LOS ANGELES — Ask Gary Busey about his life these days, and he's likely to flash his toothy grin. He might also jump up and declare, as he did in a recent interview, "It's crazy good!"
The actor, 66, is keenly aware of the perceptions about him — he knows you think he's crazy. And he knows it has everything to do with a litany of well-publicized highs and lows that span more than three decades in Hollywood: a battle with drugs after his lead-actor Oscar nomination for 1978's The Buddy Holly Story; a near-fatal motorcycle crash that caused a traumatic brain injury in 1988; an appearance as his "crazy" self on a 2007 episode of Entourage; a stint on VH1's Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew in 2008; and an unsolicited neck smooch delivered to a startled Jennifer Garner on the red carpet at the Academy Awards in 2008.
He was even a punch line in a skit on last week's Saturday Night Live: A ranting Charlie Sheen (Bill Hader) read an e-mail praising him for making "perfect sense," adding, "Finally, I know I'm not crazy." Signed "gbusey69."
Busey's off-kilter personality is on full display again in the latest edition of NBC's The Celebrity Apprentice. In the premiere, Busey transformed himself into the "Pepperoni Prophet" to assist his team in running a pizzeria. Sporting savagely unkempt hair and an ill-fitting brown suit, the actor pranced like a deranged preacher outside the establishment, flinging pepperoni into the air and proclaiming that "miracles happen" where the meat landed on the ground. (An amused Donald Trump called him "a piece of work.")
Asked about his experience in Trump's series, Busey proclaimed, "It was as good as it could be at the time. It is what is, it was what it was."
The show also prompted an unexpected breakthrough. As usual, many of his teammates were caught off guard by Busey's loud talking and inability sometimes to immediately grasp words. But fellow contestant Marlee Matlin, who is deaf, concluded that much of Busey's aggressiveness was because of hearing loss, a legacy of his 1988 accident. (When he got a new state-of-the-art hearing aid, his world changed, he said.)
"There's a lot more to Gary than we've seen on Celebrity Rehab," said Eden Gaha, an executive producer on The Celebrity Apprentice. "His whole process is different. The question is whether he's crazy or a genius. He has no filter."
But for those who think he is way off the deep end, he's got a message.
"I'm not difficult," Busey insisted, his gruff voice accompanying his waving arms. "It's not in my vocabulary. Because of a few difficulties with myself, it caused me to retreat from my true self. After The Buddy Holly Story, I went over the rainbow. I didn't know how to handle everything that came at me. It's different now. I've moved on into the light. It was just all a part of the journey of finding me."
He has certainly found a starring role on the NBC reality show. Busey joined the show in part to help dispel lingering negative views; he named the Center for Head Injury Services as his charity in the celebrity contest.
His so-called Buseyisms, wisdom and philosophy communicated in the breakdown of words, has found a cult following on YouTube. (He's never far from a Buseyism in live conversation, and just as online, they are delivered in a scholarly manner.)
"You know what FEAR stands for?" he asked. "It means 'False Evidence Appearing Real.'"
"You know what FREEDOM stands for?" he asked. "Facing Real Exciting Energy Developing Out of Miracles."
In many ways, there's a thin line between the new Busey and the former "wild and crazy" Busey. A visitor he had just met was treated like an old friend, with affectionate pats and hugs. And his actions and responses were thoughtful and articulate, but sometimes they were hard to fathom.
During one point in the interview, he suddenly threw a couch pillow at a photographer who was clearing his equipment after shooting Busey. "Am I making too much noise?" "Naw," Busey said with a wide smile. "I just want to show you I like you."