AT 9:30 P.M. ON MAY 4, A 911 OPERATOR TOOK A CALL from a frightened young woman in Malibu. "I think my mate, Gary Busey, OD'd on cocaine," the caller said. "He's barely breathing." The operator advised the caller—Tiani Warden, 27, fiancée of the strapping, intense actor—to keep his head tilted back. "I can't move him!" Warden gasped. And she implored, "Honey? Gary? Sweetheart?"

Luckily the 50-year-old Busey—star of 1978's The Buddy Holly Story and an important supporting player in 1993's The Firm—survived this drug-induced crash just as he had survived a near-fatal motorcycle wreck in 1988. Within minutes, medics arrived at his rented, four-bedroom home. They found Busey, who, Warden said, had also been drinking, slumped in a chair, with a packet allegedly containing 1.5 grams of coke in his shirt pocket. Busey was rushed by ambulance to nearby Santa Monica Medical Hospital Center, where his recovery was rapid. But behind the medics came the police, who say they discovered an additional half gram of cocaine, four grams of marijuana and two grams of hallucinogenic mushrooms in Busey's home. Five days later, just after Busey had entered the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, Calif., he was charged with felony cocaine possession as well as with misdemeanor counts for the other drugs and for being under the influence of cocaine. Arraignment has not been scheduled, but the district attorney has recommended a bail of $10,000.

Although this is his first acknowledged stint in rehab, Busey has struggled before with drug and alcohol addiction. Declaring himself clean in 1985, he described how cocaine made him feel: "I could put up a Ferris wheel by myself in 10 minutes." But his impulses weren't always constructive. In the years after his Oscar nomination, at 34, for Buddy Holly, the Goose Creek, Texas, native wasted his momentum in offbeat little movies, like 1980's Carny, and acquired a reputation for being difficult to work with. A coworker on the set of 1984's The Bear described Busey as insecure and paranoid.

In 1988, minutes after picking up his new Harley-Davidson Heritage in Culver City, Calif., Busey skidded and smashed into a concrete highway divider. Riding without a helmet, he suffered head trauma and blood clots and underwent emergency brain surgery. In recent years, though, Busey's life seemed to be on an upswing as he carved out a career comeback in movies that included 1992's Under Siege and The Firm.

Unfortunately, acquaintances say, the actor has been backsliding since his 1990 divorce from his wife of 20 years, photographer Judy Busey, mother of their son Jake, 24, also an actor. An employee at one of his hangouts, the Malibu Inn Restaurant, says Busey once chased a waitress into the kitchen after he decided she had gotten his order wrong; and last month he and a friend, Terry Later, turned up uninvited at an L.A. fund-raiser for the environmental group Americans for a Safe Future. Busey, who never bothered to pay the $250 price of admission, insisted on being seated. One of the event's organizers says he was intoxicated and belligerent.

Still, Busey, who just before his overdose had completed Acts of Love in Dallas, has his gentler moments. By the end of the benefit, he was singing along softly as Jackson Browne performed onstage. "Gary is one of the sweetest people I know," says friend and Love costar Dennis Hopper. And the overdose? "It was," says Hopper, "an unfortunate slip."

TOM GLIATTO
BETTY CORTINA and KAREN BRAILSFORD in Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • Betty Cortina,
  • Karen Brailsford.