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Oklahoma Memories

Gary Busey


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"When they gave me the three permanents and dyed my hair black and gave me these clothes from the '50s, I could not find Gary Busey in the mirror."

That's the voice of Gary Busey with his thoughts on the role he'll be remembered most for as Buddy Holly.

From the Oklahoma History Center, this is Oklahoma Memories. I'm Michael Dean.

Gary Busey was born on June 29, 1944, in Texas but grew up in Oklahoma. He graduated from Nathan Hale High School in Tulsa in 1962 then played football for two years on scholarship at Pittsburg State in Kansas but became interested in acting and transferred to Oklahoma State University, where he majored in theater and was playing drums in a local rock and roll group, the Rubber Band. Then in 1970 his friend GailardSartain had a Saturday night show on a Tulsa TV station hosting old movies and performing skits. Sartain asked Busey to join him on the Uncanny Film Festival and Camp Meeting.

"A friend of mine, Gailard Sartain, was doing a local show in Tulsa called The Uncanny Film Festival and Camp Meeting. Outrageous, outrageous eccentric things. While they showed the movie - like, a great movie - then the break would come and he would do stunt, he would do a skit, he would do a little thing, and he asked me to be on it with him. And I said, 'What am I gonna do?' Just come in and start dancin'. I said 'What?' Be a truck driver. You've been on the road a long time; you need to dance. 'Okay, is that it?' He said yeah. I said 'What should my name be?' He said Teddy Jack Eddie. I went, 'Teddy Jack Eddie.' I said, 'That's a guy with three front names.'"

About the same time, Leon Russell had moved to Tulsa and was opening his Shelter Records recording studio.

"...came over. He invited me over to his house, and I got on drums, he got on piano, and we played "Spontaneity" together and turned out to have a...those songs are on an album called Will o' the Wisp -"Hideaway" and "Rock and Roll" and "Bluebird." So I stayed and played with Leon, stayed and played at his house, went on the big tour with him on a bus. It was rough but so what. So is life. And what happens when things are rough in art? Make the best of it. You create something that gives the roughness a smooth feeling because you went through it. And Leon - quiet, humble, secure, and always performing at 150 percent. Amazing."

The combination of music and acting took Busey to Los Angeles when from 1971 to 1978 he appeared in a dozen movies and several TV shows, and in 1978 his music combined with acting landed him the title role in The Buddy Holly Story.

"Oh, Buddy Holly Story. Every time I sang a song, when I'd do the scenes, I didn't even remember what happened in the scene. I felt like nothing happened, but everything was happening, because I wasn't thinking. I was playing a real person who died February 3, 1959, at 1:15am in an airplane crash, and when they gave me the three permanents and dyed my hair black and gave me these clothes from the '50s, I could not find Gary Busey in the mirror."

Busey was nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of Buddy Holly. More movies followed ...more than a hundred and almost as many television appearances.

Busey has always been a controversial subject, but now we celebrate his 68th birthday. Busey's career in Hollywood is a part of our major exhibit "Oklahoma at the Movies" now showing at the Oklahoma History Center, NE 23rd Street, just east of the state capitol in Oklahoma City. Oklahoma Memories is a production of the Oklahoma History Center, dedicated to collecting, preserving, and sharing our state's past. I'm Michael Dean.