Ask Gary Busey about his life these days, and he's likely to flash his trademark toothy grin. He might also jump up and declare, as he did in a recent interview, "It's CRAZY good!"
The 66-year-old actor is keenly aware of the perceptions about him — he knows you think he's crazy. And he knows it has everything to do with a litany of well-publicized highs and lows that span more than three decades in Hollywood — a battle with drugs after his lead actor Oscar nomination for 1978's "The Buddy Holly Story"; a near-fatal motorcycle crash that caused a traumatic brain injury in 1988; an appearance as his "crazy" self on a 2007 episode of "Entourage"; a stint on VH-1's "Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew" in 2008; and an unsolicited neck smooch delivered to a startled Jennifer Garner on the red carpet at the Academy Awards in 2008.
The actor was even a punch line on last week's "Saturday Night Live" during a skit where a ranting Charlie Sheen (Bill Hader) read an e-mail praising him for making "perfect sense, adding, "Finally, I know, I'm not crazy." Signed "gbusey69."
Busey's off-kilter personality is on full display again in the latest edition of NBC's "Celebrity Apprentice." In Sunday's premiere, Busey transformed himself into the "Pepperoni Prophet" to assist his team in running a pizzeria. Sporting savagely unkempt hair and an ill-fitting brown suit, the actor pranced like a deranged preacher outside the establishment, flinging pepperoni into the air and proclaiming that "miracles happen" where the meat landed on the ground. (An amused Donald Trump called him "a piece of work.")
Asked about his experience working on the Trump series, Busey proclaimed, "It was as good as it could be at the time. It is what is, it was what it was."
The show also prompted an unexpected breakthrough. As usual, many of his teammates were caught off guard by Busey's loud talking and inability sometimes to immediately grasp words. But fellow contestant Marlee Matlin, who is deaf, concluded that much of Busey's aggressiveness was because of hearing loss, a legacy of his 1988 accident. (When the actor was fitted with a new state-of-the-art hearing aid, his world changed, he said.)
"There's a lot more to Gary than we've seen on 'Celebrity Rehab,'" said Eden Gaha, an executive producer on "Celebrity Apprentice." "His whole process is different. The question is whether he's crazy or a genius. He has no filter."
But for those who think Busey is way off the deep end, he's got a message.
"I'm not difficult," insisted Busey, his gruff voice accompanying a graceful waving of his arms. "It's not in my vocabulary. Because of a few difficulties with myself, it caused me to retreat from my true self. After 'The Buddy Holly Story,' I went over the rainbow. I didn't know how to handle everything that came at me. It's different now. I've moved on into the light. It was just all a part of the journey of finding me."
He has certainly found a starring role on the NBC reality show, which also includes other celebrity sideshows such as singer LaToya Jackson, Richard Hatch ("Survivor") and former baseball star Jose Canseco. Busey joined the show in part to help dispel lingering negative views — he's named the Center for Head Injury Services as his charity in the celebrity contest.
And his so-called Buseyisms, his life's wisdom and philosophy communicated in the breakdown of words, has found a cult following on YouTube. (He's never far from a "Buseyism" in live conversation, and just as on-line, they are delivered in a scholarly manner.)
"You know what FEAR stands for?" he asked as he held court in the Hollywood Hills home of his fiancée's parents. "It means 'False Evidence Appearing Real.'"
"You know what FREEDOM stands for?" continued the actor, who is engaged to Steffanie Sampson, with whom he has a 1-year-old son, Luke Sampson Busey. "'Facing Real Exciting Energy Developing Out of Miracles.'"
In many ways, there's a thin line between the new Busey and the former "wild and crazy" Busey. A visitor he had just met was treated like an old friend, with affectionate pats and hugs. And while his actions and responses were thoughtful and articulate, sometimes they appeared a bit hard to fathom.
During one point in the interview, he suddenly threw a couch pillow at a photographer who was clearing his equipment after shooting Busey. "Am I making too much noise?" "Naw," said Busey with a wide smile. "I just want to show you I like you."