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Gary Busey has appeared in more than 150 movies, garnering an Oscar nomination for his starring turn in 1978’s The Buddy Holly Story. His films include Lethal Weapon, Under Siege, The Firm, Lost Highway, the cult surf classics Big Wednesday and Point Break, and in recent years, the likes of Bikini Model Academy and Piranha 3DD.
His television credits are equally extensive; he was the last actor to be killed in an episode of Gunsmoke, and more recently he has become a reality TV fixture thanks to appearances on such shows as Celebrity Apprentice (two seasons, making him a Donald Trump intimate), Dancing With the Stars and Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew, among many others.
He also has a wide-ranging musical background. He played drums for the recently deceased Leon Russell and fronted his own band, Carp, which released an album on Epic Records in 1969.
Busey was seriously injured in a 1988 near-fatal motorcycle accident in which the actor, not wearing a helmet, suffered a skull fracture that doctors feared would result in permanent brain damage. Comatose for one-and-a-half months, he bounced back with enough tenacity to resume his career, although he suffered another personal setback with a 1995 cocaine overdose that resulted in a rehab stint.
Now, he’s making his professional stage debut at age 72, appearing for a two-week run in the off-Broadway whodunit Perfect Crime. Busey plays the supporting role of Lionel McAuley, the “Baseball Bat Killer,” in the murder mystery that opened in 1987 and has inexplicably become the longest-running play in New York City (over 12,000 performances) despite withering reviews from critics and theatergoers alike.
The longevity of the show described by The New York Times as an “urban legend” makes it an appropriate vehicle for an actor who himself has defied similar odds. Busey recently sat down with The Hollywood Reporter on the play’s set at The Theater Center to discuss his life and career, dropping plenty of his outlandish trademark “Busey-isms” along the way.
When was the last time you did theater?
I did theater in the fifth grade. I played the pastor who married George and Martha Washington. I did plays growing up in school. And I was challenged by the football team in Nathan Hale High School in Tulsa, Oklahoma, to go out for a play. So I answered the dare. People in the audience were laughing at what I did, and I thought, this is neat. So I got a part in South Pacific. Then I went to junior college and the band instructor decided he was going to put on Bye Bye Birdie. I played Albert Peterson, the lead.
You also have an extensive musical background. Were you torn between having a musical or acting career?
They came together, in a way. The Buddy Holly Story, now that was a pretty good musical. I played drums with Leon Russell for about three years. Then I had my own band, playing drums and singing. The reason I sang is because no one else knew the lyrics to the songs.
Were you a Buddy Holly fan before you played him?
Oh, yeah. I was in ninth grade when, on Feb. 3, I went home and heard that Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper went down in a plane out of Clear Lake, Iowa. The first time I heard Don McLean’s song “American Pie,” I was in tears. Don, if you’re reading this, I want to meet you, so let’s find a way to make fun of each other or shout insults at people wearing zippers. You make the choice.
So you haven’t done theater since college?
No, I did motion pictures in the ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s, 2000s. Now it’s like a circle being completed, coming back to the theater. (Leans into microphone) And we’re sitting in the theater right now, people, and it’s not that big. But what you see as not big is bigger than the definition of big in any dictionary you could find on the planet.
What attracted you to this particular play?
It wasn’t the play at all. Steffanie had to get to New York. Steffanie’s my soul mate, my wife, the mother of our son, Luke, who is six. And I have another son, Jake, who is 45. He builds custom bicycles; designs the fenders and the frame, adds an engine. He got the love of bikes from me. Except the motorcycle accident proved to be emotionally fatal for Jake and Judy, the lady I was with at the time, his mother. But we’re here today, all full of life and protoplasm.
You’re playing a villain in this play, right?
I don’t look at him as a villain. My character is just misunderstood by the public.
He may or may not be a killer?
Oh, he is. We all are. You have to understand, you have the killing instinct in you. You were born with it. That’s what happens when you come to planet number three. But my theory is that Earth is the greatest planet for vacations for advanced clowns. We’re advanced clowns, we are. Look at you! (Laughs)
Are you nervous about making your professional stage debut in front of New York critics?
Critics are like eunuchs. They’re taking care of the harem, and they can see how it’s done, but they can’t do it themselves. Critics are lovely, God bless them. They gotta have something to do, and it’s OK, because you have to get over the bad reviews just as quick as you get over the good reviews. And if someone writes something bad, I can turn those bad thoughts into good thoughts because I have Neuro-Linguistic Programming as a success tool.
What about learning your lines? Are you worried about that?
Let me give you the meaning of worry. W-O-R-R-Y stands for “Working on Ridiculous Routines Yearly.” Here’s another one for you. Sober. S-O-B-E-R. “Son of a Bitch, Everything’s Real.” And my favorite, which you’ll relate to, because of how your face is. Fart, F-A-R-T. “Feeling a Rectal Transmission!”
Why are you doing such a short run in the play, only two weeks?
I’m having knee surgery on Dec. 12. So that’s why.
Your film and television credits go back decades. You’ve worked with directors including Michael Cimino, David Lynch, Sydney Pollack, Terry Gilliam.
Don’t forget Richard Donner. Don’t forget Nick Roeg.
Any particular favorites among your many films?
The Buddy Holly Story was incredible. Then comes Lethal Weapon and then The Firm and Under Siege. Point Break was just great. That was the first movie I did after my brain surgery. When I went off my motorcycle without my helmet, went headfirst into a curb, knocked a hole in my skull as big as a 50-cent piece.
How did that experience affect you?
You have no idea. It’s like explaining an orgasm to a 10-year-old. I had to learn how to walk and talk and eat and dress myself and do everything again. It’s rebirth of spirituality, and a big one. And mentality, emotionality and physicality. We take so many things for granted, until we have an experience that’s going to give you an epiphany, an evolution in thought. Because it’s not the way you thought it was. (Deepens his voice) It is just the way it is! And that’s the key, finding out what the “is” is. Because that’s your truth. T-R-U-T-H. “Taking Real Understanding to Heart.”
In the later part of your career you’ve done a lot reality television.
Not really. Well, I did Celebrity Apprentice twice. With President Trump, as we now call him. And he’s a close friend, personally and professionally. I knew he was gonna win, a long time ago.
Were you happy about that?
I’m happy all the time.
Are you still in touch with him?
Do you enjoying doing reality shows?
I enjoy everything I do. I make the best of it. Just like, this is a great moment we’re having together.
Well, I think I have everything I need. Thank you for…
No, you don’t! We’re just starting!
Uh, OK. What else would you like to talk about?
I want to talk about national parks and where you had your most fun.
Gary Busey appears Nov. 21-Dec. 4 in Perfect Crime at The Theater Center in New York.
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