was riding his Harley-Davidson — without a helmet — when, at the intersection of Washington and Robertson boulevards, it fishtailed. He hit the front brake, flipping the bike back over front and sending Busey headfirst into the curb. "It split my skull open," he says. "Left a hole in it."
In what Busey calls "angelic intervention," paramedics were nearby eating a burger, and a police car was passing by to scout the route for the L.A. Marathon the following day. Rushed to Cedars-Sinai, Busey was diagnosed with a subdural hematoma and operated on for several hours. He describes a mystical experience on the operating table. "Don't call it death. There is no death. Death just stands for 'Don't expect a tragedy here,' " he says, citing one of his "Buseyism" acronyms (he published a whole book of them in 2018).
"I was a little over a foot long and a quarter of an inch wide," he recalls. "That's your essence and that is your soul. It's housed in the column of your spine. I was surrounded by balls of light ... gold, magenta, amber, mother-of-pearl, all around me. More than you could count. Three lights moved up to me. The mother-of-pearl one spoke to me in an androgynous voice. It went, and I'm paraphrasing, 'Gary, you're going in a good direction. But it's time for you to look for help in the spiritual realm. You may come with us now or you may return to your body and continue your destiny.' "
He chose to return, but it was a long journey. "He was a vegetable in a wheelchair staring at the wall," recalls Jake. "At 17, I had to teach him with my mom to talk, to eat, to feed himself. To walk again. To write. That was very difficult for me at that age." (Jake is now weathering another family health storm: His wife is battling breast cancer and recently had a double mastectomy.) Busey's frontal lobe damage, which made him more impulsive and prone to anger and delusions of grandeur, also impacted his creative mastery — his ability to compose music. Stripped of his self-governing impulses, he descended deeper into what had once been a casual cocaine habit. That led to a series of overdoses (in this period he married his second wife, a stripper from Dallas) and rehab stints. Asked how the drug changed his already manic personality, Busey replies, "It did nothing. My personality was the same. … Well, it does give you C.D."
"What's that?" I ask.
The most public of Busey's attempts at rehab was in 2008 on VH1's Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew. Busey, who signed up for the show because he was low on money, insists he was sober then, but according to host Drew Pinsky, he was still sporadically using. "He got a lot better," Pinsky concedes. "He responded to cognition therapy, to mood stabilizers, he responded to social intervention and teaching. We loved Gary. He's a phenomenally rich human being. But he has this sort of quality that people make fun of him — and I don't know if he's in on the joke."
Reality TV allowed Busey to cash in on that easy-to-mock rep. In 2013, he made it seven weeks into the fourth season of NBC's Celebrity Apprentice, earning $40,000 for his charity, The Center for Head Injury Services. He still calls Donald Trump "one of my best friends. I knew him long before Celebrity Apprentice. Me, my good friend Keith Carradine and him would drive around New York in a sedan and talk loud about art and fascinations about women."
Today, a few months out from his New York theater bow — his first other than a two-week stint in 2016 with the off-Broadway play Perfect Crime — Busey is trim and looks, well, probably in his best form in decades. He lives with his partner of 12 years, Steffanie Sampson Busey — "If it wasn't for her, he'd be in an old folks home," says Jake — and together they raise a 9-year-old son, Luke, a sweet and relaxed kid. With his platinum blond hair and toothy smile, he looks almost identical to childhood photos of Jake and Gary lining the walls.
When Busey speaks of his life now, you're never quite sure which one he's referring to — or how many there are. "I've been a Native American in my past lifetimes," he notes. "I was on Atlantis, connecting people to stars with crystals to heal them. I've been a pirate." If Jake could put a number on it, it would be nine, "like a cat. He may be on the ninth one now."
Busey tends to wax on the metaphysical side of philosophical and puts his unflappable optimism this way: "We're all great. We're all fantastic. We're all children of God. Don't take things personal. It's bad to take things personal. It doesn't matter. It's not even there. Tell you a joke?" he adds, in one of many whiplash subject changes.
"Sure," I respond.
"I've got one for you. What do you call an anorexic with a yeast infection?"
"A quarter pounder with cheese."
This story first appeared in the Aug. 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.