There’re a lot more credits on Gary Busey’s resume than just his recent work on reality TV. On Tuesday’s Stern Show, Howard welcomed Gary back into the studio for a wide-ranging interview and a look back at his impressive career. From his early successes in music that include singing on stage with Bruce Springsteen and drumming for Leon Russell to how he prepared for his parts in “Lethal Weapon” and “The Buddy Holly Story,” the latter of which earned him an Academy Award nomination, Howard and Gary covered just about everything.
Check out all the highlights from their conversation (below) and be sure to watch Gary on the new motorcycle-themed docu-series "American M.C." available now on iTunes.
Rocking With the Rubber Band
As a child, Gary used to make music with just the canisters of Quaker Oats and Folgers Coffee around his house. Once he had an actual drum kit to bang on, there was no stopping him and he soon formed his own group called the Rubber Band. Though he never had any formal training, Gary told Howard he and his band experienced several early successes.
“It was like dominoes,” Gary said of the gigs he and the Rubber Band lined up. He recalled playing a show at the Whisky a Go Go where the headliner was the band Them, fronted by a soon-to-be superstar Van Morrison. The opening act that night was a still up-and-coming the Doors, but Gary didn’t think they were all that good.
“When I heard the Doors play, I leaned over to my piano player and I said, ‘I think we may be on the wrong trail ride.’”
Soon after he left L.A., however, the Doors scored their big hit “Light My Fire” and Gary hasn’t forgotten the band ever since.
The big-name rock acts that he’s encountered throughout his life don't end there, though. Busey also talked about being a session musician for the likes of Bonnie Raitt, Hank Williams Jr., Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, and Tom Petty.
‘Kung Fu’ Gets Very Trippy
In 1970, Gary landed his first acting gig on the TV series “The High Chaparral.” He told his band he’d decided to take a break from music so that he could focus on being an actor, a move that paid off rather quickly. Gary took various television and movie parts, including on the long-running show “Gunsmoke.” Gary told Howard he was the last character to die on the series.
In 1973, Gary got a role on the television show “Kung Fu” alongside David Carradine. He told Howard about hanging out in the dressing room one day and drinking some grapefruit juice that Carradine had. On the walk to the set, Gary said he felt strange and asked David what was in the juice. Carradine replied he’d spiked the drink with “21 hits of clearlight” — a.k.a. LSD.
"I felt like a butterfly in a wet suit,” Gary said with a laugh.
He then had to shoot a slow-motion fight sequence and can still remember how high he felt as the cameras rolled. “Carradine’s really kicking us and hitting us,” Gary told Howard. “He said, ‘That’s gonna look good in slow motion.’ And I said, ‘I’m in slow motion now!’”
Backing Leon Russell
With his acting career taking off, Gary was presented with a rare opportunity to return to music. During a visit home to Tulsa, Okla. Gary went to visit famed musician Leon Russell at his nearby estate. Leon had a very nice set of drums at his house and invited Gary to play. While the word “audition” was never uttered, Gary figured he should play something special to see what Leon thought.
“There’s a thing called a hambone … when you’re slapping your body. So I just applied that to the bell of the cymbal, the snare drum, and the bass drum and it sounded like a farm machine coming at you from another planet,” Gary said of how he played that day.
Shortly after, Leon’s wife Mary phoned Gary to ask if he wanted to play on an upcoming album. Gary is indeed credited on several of Russell’s recordings but instead of using his actual name, Gary is listed as Teddy Jack Eddy.
By 1978, Gary’s star was forever changed following the release of “The Buddy Holly Story.” Leon saw the film and instantly knew Gary was destined for the big time. Though Gary stopped playing with Leon, the two remained close with Leon even naming one of his kids after Gary — his son, Teddy Jack Bridges.
Channeling Buddy Holly
Starring as the late, great musician Buddy Holly in the 1978 biopic ”The Buddy Holly Story” turned Gary Busey into not only a household name but an Academy Award nominee. He recalled for Howard what his fellow nominee and eventual Oscar winner Jon Voight said to him prior to the start of the ceremony.
“Before the show started, Jon Voight and I were standing in the aisle and he said, ‘You know Gary, if you took the role that you did, Buddy Holly, and gave it to everyone else, we wouldn’t have been able to come near your performance.’”
Gary’s background in music no doubt helped his performance in the film, but he told Howard it was Holly himself that allowed him to sing the way he did.
“I sang all the songs and we did everything in one take. It was like a blessing from Buddy himself because I realized two months after I had done the movie that I was channeling his spirit when I sang,” Gary explained.
Singing With Springsteen
“The Buddy Holly Story” caught the attention of not only music critics but the Boss himself, Bruce Springsteen. Gary told Howard how Bruce reached out after seeing the film and the two arranged a meetup at one of Springsteen’s concerts.
“He was doing some posture working on the stage behind the microphone that looked just exactly like what I did in ‘The Buddy Holly Story,’” Gary recalled of walking up to meet Bruce. Springsteen explained to him how much Holly meant to him as not only a musician but as someone who refused to have something to fall back on — just like Bruce, it was rock star or nothing.
Springsteen then invited Gary to play some Holly tunes with him live which they did during one of Bruce’s shows at the Spectrum in Philadelphia.
Right for the Part
There’s a method to Gary’s acting technique but he doesn’t necessarily consider himself a method actor, at least not anymore. He told Howard how he remained in character while shooting “Lethal Weapon” until he realized how bad an idea that was.
“That wasn’t a good household,” Busey said of bringing his villainous character home with him at the end of the day. From then on, Gary said he ends his acting as soon as he hangs up his wardrobe. With his wardrobe on and with cameras rolling, however, he has no problem transforming into his role.
“I don’t kind of make up nothing, I am it. I am the character,” he told Howard. “All the parts pick me, I don’t pick the parts.”
Considering how he got his part in “Lethal Weapon,” Gary might be right. Even though producers had already picked a different actor to play the part, they agreed to give Gary an audition. He read a five-piece scene with the film’s star Mel Gibson and upon seeing what Gary could do with the material offered him the role.
“Art is only the search, it is not the final form,” Gary said of the experience. He doesn’t know who the other actor is and admitted he doesn’t want to know.
“It’s none of my business,” he told Howard.
The Accident and the Afterlife
Soon after starring in “Lethal Weapon,” Gary survived a nearly-lethal motorcycle accident that actually left him clinically dead for some time.
“I died after brain surgery and went to the other side,” he told Howard.
The crash occurred after Gary slid on a patch of sand while rounding the corner of an intersection. Quickly hitting his brakes caused Gary to fly forward over the front of his bike, fracturing his skull. “I didn’t feel a thing,” he told Howard. “No pain — the body shuts down.”
Gary was unconscious from Dec. 4, 1988 to Jan. 8, 1989. While he was out, he says he experienced the afterlife and can still see it clearly today.
“It was so real and it hit me spiritually, mentally, physically, and emotionally that I was there. I remember it vividly,” he told Howard, describing how he was surrounded by angels who were represented as floating balls.
Gary wasn’t wearing a helmet the day of his accident and knows now that he should have been. “It’s called stupidity,” he said. But he wouldn’t call his accident something he regrets.
“I don’t call them regrets. I call them awareness-level gatherings,” he told Howard, explaining that once you gather yourself enough to become aware of what you’ve done you simply decide not to do it again.
Meet Gary’s Girl Steffanie
She may not be his wife (yet) but Gary is very much in love with his girlfriend Steffanie, who came into the studio on Tuesday to meet Howard. Steffanie and Gary have a son together but their connection doesn’t end there. Steffanie told Howard how she visited a psychic when she and Gary first started dating in order to see if they had a future together. Turns out, they already had a past together.
“She said we were together 32 lifetimes,” Steffanie told Howard.
Steffanie is a certified hypnotherapist herself and stands by her work. “Look how mellow I made him. Can you believe it?” Steffanie joked about Gary’s demeanor.
In all seriousness, though, Gary praised Steffanie and all she’s done for him. “Steffanie is an angel with a cattle prod. She can move me places real quick, she’s encouraged my health, and really takes care of me.”
See Gary Busey in “American M.C.” available now on iTunes.