Growling Gary Busey Wrestles with a Bad Rep and a Bear of a Role: Alabama's Legendary Coach Bryant

UPDATED 06/11/1984 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 06/11/1984 at 01:00 AM EDT

The gymnasium at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Ga. is abloom with dewy extras in '30s finery. Youths in slim-lapelled tuxes pilot belles in sherbet-hued gowns across a floor shot with lights from a mirrored ball overhead, while a silken crooner lip-synchs Got a Date With an Angel. Pacing the sidelines, actor Gary Busey shrugs fitfully as he hikes up the pants of the pinstriped suit he wears for his date with Destiny.

The 39-year-old Busey, who made a splash as the late, great singer in 1978's The Buddy Holly Story, has the title role in the $8 million The Bear, due in September. The film follows the life of revered Alabama coach Paul (Bear) Bryant from age 19 to his death at 69 in 1983, and the actor with the mad-dog reputation admits to being an unlikely choice for the part of the straitlaced man who ruled college football. Playing Bryant made sense for Busey because when the part was offered, he says, "There was nothing else going on." His post-Holly highs (an Oscar nomination and instant-star status) were followed by such commercial failures as 1980's Carny and 1982's Barbarosa, and he retreated from the screen until appearing in last year's lamentable D.C. Cab. Busey needs a hit, and he knows it.

Fate waits for Busey on the dance floor in the form of Cynthia Leake, 26, a Tennessee native who plays Mary Harmon. Bryant and Harmon, who was to become Bear's wife of 44 years, met at a 1933 University of Alabama soiree, and Busey and Leake will be re-creating that first frisson for the better part of the evening.

At a signal from director Richard (Vanishing Point) Sarafian, Busey pounces: Throwing back his shoulders, he heads toward Leake (a fresh-faced brunette adrift in white chiffon) and cuts in. Taking her in his arms, he murmurs a few words and waltzes her flat-footedly until she is claimed by another beau. Before retreating, Busey locks eyes with her, and she registers a tiny swoon. "Hey, I think she likes me. I think this is gonna work," he shouts after the cameras stop. Laughter, then Busey booms in anticipation of his next Academy Award nomination, "Press your tux, Sarafian."

Beneath the backslapping bravado, Busey is dead serious about gunning for Oscar. He has attacked the part of the Bear with the same zeal with which he approached The Buddy Holly Story. Before production began, he studied 100 hours of videotapes of Bryant, spent seven months ruminating with Bear fans in Alabama, met Bryant's family and sat on the bench with the Dallas Cowboys (whose defensive backfield coach, Gene Stallings, was a Bryant protégé and serves as a consultant to the film). Still, when Busey reported to work, it was with the feeling that "maybe I'd bitten off more than I could chew," he says.

At least some of the Bear's disciples seem to agree. The movie was shot not in the state where Bryant coached for 25 years, but in Atlanta and Athens, Ga. and College Station, Texas—partly because the Bryant family objected to the script and to Busey. ("They wanted John Wayne," reports producer Larry Spangler who tried to placate the Bryants by toning down some of the Bear's more profane dialogue.) In the week that marked the first anniversary of Bryant's death, Spangler had planned a short trip to Tuscaloosa, Ala. for location shooting, but Busey reported receiving death threats just before the company was to leave. By the time Gary reached the Atlanta airport, "he was a complete wreck," says Spangler. The Alabama trip was scrubbed.

Busey was hardly a model of composure during the rest of the 8-week shoot. Bear insiders found him erratic: "He doesn't trust people," said a production associate. There's a lot of paranoia and insecurity there."

More than a few members of the press have been offended by Busey's sulky, little-boy behavior, and staffers at the Decatur women's college, which doubled as the University of Alabama during Bryant's student days and coaching years, were alarmed by tantrums like the one in which he dented a rental car with his fists (reportedly because he'd been booked into the tourist section for a flight to L.A.).

Gary's "manic-depressive" behavior, as one company member terms it, resurrected drug-abuse rumors that have dogged him since his Holly days. Although Spangler admits "Gary's reputation for being difficult is deserved," he insists drugs aren't a problem: "Part of our deal is that he's clean."

"Gary may look like a nut case," says Sarafian, "but his flare-ups are a way of relieving tension. He's not undisciplined—it's not like he pisses on the coffee machine. He's his own person. Everybody might not like that, but it's awful interesting when you get it on the screen."

Busey would rather discuss his photographic memory and his I.Q. (190, he says) than his putative penchant for fast living. "Those questions irritate me to death," he snaps. "We're doing 14-hour days, and I'm in 98 percent of the movie. If anybody thinks anything else is going on, they're crazy."

Although a director's chair with his name emblazoned on it has been placed away from the dance-floor fray, he strides about incessantly while the first-meeting shot is set up again. "Everything," he says breathlessly, "is mind control and attitude. I've never had more fun making a movie. I've never been so clean and fresh. I'm ahead of everybody, and a lot of it is because people said I couldn't do it. I love being the underdog."

And while Bear is a bit of a stretch for an actor who needs to score, "It's no fun if you don't take chances. Nothing I've ever done that's been easy has been worth a crap. I do best when I'm desperate and urgent. Anyway," he says abruptly, smoothing his pomaded blond hair and tugging at the blocky suit, "how do I look? I'm talking about me, right now."

"Wonderful," he is told.

"Yeah, and they think it's acting," he laughs. Giving a little growl behind the feral smile, Busey marches off for another rendezvous with Fate.

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