Gary Busey: Hollywood legend, coke fiend, brain-damage survivor, spiritualist
The Point Break star on living to excess, the crash that changed his life, and Pet Judge
Gary Busey: ‘I was surrounded by angels. Balls of light floating all around me.’ Photograph: Chris Maggio/NYT
Gary Busey promises I won’t have come across anything like his new show, Pet Judge. He’s right; I haven’t. But, to be fair, I’ve never come across anybody like Gary Busey. He really is a one-off – Hollywood legend, coke fiend, brain-damage survivor, sobriety champion, spiritualist and reality-show winner. When he was a contestant on The Celebrity Apprentice in the United States, Donald Trump concluded: “He’s either a genius or a moron, and I can’t figure it out.” Well, I know which side I come down on.
Pet Judge is a new Amazon Prime series, with Busey playing himself – only this Busey is presiding over a court in which litigants resolve quarrels about their pets. One couple are in dispute over the death of their cat; the wife wants it buried in the family mausoleum and the husband wants a Viking funeral, with the cat sent out to sea on a flaming boat. Then there is the woman convinced that her dog is her reincarnated husband – she’s at war with an insurance company that is refusing to include the dog on the family policy. Every so often, Busey bangs his gavel, barks “Pet jus-tice!” and brings the court to order. Pet Judge is a fake reality show, cast with actors, largely improvised, sometimes very funny and every bit as bonkers as it sounds. “None of the other judge shows hold a candle fire, bonfire or rocket to this Pet Judge show,” Busey says.
Faith – those letters stand for Fantastic, Adventurous in Trusting Him. And the second Buseyism I consider spiritually profound is hope. Hope stands for Heavenly Offerings Prevail Eternally
Busey has appeared in more than 150 movies, specialising in unhinged hard men, from Leroy the Masochist (“I like pain. Any kind of pain”) in John Milius’s wonderful 1970s surfer bromance, Big Wednesday, to Mr Joshua in Lethal Weapon, who simply doesn’t feel pain. He is best known for another surfer movie, 1991’s Point Break, in which he plays Angelo Pappas, an FBI agent with a penchant for destruction.
He started out as a musician, however, playing drums with the great singer-songwriter Leon Russell. Perhaps his finest film performance came in 1978’s Buddy Holly Story. Busey was superb as Holly – singing, playing guitar and showing heart and soul, as well as the customary flashes of temper. He lit up an otherwise unremarkable biopic and deservedly won an Oscar nomination.
Today, he’s at home in Malibu, California, when we Zoom. The 75-year-old is now hard of hearing, so his wife, Steffanie, a hypnotherapist and stand-up comedian, is here for support. He still has a magnificent nest of ash-blond hair, great blue eyes and huge white teeth that wouldn’t look out of place in Yosemite National Park. Cancers have nibbled away at bits of his face (he has no tear ducts or sinuses), but he is still strikingly handsome in his own chewed-up, spat-out, hard-living kind of way.
I ask if he has many pets at home with him. No, he says, there is only the one. Steffanie opens a birdcage and Greenie the budgie flies out and straight on to Busey’s head. Busey talks as Greenie sits on his head. That’s a great trick, I say. “Well, Greenie does it himself. I’m merely the obstacle he sits on,” he says. Will Greenie appear on Pet Judge? “We don’t know that. Greenie has not accepted his contract. He always gets his way – he’s got a beak and sharp feet.”
Busey has become known for his acronyms. Which Buseyism is most relevant to his life? “What? That’s a difficult one. The word to spell is faith. Faith – those letters stand for Fantastic, Adventurous in Trusting Him. And the second Buseyism I consider spiritually profound is hope. Hope stands for Heavenly Offerings Prevail Eternally.”
The Buseyisms, like his tics and other mannerisms, go back to his life-changing motorbike accident and subsequent brain surgery for a subdural haematoma, during which he says he briefly died. “About 25 years ago I had an accident on a Harley-Davidson. I went off the bike without a helmet, hit my head into a kerb, split my skull, passed away after brain surgery and went to the other side – the spiritual realm, where I got information. And I came back, and these messages, these definitions, came to me first-class. I’ll think of a word and write the word down without thinking.”
Busey’s mind is both precise and chaotic. He is seven years out on the date of the accident – it happened in 1988 – but his recollection of what he says happened on that operating table is undimmed.
“I was surrounded by angels. Balls of light floating all around me. And I felt trust, love, protection and happiness like you cannot feel on earth. It’s the feeling the angels live in.” The way he tells the story is touchingly Capra-esque – swap the biker for a banker and you’ve got George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life. “Three angels came up to me, and I was this long and that wide.” He makes a shape like a long, skinny pipe. “I was a quarter of an inch wide and a foot long. That is your soul, and your soul is housed in the column of your spine. And three balls of light came up to me and talked to me. The one on the left talked to me in an androgynous voice and said the direction I was going in was good, but because of my responsibility to mankind I had to look for helping spirits around.
“Then a light said: ‘You may come to us now or return to your body and continue your destiny.’ And every time he spoke I felt so loved, like a little baby in the arms of his brother, so when you hear the truth over there you do it. And the word truth stands for Taking Real Understanding to Heart. That is the truth of your essence and your soul. The truth told me I wasn’t finished over here on Earth. When you feel the truth, boom! You go for it. The truth is the strongest ordnance you have in your body, your mind, your soul and your being. Yeeeeeeee!”
I feel as if I’ve been on an unlikely trip of my own. Talking to Busey is as exhausting as it is exhilarating.
Steffanie wasn’t there at the time, but she feels as if she was, because she knows the stories so well. She gives an example of how the accident changed him. “He was in the hospital recovering from his brain injury and he kept barging into patients’ rooms and reorganising their drawers. So his wife at the time said to the doctor: ‘Give him a lab coat and tell him to pretend he is preparing for a role as a doctor.’ And the doctor agreed. So he would go on the rounds with the doctor, and, while the doctor would be treating patients, he would go into their sock and underwear drawers and organise them. He was tidying up one drawer that was a complete mess. Then he said neat – Nice, Exciting and Tight. That was his first Buseyism.”
“Boom! Yeah! Ahahahah ahahahaa hahahahaha!” Busey laughs like Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker.
He has a good laugh, I say. “Thank you, sir.” Did it change after the accident? “Yeah. It got freer. I don’t have brain damage; I have a brain disordered in a better direction because of how it happened and how it recovered. Oh, boy!”
Would he rather not have had the accident? “No, no, it was part of my journey, my growing up, my understanding.”
While Busey makes it sound like an idyllic transformation, the reality was different for his son and his first wife. (Steffanie is the third Mrs Busey – his second wife was a dancer.) He spent months learning to walk and talk again. His son Jake, also an actor, said he felt like he lost his father for many years. “Yes, it was a hard time for him,” Busey says.
I OD’d on May 3rd, 1990, and thank God, because I realised I’d been dancing with the devil in a very small circle, and the devil was leading the dance
After the accident Busey became a campaigner, met President Bill Clinton and helped to create the Traumatic Brain Injury Act, which led to helmets being mandatory for motorbike drivers and passengers in the US. Busey points out that Clinton is not the only president he has met. “I’ve done two Celebrity Apprentice shows with Trump. I’ve met two presidents in my life. Move on!” He’s good friends with Trump, isn’t he? “I’m not talking about that. We’re not going there. That conversation about politics is kaput!”
Before his accident Busey hardly led a conventional life. He seemed more dedicated to feeding his drug addiction than working. “My drug of choice is cocaine.” After the accident he briefly returned to the drugs. “I OD’d on May 3rd, 1990, and thank God, because I realised I’d been dancing with the devil in a very small circle, and the devil was leading the dance,” he says in his deep Texas drawl. “I left the dance and said: ‘You kick on from here – I’m gone. I’m dancing on my own.’ When you do a drug like cocaine, you want to get that first hit back, but you never will. That’s gone. It’s a chase to the death when you’re addicted to cocaine.”
Is he surprised he’s still alive? “What? Oh, no. You know what? You never die. Death stands for Don’t Expect a Tragedy Here. It is one transformation from one dimension to another and it is painless, free and lovely. I’ve experienced it, so I can say that.”
Back in the day, he and his close friend (and doppelganger) Nick Nolte were regarded as the hardest-partying men in Hollywood. “We were like two perfectly twin-cloned entities. We’d go to parties in Malibu and were always the last to leave. We’d be sitting under the dinner table with our panama hats on and we got known as ‘the things who will not leave’.”
Busey, who was born in Texas and moved to Oklahoma as a schoolboy, had hoped to make it in American football. He sprints through his CV for me. “American football, junior high school, junior college, then I hurt my knee playing in college, lost my athletics scholarship, went to Oklahoma State University and majored in theatrical art. Haha! And here we are today.”
After the accident he became more prolific, even if the roles tended to be less starry. He has been in about 100 films since 1988, including David Lynch’s loopy Lost Highway, Robert Altman’s The Player (as himself) and, of course, Point Break.
In recent years he has become best known for his appearances on reality shows. His unruly behaviour has often unsettled other contestants. In 2011 Meat Loaf launched an astonishing attack on Busey, threatening to put him into hospital after claiming that Busey had stolen his paints on The Celebrity Apprentice. Do some people find him difficult to cope with? “Every member on that team was afraid of me,” he says. Physically afraid? No, he says, they were afraid of him winning. “They wanted to get me out of the game. So Meat Loaf figured out: start a fight with Gary and get him to react, and he’s gonna get fired. I didn’t react, but for a person to come on a show like that and act like that…” For once Busey is lost for words. He was incredibly dignified, I tell him. “Thank you, buddy. That’s what guided me, the dignity, integrity.”
Did Meat Loaf apologise? “It was a fake apology, and I accepted it because that’s how you keep a war from starting or emotional storms from living around you. I got rid of it. Those guys were clowns without being funny. You know what? The way I react in those situations, that is why I am going to make a great judge. Pet jus-tice!” he bellows. “You are not going to want to miss this show.”
I ask Steffanie if he is easy to live with. “What d’you think?” she asks.
“We are opposites,” he says. “But the opposite is so strong it makes us the same.”
In what way opposites?
Steffanie: “Every way.”
Busey: “She’s not nice. I am.”
She gives him a look.
“It’s true, honey,” he says gently.
“I’m honest,” she says.
Busey: “You criticise. Here’s a secret: there’s 25 years between us.”
Steffanie: “But 30 for the sake of my comedy act. He makes me really think how I feel about things, because he’ll ask ‘What did you think of that?’ more than most people.”
How has Steffanie changed him? “In a great way.” And suddenly he’s quite the romantic. “Paying attention, organising, listening, caring for her. I’ve learned a lot about the focus of a great woman. She’s multitalented in so many directions. I’ve been watching her grow up and she’s been watching me grow down.”
He’s awesome. He always gives me presents. We scooter. He’s really nice and, yeah, he’s loving
We are joined by their 10-year-old son, Luke. “Luke is also an actor,” Steffanie says. “He’s done a lot of commercials.” Luke, who is wearing a Beatles T-shirt, is a dead ringer for Busey – mop of blond hair and a zest for life. How would he describe his dad? “He’s awesome. He always gives me presents. We scooter. He’s really nice and, yeah, he’s loving.”
Luke goes off to do his thing. “I love you, bud,” Busey says. “Thanks for being here.” He is so proud of his family. “This is my unit,” he says. “Our unit. Steffanie, Luke and Gary. It’s real power!”
Steffanie has been thinking about what it’s like to live with him. She talks about the time he was on Celebrity Big Brother and some of the contestants were struggling with him (notably when he removed his trousers to scratch an itch down there, but wasn’t wearing any underpants). She sent a letter to Busey, which was read out on the show, saying: “You’re a bright light in a dim house.”
Every week, Busey says, his fellow contestants tried to vote him off the show. Why? Same old reason, he says. “They were afraid of me winning.” And sure enough he did go on to win. Was he surprised? No, of course not, he says. “Because I just have the presence of a winner.” He gives himself a round of applause and looks delighted with the world. “Yeaaaaaah!” he shouts. “Great!” – Guardian
Pet Judge is available to stream and on demand on Prime Video, iTunes, Google Play and more