The Coast News Group
The author interviewing Gary Busey at the actor’s Malibu home in the early 2000s. Photo by Susan Hatchet

Gary Busey is a surfer

One day in the early 2000s, Scott Hancock, Susan Hatchet and I drove to Malibu to interview actor Gary Busey. Scott and I had been building a magazine called Risen, whose world headquarters were in his La Costa garage. Susan was our staff photographer, and maybe the only one who knew what she was doing.

Arriving at Busey’s modest Malibu home, we three bears timidly walked from the car to the front door and knocked. Seconds later he was there in all his Buseyness. Holding his phone in one hand, he put an opposing finger to his mouth and whispered “Shhhh,” before turning away from us while leaving the door open.

We tiptoed into the house and observed a framed Academy Award nomination for Gary’s starring role in “The Buddy Holly Story.”  I liked that movie but was more intrigued by his portrayal of Leroy “the Masochist” in the John Milius surf epic “Big Wednesday.”

The film, for those who haven’t seen it, is about a group of Malibu surfers who ruled the Point in the ’60s. Lance Carson was renamed Matt Johnson and was played by Jan Michael Vincent. William Katt transformed into  Jack Barlow, who was templated after Kemp Aaberg, and Leroy (the Malibu Enforcer?) was played by Busey.

Unlike most Hollywood directors, Milius is a real surfer and after reading Denny Aaberg’s short story “No Pants Mance,” he and Denny (Kemp’s younger brother) reshuffled the words into a screenplay.

Surfers Billy Hamilton, Ian Cairns, Gerry Lopez, Jay Riddle and Peter Townend did most of the surfing, although Katt and Vincent were competent to handle the waves well enough to paddle out and catch a few on their own.

Busey, the only non-surfer to star in “Big Wednesday,” nonetheless had an innate understanding of the rebel fringe he portrayed.

Back in his home, Busey took on the menacing role of drill sergeant. Looking directly at us, he scowled and barked, “Do I know you?”  I answered that we were from Risen Magazine and were there for his interview.

This was my first real interview, and so I had my questions neatly stacked near my little battery-operated tape recorder. After lobbing a few typically dumb questions, the star looked at me, waved his hands and said, “Stop the tape; you’re using “earth words.” Trying to be funny, I replied, “Sorry, that’s my native tongue.”

Without a hint that he thought this was humorous, Busey ordered me to start the tape again. I did and moments later was again being accused of earth words. This went on again and again until I finally threw my notes aside and asked, “Okay, what do you want to talk about?”

At that, Busey smiled and said, “I’m glad you finally asked.” He offered us coffee, made a pot, chugged much of it and was back and ready to speak on his life, his afterlife and how “Big Wednesday” had changed his life.

“I was a football player and thought surfers were a bunch of sissies. But when I got to Hawaii and saw Sunset Beach for the first time, I knew that surfing was …” Here the tape is garbled, but he said a word equivalent of hardcore.

Inviting us into his backyard, Busey picked up a guitar and played some of the songs he had written, one a memorable tune titled, “Freefalling Through Heaven and Hell.” I wasn’t as surprised by his sweet, Buddy Holly voice as I was by his songwriting talent.

Here is an amazing and complex character who proved that day that you don’t have to surf to be a surfer. Gary Busey is truly one of our tribe.