Gary Busey on making his professional stage debut at age 72 (Q&A)

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Gary Busey has appeared in over 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 has become a reality TV fixture thanks to his 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.

See photos of Gary Busey through the years:

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Gary Busey through the years
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Gary Busey through the years
Gary Busey, 1977. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
Gary Busey in a navy shirt with an embroidered rose; circa 1970; New York. (Photo by Art Zelin/Getty Images)
September 1977: On location in Hawaii, actor Gary Busey who plays Leroy in 'Big Wednesday' a film about Californian surfers. (Photo by Ernst Haas/Ernst Haas/Getty Images)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - JANUARY 27: Actor Gary Busey and wife Judy attend the 36th Annual Golden Globe Awards on January 27, 1979 at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Ron Galella/WireImage)
NEW YORK, NY - CIRCA 1980: Gary Busey circa 1980 in New York City. (Photo by Tannenbaum/IMAGES/Getty Images)
NEW YORK CITY- JUNE 4: Actor Gary Busey visits NBC's 'Live at Five' on June 4, 1980 at NBC Studio 6B @ 30 Rockefeller Center in New York City. (Photo by Ron Galella/WireImage)
CENTURY CITY, CA - FEBRUARY 28: Actor Gary Busey and wife Judy attend the First Annual American Cinematheque Award Salute to Eddie Murphy on February 28, 1986 at the Century Plaza Hotel in Century City, California. (Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage)
Jennifer Jason Leigh and Gary Busey at the Premiere of 'The Year of Living Dangerously', MGM Commissary, Culver City. (Photo by Ron Galella/WireImage)
WESTWOOD, CA - MAY 9: Actor Gary Busey, wife Judy and son Jake attend the Crossroads School's 'Cabaret '87' Benefit Performance on May 9, 1987 at the Wadsworth Theatre, UCLA in Westwood, California. (Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage)
SANTA MONICA, CA - OCTOBER 11: Actor Gary Busey and actress Belinda Bauer attend Cirque du Soleil's 'Nouvelle Experience' Opening Night Performance to Benefit Proposition 128 'Big Green' on October 11, 1990 at Santa Monica Pier in Santa Monica, California. (Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage)
GLENDALE, CA - NOVEMBER 11: Actor Gary Busey attends the 'Love Ride 7' Motorcycle Ride to Benefit the Musculary Dystrophy Association on November 11, 1990 at the Harley Davidson of Glendale in Glendale, California. (Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage)
WESTWOOD, CA- JULY 10: Actor Gary Busey and actress Belinda Bauer attend the 'Point Break' Westwood Premiere on July 10, 1991 at the Avco Center Cinemas in Westwood, California. (Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage)
Gary Busey & Wife during The 36th Annual Academy of Country Music Awards - Arrivals at Universal Amphitheater in Universal City, California, United States. (Photo by SGranitz/WireImage)
390038 24: Actor Gary Busey arrives at the Santa Monica Windjammers Yacht Club for the inaugural Celebrity Sail for the Planetary Coral Reef Foundation June 2, 2001 in Marina del Rey, CA. (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)
Gary Busey during American Oceans Campaign 2001 Partners Award at Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles, California, United States. (Photo by SGranitz/WireImage)
PASADENA, CA - SEPTEMBER 4: Actor Gary Busey celebrates with victory with cornerback Ricky Coxeff #5 of the Oklahoma State Cowboys after defeating the UCLA Bruins on September 4, 2004 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California. Oklahoma State defeated UCLA 31-20. (Photo by Doug Benc/Getty Images)
Gary Busey arrives at the Los Angeles 'Collateral' premiere held at the Orpheum Theatre. The film opens August 6 in the United States. (Photo by Frank Trapper/Corbis via Getty Images)
Vicki Roberts and Gary Busey during 2nd Annual Penfolds Gala Black Tie Dinner - Arrivals at Century Plaza Hotel in Century City, California, United States. (Photo by SGranitz/WireImage)
Vicki Roberts and actor Gary Busey attend the 80th Annual Academy Awards at the Kodak Theatre on February 24, 2008 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic)
HOLLYWOOD - JULY 24: Actor Gary Busey arrives to the Los Angeles Premiere 'Swing Vote' at the El Capitan Theater on July 24, 2008 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Jon Kopaloff/FilmMagic)
©2008 RAMEY PHOTO EXCLUSIVE GARY BUSEY AT CIGAR SHOP IN MALIBU. 11/02/08 AC (Photo by Philip Ramey/Corbis via Getty Images)
BURBANK, CA - MARCH 01: Actor Gary Busey appears onstage at the Comedy Central roast of Larry The Cable Guy at Warner Bros. Studios on March 1, 2009 in Burbank, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - MAY 22: Actor Gary Busey attends 'The Celebrity Apprentice' Season 4 Finale at Trump SoHo on May 22, 2011 in New York City. (Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images)
UNIVERSAL CITY, CA - JUNE 05: Steffanie Sampson and actor Gary Busey arrive at the 2011 MTV Movie Awards at Universal Studios' Gibson Amphitheatre on June 5, 2011 in Universal City, California. (Photo by Steve Granitz/WireImage)
NASHVILLE, TN - JUNE 08: (L-R) Actor Gary Busey, Recording artist Chris 'Ludacris' Bridges and actress Kristin Chenoweth attend the 2011 CMT Music Awards at the Bridgestone Arena on June 8, 2011 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images for CMT)
PASADENA, CA - JANUARY 06: Actor Gary Busey poses at the 2013 NBC Universal TCA Winter Press Tour Day 1 at The Langham Huntington Hotel and Spa on January 6, 2013 in Pasadena, California. (Photo by Gregg DeGuire/WireImage)
LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 09: Actors Gary Busey (L) and Steffanie Sampson attend the Hennessy Toasts Achievements In Music event with GRAMMY Host LL Cool J and Mark Burnett at The Bazaar at the SLS Hotel Beverly Hills on February 9, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by David Livingston/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - SEPTEMBER 21: Dancer/TV personality Anna Trebunskaya (L) and actor Gary Busey attend 'Dancing with the Stars' Season 21 at CBS Television City on September 21, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by David Livingston/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 05: Dancer/TV personality Anna Trebunskaya (L) and actor Gary Busey attend 'Dancing with the Stars' Season 21 at CBS Television City on October 5, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by David Livingston/Getty Images)
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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 5th 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 3 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 9th 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.

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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)

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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 fifty-cent piece.

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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?

Sure.

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, okay. 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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