Gary Busey on Gary Busey: A conversation about his first stage role
Gary Busey long ago merged his public persona with a character named Gary Busey.
It’s hard to pinpoint when the actor completed this transformation. It might have been when he experienced what he calls a life-changing motorcycle accident nearly 30 years ago. Or perhaps it came more recently, in a series of “Entourage” appearances. Either way, there’s no disputing that Busey embraces a certain set of...outward traits.
That character he presents--a kind of whacked-out philosopher who never met a digressive opine he didn’t like--has also been manifest on numerous reality shows (including, in a turn resonant of late, “Celebrity Apprentice”).
The actor has had as many as 150 parts, in the likes of “Lethal Weapon” and “Point Break” and even “The Buddy Holly Story,” the last of which earned him an Oscar nomination many eons ago. Yet none of those parts have ever come on a stage.
At 72, he decided to change that. Busey on Sunday wrapped up a two-week run in the off-Broadway show “Perfect Crime,” the insanely long-running, if not exactly sanely or coherently presented, dramatic murder-mystery. Since 1987, the Warren Manzi work has been — well, if not delighting audiences, then bringing them to the theater to watch a flurry of murderous innuendo, then sending them back into the world to leave confused reviews on Yelp.
The show is slightly more entertaining, if in no way more logical, than its reputation suggests. Playing with plenty of Freudian subtext, it features a fast-talking therapist who might be either victim or mastermind of the titular murder(s). Catherine Russell tackles the part of the therapist, as she does other roles behind the scenes.
Russell, who has missed just four performances of the more than 12,000 since “Perfect Crime” began, had spent the past few years trying to persuade Busey to take on the part of Lionel McCauley, an articulate but deranged patient who may or may not be a murderer. This year he finally agreed. As he explains his reasons for changing his mind: “I didn’t have anything else to do.”
Which is how for the past two weeks, off-Broadway audiences--on the afternoon this reporter went, about several dozen people sat in the front of the 194-seat theater--have had the opportunity to see the Texas native spout enigmatic profundities, often in a purple wig and boxy dress (“It’s Melissa McCarthy’s fashion line,” he explains), before posing with audience members for lobby selfies.
The run has been unconventional to say the least. One condition of Busey’s agreement to participate was that he be allowed to mold the part in his image. He promptly removed chunks of dialogue and dropped in Busey-isms like, “Tragedy is not death — it’s being dead when you’re living.”
One night he spotted two young theatergoers in the front row who appeared to be tuning out. In the middle of speaking a piece of dialogue, he turned, fixed them with a square stare and said, “Now pay attention to the play.”
To drum up interest for the show, Busey’s son Luke has stood outside Broadway’s famed TKTS booth and, after informing passersby who his father was, handed them flyers with the actor’s face to persuade them to buy a ticket. Luke Busey is 6.
Busey’s choice to make his stage debut in such an out-of-the-way venue offered a microcosm of the larger question about the actor: Is he truly so … differently guided? Or is it all a kind of elaborate performance art, a meta-comment on fame and life, an older and more extreme James Franco?
One afternoon last week, The Times met with Busey and his wife, Steffanie, at an apartment where the Los Angeles-based actor was staying near the “Perfect Crime” theater. He was dressed in sheepskin moccasins, blue pajama bottoms and a T-shirt emblazoned with “Carnegie Hall.” His trademark shock of blond-white hair was trademarkedly unkempt. The meeting aimed to engage Busey in a conversation about how his first stage experience has gone. It was unconventional, too.
So you’ve been in New York doing this theater piece for the past few weeks. What’s been surprising to you about it?
Gary Busey: I’ve come up with Gary Busey-isms. They’re going to be in a book. [To Steffanie, working on a laptop nearby]. Honey, what’s the name of the book company--
Steffanie Busey: Macmillan.
Gary: Macmillan. Steve Cohen is the publisher. I met him when I was doing “Celebrity Apprentice.” Steve came down and played catch with me and Jose Canseco. What I do is take letters and spell words and they make a notation. Like the word “fraud.” F-R-A-U-D. Finding Relative Answers Under Deception. It’s basic instructions before leaving Earth. Chaos: Critical Hate and Overwhelming Stupidity. Ha! Faith. Fantastic Adventures In Trusting Him.
Does this help you in your acting or is it just general wisdom?
Gary: I had an out-of-body experience in ’88 [the motorcycle accident]. I went to the other side. And I got information from the angels. They spoke to me. They gave me an androgynous thought and an androgynous voice that it was time for me to look for help in the spiritual world. It’s not what you see — it’s everything you feel. I live more accepting, freely. I’m accepting wherever I am. ... Steffanie and I, we’ve been together 32 lifetimes. My son Luke is 6. Jake [another son] is 45. Aunts and uncles are still here and I call to them in prayer. My mother is visiting me. I’m not spouting religion, I’m not doing anything like that. There’s a difference between organized religion and spirituality. Organized religion is for people afraid of hell. Spirituality isn’t. I’m in the second group. We can all create hell on Earth. You can make a bad choice and make sounds like a kangaroo fart. Fart! F-A-R-T. Feeling A Rectal Transmission.
So much comes back to these acronyms.
Steffanie: Tell him how you came up with these.
Gary: Steffanie. My assistant, my love. I was writing in my journal after a heartbreak. And I went through everything and I said, “What am I doing?” [To Steffanie, who has gone to another part of the apartment] Honey come here. I’m not done yet. I need you here. [Back to reporter] Son of a … everything’s real. Truth stands for Taking Real Understanding To Heart. Your heart holds all the truths and the heart is your spirit. And the family is living in my 72nd [sic] year doing a play off-Broadway. It’s called “Perfect Crime.”
There’s been a lot of ad-libbing in the show--
Gary: It’s been a miracle and a blessing. One thing in life is to have a secure family and look at life in a giving way. There was a rumor in the early ’90s that I had hit a woman. I didn’t hit her. She was a scatterbrained sex-addict who drank and spoke loud about non-truths. She’s out of my life now. But the great thing about mistakes is that they are gifts, they are life. There is so much about this that’s beyond us, that’s a spiritual realm. We’re sitting in this apartment four blocks from Central Park. Theatrical distance. Theatrical situations are so fun. It’s fun to be alive and laugh and joke and help people. It’s really good to help the elderly. And help the children. The children are so magnificent in the eye of love.
I have to ask about Donald Trump. I know you’ve said he’s a friend, from the “Celebrity Apprentice” days--
Steffanie, getting up from a chair across the room: No, nothing political.
I was just going to ask if Gary has spoken to him since the election?
Steffanie: Next question.
Gary, loudly to her: I got this. [To reporter] I’m not in politics. I don’t talk about it.
Steffanie: Bravo Gary. I’m so proud of him. Moving on.
Gary: It’s a lot different than it was during the time of the founding fathers. Those are the guys who had the answers. Not in 2017. I’m looking for great things every day of my life. I’m positive. I pray for the best. The best is yet to come. That’s the name of one of my acting mentors. James Best. He passed away two years ago. He taught me about camera technique and so many other things. It’s from him I was able to learn the elements so I can fly like a freedom bird, fly without the weight of wings. I went skydiving once. I fell 9,000 feet in 55 seconds.
It seems like you really enjoy improvisation. That’s an aspect one can get on the stage that they can’t get in film, where the director can cut or shape your performance in editing.
Gary: A big burp came out of me [on-stage] the other night. “Sorry, I just ate a corn dog,” I said. Another burp. “I gotta stop eating corn dogs.” You’ve gotta make everything that comes out of you work in the story. It’s a miracle and a blessing.
I think a lot of your fans and even the general public wonder how crafted your persona is. Is this a character you’ve created, or is this really you, what you feel without artifice?
Gary: This is me, Gary Busey. You’re born born born. Bleed bleed bleed. I got chills saying that message. In the sonic realm some people can’t hear a message. They don’t know the language so they can’t know who they are.
Have you seen the new movie “Arrival”? It plays with those questions.
Gary: No. What’s that?
It’s a science-fiction movie about these aliens who come to Earth.
Gary: They’re already here. There are replicas here. Some great ones. What’s happened to cows in the prairie is they’ve been killed and opened up and we’re exploring and discovering. There are helicopters above my house [in L.A.] They keep changing shapes and stopping and turning into two fuselages. And there’s a red light and a white light. If I see a red light I know I’m being monitored. They’re here. But guess what? We came from them. We are their progeny. You might see one walking down the street and you’ll catch their gaze and you’ll know to be respectful to the space they own.
So you did “Entourage” …
Gary: I did three TV shows [episodes] when the great Larry Charles was running the show. And then waited three years to do the movie. And the movie was “Whoa.” Sorry. Me and Billy Bob Thornton made fun of everything around us. We were the only ones who got good reviews, and we had really small parts. But here’s the truth about art. Art is always the search, not the final form.
What’s one thing you want readers to know about you that they don’t?
Gary: That one lady, that I never beat her up. I never did. That’s why I was writing about all this stuff. It’s in the past. That’s what gave birth to Busey-isms. I was 66 when Luke was born. I’m 72 now. So I’ve been around the universe 72 times. But it’s not the years, it’s the mileage. I had to turn off the odometer a few times. I had to replace mine. But we all do. Welcome to Earth. I used to have a terrible cocaine addiction. I got hooked by the insanity of the devil. And I danced with that devil for eight years and realized he was doing the leading. So I left the circle and rebuked him and found the spiritual realm. [Pause] You’re going to need to do so much editing with this. It’s been very interesting and surprising and unpredictable [the show]. It’s trying to figure out who I am. What I am.
How much of the character would you say is uniquely yours?
Gary: Lionel came from me and he’s a little bit of everything and the everything he believes it’s true, there’s nothing in him to disengage from the truth. He’s not the baseball-bat killer; there’s no evidence that anyone can tell. We all have the ability to kill. Anyone we want to at any instant is gone. We’re instants, we’re not people. And what we do in a moment is worth all the people in Disneyland. Things come out of me. From where I don’t know. It’s automatic. They call me entertaining when I keep them off-balance. They’re laughing. They go ‘I didn’t know that.’ It’s just me. That makes me Gary. Lionel can be a world leader. He can be an assassin. Welcome to life.
You’d say you’ve had a lot of fun being on stage.
Gary: You know what fun stands for? Finally Understanding Nothing. Past. Preoccupation About Spent Time. It’s like building an invisible fish shelter. Noodling — have you ever gone noodling?
I don’t think I have.
Gary: It’s fishing without a bait or a hook. You grab the catfish in the mouth and pull out its entrails.
You’re saying that’s a metaphor for how you feel about acting, or life?
Gary: Hey, I like that. I like that view. Parallel view. Parallax view.
On Twitter: @ZeitchikLAT
Inside the business of entertainment
The Wide Shot brings you news, analysis and insights on everything from streaming wars to production — and what it all means for the future.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.