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(Credit: Columbia Pictures)

Film

Looking back at Gary Busey extraordinary role as Buddy Holly

@Russellisation

Cinema can both shine and crumble when actors are miscast. Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven, Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight and Jack Nicholson in The Shining each showed that no doubt the role it was the professionalism of the actor that made the part itself. Such can also be said of the casting of cult icon Gary Busey in The Buddy Holly Story released in 1978, a role that may seem like a mismatch, but for which Busey would receive an Oscar nomination for Best Actor among many other awards. 

Staggering toward a career in the film business, Busey began his life in the limelight as a drummer in the group The Rubber Band and Carp before settling for small roles in film and television during the 1970s. It wasn’t until 1974 that Busey would make his major film debut with a supporting role in Michael Cimino’s Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, alongside industry icons Clint Eastwood and Jeff Bridges.

Shortly after being hired by Barbra Streisand and her producer-boyfriend Jon Peters to play Bobby Ritchie in A Star is Born, Busey would agree to appear as Buddy Holly in The Buddy Holly Story, a role which would define the actor’s career. The directorial debut of American filmmaker Steve Rash, The Buddy Holly Story details the life of the iconic singer who was central in pioneering mid-1950s rock and roll, tracking his rise to stardom and untimely death at the age of 22. 

Recording the music for the soundtrack live, using his own guitar-playing and vocals, Busey was committed to his depiction of Buddy Holly despite being over ten years older than the 22-year-old singer. This included Busey losing a considerable amount of weight to portray the skinny, young Holly, shedding 32 pounds to look more like the singer as detailed in the actor’s biography, eventually donning a look that closely resembled the iconic performer. 

Such helped Busey to turn out an extraordinary performance that well captured the raw passion and youthful energy of Buddy Holly, eliciting his identity in everything from his walk to his nuanced vocal riffs. Whilst it seems like a mismatch on paper, Busey’s casting as the titular musical superstar is an inspired choice, showing his worth in one particular scene in which Buddy Holly performs live at the Apollo. A significant venue for African American popular music in the early 20th century, Buddy Holly was the first-ever white performer to take to the stage at the Apollo Theater with his band The Crickets, and whilst their performance is glamorised in the film, they were eventually well received. Emulating the singer’s reported nervousness, as well as his flourishing confidence, swagger and style, Gary Busey controls the camera in the iconic performance from the film.

It’s the role that ultimately meant the most to Gary Busey over the whole course of his career, stating to The Hollywood Reporter, “I sang the songs, played the guitar, had the best director, Steve Rash, best supporting cast, Don Stroud and Charles Martin Smith. It was a lovely experience and that’s the one, the top one on the ladder of my career”. Since The Buddy Holly Story, Busey has been unable to capture the same success, becoming a cult icon with performances in Point Break and Lethal Weapon whilst he now enjoys voice acting work in various video-game projects. 

His acting legacy, though an unusual one, holds one particular sparkling accolade with the actor having produced the best depiction of Buddy Holly ever put to screen.