Gary Busey — actor, musician, author, professional wild card — joined Rolling Stone for our video interview series “The First Time,” chatting about his love of Buddy Holly, the power of martial arts, meeting his idols, playing music with Willie Nelson and inventing his now-trademark “Buseyisms.”
The 74-year-old opened with his first experience hearing Holly (whom he portrayed in 1978’s The Buddy Holly Story, earning a Best Actor Oscar nomination). “The first time I listened to [him] on record on the radio, I was in the eighth grade at Bell Junior High School in Tulsa, Oklahoma,” he says. “There’s something about that music that’s like cooking a pancake on four sides. And it’s just a beautiful, beautiful, beautiful baptism into the future of art.”
He recalls meeting Nelson at an Austin, Texas concert, shortly after finishing work on The Buddy Holly Story. “Willie saw me and walked over to me and said, ‘Would you like to play one?'” he says. “I said, ‘Sure. What do you wanna play?’ ‘You pick it.'” They ended up playing Holly’s “Rave On,” cementing their friendship and “brotherhood.”
Busey says he learned martial arts while filming the 1987 action-comedy Lethal Weapon, opposite Mel Gibson and Danny Glover. “Martial arts is the most magnificent survival game you can play,” he observes. “You don’t take the shots coming at you – you let them go and give them a shot back they cannot see coming.”
The actor also reminisces about meeting two of his idols, Burt Lancaster and Steve McQueen – the latter of whom extended some wisdom in a unique way. “He came over to me and said, ‘I saw you in that football movie – you’ve got the goods, buddy,” Busey says. “You’re gonna be great. You’re gonna be excellent.’ I didn’t know who it was – big beard, lotta hair. He said, ‘I’m gonna give you a massage,’ and he gave me a massage. He said, ‘Right now, I’m passing my torch of art to you. You have my torch of art now. You do well with it, and I know you will.’ He went to Mexico and died a month later from cancer.”
Busey also details the origin story of one “Buseyism” that highlights his recent book of self-crafted acronyms. While healing from a traumatic brain injury at Cedar Sanai in Los Angeles following a 1988 motorcycle accident, he decided to harness his dormant energy and get into character – treating his recovery like method acting for a doctor role. He followed physicians around during their rounds while wearing a white coat and holding a clip board filled with illegible scribbles.
“I would go to the drawers of the people in the hospital room and open the drawer, and the socks and the underwear were everywhere – just a mess,” he says. After organizing the items, he would marvel, “‘Wow, that’s neat.'” “And ‘NEAT’ stands for ‘Nice, Exciting and Tight,'” he says. “That’s what the drawer looked like to me.”
Busey ends the segment with his own blunt advice to hopeful actors. “You can’t teach acting; you can’t study it, learn it,” he says. “You either have it or you don’t. And when you have it, you’re speaking the truth of your heart without thinking. Whenever you do an art, don’t think. You get in your own way.”