On the night of July 2nd, 1979, Robbie Robertson and Gary Busey stopped off at a bar and grill in lower Manhattan for a drink. They wanted to make a toast: to Carny, which they’d finished filming only the day before.
Several revelers at the next table were harassing them and started to jump Busey on his way out of the men’s room. They froze at the sound of Robertson’s glass breaking against the edge of the table. He pointed the jagged weapon at Busey’s opponents, and he and Busey backed out of the place.
They were laughing, but the laughter was a little shaky.
“Hey, we’re still in character,” Busey told Robertson.
“How do you get out?” Robertson asked.
In Carny, Busey plays the Bozo, a carnival sideshow attraction whose weapon is his mouth: he sits on a stool over a tank of water and antagonizes the “marks” (i.e., you or me) into buying baseballs to throw at a target that, if hit, will dump him into the tank. Robertson (besides producing the film) plays Patch, the Mr. Fix-it of the carnival. What Patch can’t take care of with a handful of money he settles by pulling out his straight razor.
So, I asked, had they become Bozo and Patch?
“Hey!” Robertson said, “I don’t think like that! I’m a sophisticated person — of some sort.”
“Ya gotta watch out what happens to you in the movies,” Busey said,” ’cause it can jump into your real life.”
Exactly a month earlier, on a steamy night at the Empire Coastal Fairgrounds in Savannah, Georgia (where Carny was filmed), Busey was shooting a scene in 100-degree-plus heat inside a canvas tent. He was dancing with the carnival’s half-man, half-woman, twirling him-her around till his partner’s legs were flying straight out. It ended with him falling heavily into a row of wooden folding chairs. He then lurched out of the tent and made straight for his trailer.
“I’m gonna go throw up,” Busey said as he ran by. Moments later, as he was toweling off sweat, he held up his hand for me to inspect: it was trembling. “God,” he said, “the adrenalin’s still there. This film will either be terrific or a real dog. Robbie has amazed me, ’cause this is my fifteenth film now and this is really his first, and he’s great. You can’t teach acting and you can’t think it. You just do it.”
Faces loomed out of the carnival’s splotchy lighting as we left the trailer: Johann, the eight-foot-tall giant; George, the 600-pound-plus fat man; the Alligator Man and his wife, the Monkey Woman. Jimie Rapp, the sword-swallower and fire-eater, showed off his chain-link belt: “It’s handy in a brick fight if you ain’t got a brick.”
“They’re all real,” said Robertson later as we drank champagne at the white porticoed antebellum mansion that he and Busey were renting while working on Carny. “Real carnies, real freaks, real gaffers. You can’t fool those carnies. They live it.”
My attention was drawn to an adjoining bedroom, which had been converted into a circus tent: nothing but a bed and billows of striped canvas. Robertson, noticing my interest, explained: “You wake up in the morning in a tent! You get right into the carnival setting.”
Robertson put on a video-cassette of John Ford’s The Searchers and we settled back. I asked the obvious question: Why was he—a “hot property”— producing and starring in a movie that Hollywood had already deemed noncommercial?
“Carny is a long shot,” Robertson said softly, “but I had to do it because I believe in it. I don’t care what people think. I worked in a carny as a kid. I worked in a swinger joint: there’s a ball on a chain and you swing it to knock down a bowling pin. Except you miss. I learned a lot of tricks, tricks I still use. I’d also see the ‘patch man’ come around collecting money from everybody. He was scary, spooky; he’d lie or con or do whatever he had to do. So smooth. I’d ask other people about him and they’d say, ‘Don’t ask, don’t fuck around.’ He was a higher force.”
Carny was one of many scripts Robertson found waiting for him after 1978’s The Last Waltz (which he also produced). Unexpectedly, he emerged a movie star as a result of that film, and his next moves were carefully monitored by show-business powers. One of the submissions came from documentary filmmaker Robert Kaylor, who’d enlisted novelist Thomas Baum to write a script; Robertson read it and decided to make the movie with them. “This was such a fresh thing and so original,” Robertson said. “I had to go with my heart, so I went with Kaylor [Carny‘s director]. He had spent years with carny people. Gary Busey — I couldn’t think of anyone else who could be the Bozo. And I tried.”