Gary Busey — Life’s Apprentice

Steffanie Sampson, son Luke and Gary Busy
Steffanie Sampson, son Luke and Gary Busy

Apr/May 2014

Gary Busey has circled the rodeo many times, and always seems to climb back up on the bucking bronco whenever life throws him for a loop. He started out as an athlete and drummer, but then made his mark in Hollywood appearing on such shows as Gunsmoke and Law & Order, as well as in the blockbuster hits Lethal Weapon and Under Siege. Nominated for an Academy Award for the title role in The Buddy Holly Story, he continues to keep tongues wagging with his quirky Busey-isms, as witnessed on two different seasons of NBC’s Celebrity Apprentice. But it hasn’t all been red carpets and klieg lights: He’s battled cancer, endured traumatic brain injury, and helped to pull his 4-year-old son from the clutches of a rare disease. ABILITY’s Chet Cooper and Lia Martirosyan recently visited him and his “special soulmate,” Steffanie Sampson, for an interview and video shoot at their Malibu home. Busey’s public relations rep, Michael Conley, was also on hand.

Gary Busey: It’s great to meet you.

Lia Martirosyan: It’s great to meet you, too.

Steffanie Sampson: (Flipping through a recent issue of ABILITY.) I love the name of your magazine. I tell Gary he has a diffability; he’s different.

[Busey points to a series of photos on a mantle.]

Busey: You see this right here. Luke was, I think, 15 months then. That’s what he looked like when he had Kawasaki disease; it’s very rare. He was at Cedars-Sinai for 13 days. And this is him now. He’s much better. We created a nonprofit foundation to help children who have Kawasaki disease. Kids get it from when they’re babies up to five years old. If you catch it in time there are huge disabilities that can be prevented… Have you met Luke, yet?

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Martirosyan: No, but we’re looking forward to it.

Sampson: You should meet him towards the end, ‘cause he’ll cause chaos. Trust me.

Busey: Do you know what chaos stands for? C-H-A-O-S stands for Critical Hate And Overwhelming Stupidity.


[Luke runs into the room.]

Busey: This is Mr. Luke Sampson Busey.

Sampson: Luke, don’t put anything in your mouth unless it’s food.

Busey: Happy household, huh? Strange and surprising, but who cares?

(Sampson and Luke leave the room.)

Cooper: Would you talk a little bit more about Kawasaki disease?

Busey: As I was saying, it occurs mostly in children under 5; it affects roughly 15 out of every 100,000 kids in the United States. If it isn’t diagnosed and treated within ten days of its onset, a child can acquire a lifelong disability or die. The challenge with treating, though, is that the symptoms are similar to those of other childhood diseases, and it comes on without warning. You can see here how Luke’s face was real round and puffy, his tongue was tomato red, his eyes had red around them, too, and he had a fever. We got him to the doctor. My special soulmate, Steffanie, and I dealt with this together, and now we have a double strength for it, working to get money for recovery and research.

Cooper: That’s important. How are you doing these days? I remember when you had that accident.

Busey: Yeah in December 1988. I was on a Harley Davidson at the Washington and Robertson intersection. I came around the corner too fast and slid on some sand. I braked hard, and the bike flipped me over, I hit my head and then my back. I had a double compound fracture in my pelvis, and my skull was split from my ear to the top of my head. It knocked a big hole in my skull, which filled with bone from my jaw.

After the brain surgery at Cedars-Sinai, I passed on for a time—as in died. That’s when I went to a supernatural, spiritual realm. I changed form. My essence or soul was about a foot long and a quarter of an inch wide. I could see 360 degrees, but it wasn’t really seeing, it was more like feeling. Feelings that came from everywhere in the universe, and were so powerful and lovely. I was surrounded by these golden lights floating around me, and they spoke to me in a quiet voice, saying that what I was doing was good, but there was responsibility comin’ to me. I would have to look for help in the spiritual realm. The angels said, “You can come with us, or you can go back to your body and continue your destiny.” And then I heard, “It’s your choice.”

When I came back from the other side, they had me under 12 layers of drugs, strapped to a table in the mental ward. A male orderly told my brother, “You better get him out of here or they’re gonna cuckoo-nest him.” So they found a local hospital that had a traumatic brain injury ward. And it was there that I started over: Learning how to walk, talk, eat, clothe myself-everything.

My doctors put my mattress on the floor and took me off all the drugs. At my core, I felt that my intent was to get home to my center, my identity. Learning to do everything again took time. I can’t remember a full four and a half weeks of my life because my memories will not consolidate. In my motorcycle crash, I hit the ground so hard that the right side of my skull was dormant for four and a half weeks. Nada. I was just a happy little hospital boy.

While I was there, I got a flowery card and a poster from the Lethal Weapon cast and crew, and they’d drawn helmets on Mel Gibson and Danny Glover, signing it, “Get well, we love you and miss you, come on back.” It was lovely to get that. I didn’t consciously know everything around me that was happening, but I felt it in my body, in my emotions. I got out of the hospital two and a half months early because my faith was helping to repair me. I got emails from a nurse who worked with me. She told me: “One time we were goin’ down the hall and you were listing to the right, making sounds. We stopped in a room and it was empty, and you looked at me and I said, ‘Yeah, go in there.’ And you went in the room and you knelt down by the bed.”


I don’t remember that specific event, but sense memory tells me that I said a prayer, and I felt the white cloak of faith come around me. F-A-I-T-H stands for Fantastic Adventures In Trusting Him. And I did.

Faith gives me the ability to rise above anything, because what is true in the spiritual realm is forever true. It cannot be denied. That was a big experience of spiritual epiphany to me, going to the other side. I’ve had some experiences in life that have seemed like setbacks, but they aren’t because I grew from them. I wasn’t failing. F-A-I-L-I-N-G: Finding An Important Lesson, Inviting Needed Growth. So you don’t actually fail, you find a better way to do whatever you’re doing, and that’s your ability, the truth of your core from past life experiences to where you are now in this life. It gives you the ability to be in your truth, without anything holding you down in a box that will never open.

The most powerful thing we have is our psyche. And to use our minds, we must be clear, vulnerable and open, which will take us to places we didn’t even know were there or couldn’t imagine ourselves going.

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Later on, I went to Washington, DC, and met with someone in President George Herbert Walker Bush’s administration. Parts of what we discussed became the initial language used to create the Traumatic Brain Injury Act that President Clinton signed in 1997. So my ability to recover from a disability created that law that helps so many. It’s a good feeling, you know, when you help somebody. Thank you angels, thank you, God, it’s beautiful. It’s a beautiful way to give. My mother always told me, “Giving is better than receiving.” As I got older, I found that yes, giving is better than receiving, ‘cause that’s the ability you give somebody to get stronger than they would be, than they could be, than they should be, before you loved them. When you give somebody the ability to feel your love and your healing, you’re a doctor in the spirit, bringin’ medicine from God to your heart and on to them. How’m I doin’?

Cooper: Wonderful.

Martirosyan: Excellent.

Busey: I feel like I’m on a flow, and like it’s not me really talkin’; I’m a messenger. This is coming to me from the other side, ‘cause I was there. It’s a lovely blessing to be able to share this experience with everyone.

Michael Conley: What’s always amazed me is that I’ve been doing public relations for 30 years, and celebrities complain about the least little thing, they’ve got a hair out of place or makeup or a cold. Gary’s outlived addiction, brain surgery, rehab, cancer.


Busey: That’s what we’ll talk about next: the cancer; it was a sarcoma that showed up after I did Point Break, after the accident and the brain injury.

Cooper: How were you diagnosed?

Busey: I was doing a film in Hawaii and during the last scene, my nose started bleeding and wouldn’t stop. It bled with the intensity of a fire hose. So I got the flow stopped up and finished the scene, but when I got home to the mainland it started to bleed again. I went to my doctor, Scott Bateman here in Malibu, and he told me: “This is not a nosebleed,” and then he sent me on to Dr.
Chester Griffiths, who took a polyp out of my sinuses and we found out that it was malignant. He didn’t know if it was curable.

I had a seven-hour surgery in 1997, and he took out all the cancer. He went in through my nose, so there were no scars at all. After the cancer was removed, I had some doctors say: “You need radiation because there are cancer roots that cause the cancer. We can’t see them with a microscope, but they may be still alive.” So I did the radiation. Maybe I shouldn’t have, because it distorted my face, pulled my eye down, pulled my nose up, and I make my living as an actor in movies and on TV. But that’s the way it goes.

After the radiation Dr. Frank Ryan, an incredible surgeon—may he rest in peace—did reconstruction surgery on my face. That became a very, very sacred moment in the rebirth of my identity; your identity is the core of your truth, and the beautiful thing about truth is that it requires no questions. It is what it is.

The great tragedy in life is not death; it’s what dies inside of you while you’re living. You must learn to love yourself, to respect yourself, care for yourself, and do what is needed, even when you don’t want to. By the way, how’s this interview going compared to what you guys usually do?

Cooper: Normally it’s a little more Q&A, you might notice we’re not questioning much—more listening.

Busey: My opinion is from my heart and my experience. I’m a living example that a person can get through anything, and I’m proud of that.

Cooper: I’m curious if you ever got a chance to work with Jim Brady?

[Editor’s note: Brady was the White House press secretary under President Reagan, and was shot in the head during an assassination attempt on the President in 1981.]

Busey: Yes! As a matter of fact, I did. Listen to this: After my motorcycle accident, I went to a press symposium to recant what I had said about people being left alone to ride a motorcycle without a helmet. In fact, I told them that I thought we should have a helmet law in every state for six sports: rollerblading, skateboarding, bicycling, snowboarding, skiing and motorcycling. This computer you have on your head is all you’ve got to keep you up and going. So who was there, running the press conference but Mr. James Brady? He’s one of my best friends. Talk about a man with a good heart, soul and life’s purpose!

Cooper: He has a great sense of humor. Do you have any words of wisdom in overcoming addiction?

Busey: I was addicted to cocaine. It happened right after I was nominated for an Oscar for The Buddy Holly Story. A guy came to my door. He brought me a Tiffany ring box with a little round rock of cocaine in it. Now earlier a friend had predicted: “In eight years you’re gonna receive an award. It’s gonna change your life forever in every way, and you must watch for people who come out of the woodwork.” Well, this guy was one of those people; after that, I got addicted to cocaine.

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I couldn’t stop. I didn’t want to stop. I didn’t care about my family, I didn’t care about me. I thought I was happy, handsome, quick, cool. And then wham! Opposite end of the stick, my friend, that’s where you are when you’re doing that stuff. In 1995, I overdosed.

They took me to the hospital and pumped my stomach, and then I went to a facility where I stayed for 28 days. I had to make my bed, clean my shower, and do other chores. I came out of that place and I didn’t go back. I’m 18 years clean. Doing drugs is like going to a bad prom with the devil, he’s leading all the dances, and you’re not going to like his moves.

Being an addict is a detachment from the truth of who you really are, and from God’s purpose in your life. You have the ability to rise above this. That’s what Earth is about, going through tests, challenges, experiences, scary things, good things, fun things. Sometimes fun things turn out to be scary, and sometimes scary things lead you out of fear and into a place of joy. Your mind is very important. M-I-N-D stands for Making It New Daily. Like, every time you get up in the morning, you should have a new blueprint for your day. Have I covered some good ground for you?

Cooper: Yes, you have a lot to share.

Busey: It’s not me telling it, it’s my spirit. And you guys can count me in as being one of your forever partners.

Conley: Talking about this is Gary’s passion.

Busey: I’ve prayed for the opportunity to talk about all of this since it happened.

Conley: It was really amazing, because Gary said to me, “Michael, one of the goals I want for 2014 is to really talk about disabilities,” and then Lia calls and it was like a miracle.

Busey: There’s a connection here without us knowing it, but it’s there. Lia has a connection. It’s very deep. It could be past life experience. Something is very, very warm in my heart about you and it’s forever.

Martirosyan: Thank you.

“Buseyisms” and more:

Busey Foundation for Children’s Kawasaki Disease Education and Research:

Read more articles from the Gary Busey Issue

Photos by Nancy Villere –

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