In a career spanning more than four decades, Gary Busey is a legend in his own right. The veteran actor, who was born in Texas but spent most of his childhood in Tulsa, has delivered fierce and purposeful performances in The Buddy Holly Story and The Bear; captivated audiences with roles in familiar films The Firm, Under Siege and Lethal Weapon; and crafted a signature wacky public image evident in his reality television work.
“I never thought when I was little that I would be doing something where I was pretending,” 72-year-old Busey told Oklahoma Gazette. “When I do it, I pretend like I am not pretending; that’s the truth of acting. Acting is the absence of acting. It is believing in the truth of the moment [that] you are displaying from your heart. …. It is a great feeling.”
At A Very Gary Busey Gala 7:30 p.m. Saturday at new venue The Jones Assembly, 901 W. Sherdian Ave., the actor will be honored for his dedication, tenacity and accomplishments as deadCenter Film Festival presents him with an Oklahoma Film Icon award.
The gala is the preview and a fundraiser for deadCenter Film Festival, which runs June 8-11 in Oklahoma City.
Oklahomans who have received the honor in past years include actor James Marsden, producer Hunt Lowry, film editor Carol Littleton, actor and casting agent Chris Freihofer, distributor Bob Berney and producer Gary Frederickson.
Busey’s storied career began in Tulsa, where he graduated from Nathan Hale High School. A talented drummer and singer, Busey also performed in several bands.
Before there was Saturday Night Live, there was late-night sketch-comedy show Mazeppa: The Uncanny Film Festival & Camp Meeting, which aired on KTUL in Tulsa from 1970 to 1973 and featured Busey as Teddy Jack Eddy, Gailard Sartain (who went on to join Hee Haw) as Dr. Mazeppa Pompazoidi and Jim Millaway as Sherman Oaks.
More than 40 years later, Tulsans still rave about the show in which Busey honed his chops as Teddy Jack, “the man with the talent.” Part of the show’s genius was its simplicity, Busey said.
“There was one camera guy and the director of the camera upstairs,” he said. “We sometimes would get the receptionist to come in and do skits with us. … It was done automatically without scripts. We just made it up as we went. We laughed so hard when we saw what we had done. It felt like there were little bitty people inside of our skulls, hammering the inside of our skull with hammers. It was so funny what we saw ourselves do in the skits.”
By the time the show went off the air, Busey was landing small roles in television shows and films. He also starred in the 1978 biographical film The Buddy Holly Story, in which he donned a pair of thick, black frames and portrayed the American rock ’n’ roll icon whose life ended in a tragic plane crash. Busey’s portrayal earned him an Academy Award nomination for best actor, and the project earned a best original song score Academy Award for composer Joe Renzetti. The National Society of Film Critics also honored Busey that year with its best actor award.
“It just shot me out of a cannon and over the rainbow,” Busey said. “When I sang those songs, I sang them live in the movie. That was the spirit and power of Buddy Holly singing through me — I was only a messenger.”
After The Buddy Holly Story, Busey further boosted his acting career and even returned to work after a life-threatening motorcycle crash in 1989.
In celebration of Busey’s Icon award, Oklahoma City Museum of Art hosts a 7:30 p.m. Thursday screening of The Buddy Holly Story.
As an Icon winner, Busey said he seeks to make a connection to deadCenter’s education initiatives. In addition to hosting the film festival each June, the nonprofit fine arts organization conducts seminars and classes with Oklahoma high school and college students interested in the film industry.
Those programs have connected students to industry experts and local filmmakers. Busey wants to be next, speaking about spontaneity and improvisation skills as well as how to get into the business.
“I never think when I am performing,” Busey said when sharing insights on his approach to acting. “You don’t want to get caught thinking or you will be untrue to the audience.”
With more than 150 acting credits, including on reality shows Celebrity Apprentice, Dancing with the Stars and Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew, among others, Busey holds a unique pop-culture status. The actor, known for his blond hair and toothy grin, continues to work, even pursuing a supportive role in an off-Broadway whodunit called Perfect Crime last fall.
As the 40th anniversary of the release of The Buddy Holly Story nears, Busey reflected once more on his most critically acclaimed role.
“It was so natural for me to sing those songs,” Busey said. “Our voices are the same. I sang the songs in the same key he wrote them in. It was an automatic wonderful moment of TRUTH, which stands for ‘taking real understanding to heart.’ Your heart holds all your truth. Your heart is the face of your spirit.”
DeadCenter Film Festival leaders approached The Social Order Dining Collective, the restaurant group behind The Jones Assembly at 901 W. Sherdian Ave. about hosting A Very Gary Busey Gala. It was an opportunity they couldn’t pass up, said operating partner Graham Colton.
“I think deadCenter presents everything that is exciting and inspiring about our city,” Colton said. “We hope that The Jones Assembly can mirror that. The deadCenter Film Festival continues to be ambitious and forward thinking. … We feel the same about The Jones Assembly. It is an ambitious concept, and the timing had to be right.”
The 225-seat restaurant and entertainment venue is expected to open in July. With regional cuisine, live music and spirits, it will add another entertainment option to downtown’s growing Arts District.
The Buddy Holly Story
7:30 p.m. Thursday
Oklahoma City Museum of Art
415 Couch Drive
A Very Gary Busey Gala
8-11 p.m. Saturday
The Jones Assembly
901 W. Sherdian Ave.
Print headline: A Busey story: Saturday, deadCenter Film Festival bestows its Icon award on longtime entertainer Gary Busey.