I’m (Not) With Busey

Jeff Swanson looks, acts, and talks like Mr. Joshua. But the man you bought drinks for at the club ain’t Gary Busey.

Jeff Swanson sits in the lobby of his Belltown condo, dressed in a tux and camel-colored trench coat. His shoes are shined and his blond hair tousled. Even if you know he's not famous, it's hard not to do a double take. Swanson looks just like Gary Busey, and, fittingly, he's already a little wasted. "Sometimes you try to be the charade," he says. "Sometimes you become the charade." This night, he'll do both. His evening begins at the Black Bottle, a quiet wine bar on First and Vine. Heads turn and people point, but no one approaches Swanson. The first "real" sighting happens a few blocks south at Twist, when a couple of spiky-haired 20-somethings who have been staring for several minutes approach. "Gary," one says, offering his hand. Soon they're cajoling their girlfriends into getting their picture taken with Swanson/Busey. One takes off a brimmed stocking cap to fix her hair, but quickly puts it back on again after Swanson suggests she wear it for the photo. The guys are already calling their friends to brag about partying with one of Hollywood's most notorious stars. But Swanson slips away before they ask too many questions, and heads a few doors down to Amber. Outside, some guy shouts "Nick!" (as in Nolte, who looks a little like Busey) before Swanson's ushered into the bumping crush of young women in lingerie-like tops. Here the swarm of the adoring fans is so great that Swanson quickly moves on, first upstairs and then to the other end of the horseshoe-shaped bar. "Gary!" the girls squeal, and hang on him while their friends take pictures. The guy who "mistook" Swanson for Nolte eventually finds him to apologize. "I'm sorry, man," he says. "I didn't know who you were; I just knew you were famous." Word that Busey's in town has already reached the See Sound Lounge by the time Swanson hits the velvet rope. The bouncer waves him in ahead of a line that stretches around the corner. The woman collecting cover charges suddenly looks as though she's won the lottery. "We've been expecting you!" she chirps, before stamping the back of his right hand and steering him onto the neon-lit dance floor. Some random woman comes up and kisses Swanson on the lips, followed by more cell-phone-camera shots, autographs, and expensive champagne. "We only drink Dom," an admirer says, offering a long-stemmed glass, on him. Most of these gawkers weren't even a glimmer in their parents' eyes when the real Busey got an Oscar nomination for The Buddy Holly Story, and they were likely in grammar school during his memorable appearance as Keanu Reeves' grizzled partner in Point Break. Rather, they know Busey from the actor's guest appearance in season one of Entourage, an attempt at Celebrity Fit Club, and Comedy Central's single-season cult favorite, I'm With Busey. Swanson acts the part, a messed-up cocktail of aloofness and charm with a generous splash of crazy. And too-cool-for-school Seattle eats it up. Swanson doesn't just look like Busey. He looks better than Busey. In fact, Swanson is often approached by people who actually know the star and are all too happy to report that he's "lost weight" or that he "looks great"—"he" being Busey. Besides being younger and taller (Swanson's 59 and 6'4", Busey's 63 and 5'11"), and parting his floppy blond hair on the opposite side (Swanson left, Busey right), Swanson's a dead ringer for the eccentric actor. He says the first "sighting," as he calls them, happened maybe 10 years ago, only Swanson didn't realize it at the time. He was at the Hermitage Hotel in Monte Carlo for a conference, and the people who were coordinating the entertainment kept calling him "Busey." Swanson says he didn't think much of it until five or six years later, when he was driving around Seattle in his red 1968 Cadillac convertible and some people clustered on the corner began staring and waving frantically. "Busey!" they screamed—and then he got it. Swanson says the sightings have only increased since, to the point where he's now mistaken for Busey a few times a week. The sightings don't just happen in bars or his car, either: In the past few weeks alone, Swanson's been fingered in a plumbing store "by a couple of guys in paint-splattered jeans" and at a drugstore in the International District while procuring cold medicine. "Sure, it's fun to be pointed out," he says. "You can walk into a room, you can feel eyes follow you across the room, and I'm always thinking, 'This is cool.' But when people actually...start really getting into conversations, I start thinking, 'Why?'" Even so, Swanson, out on his own as a "stray dog," says he'll usually let people believe he's Busey if that's what they want to think. "I'm not going to stick a pin in their balloon," Swanson explains. "I'm not going to say, 'What the hell do you think I'd be doing here? Are you stupid?' I try to grunt and moan and look down, just hoping they don't ask me some specific question. "The thing that really kills me is that they'll say, 'You know that line from whatever movie?' And I'll say," says Swanson, suddenly lowering his voice into his best gravelly Busey imitation, "'You know how thick a script is? It's like 3 inches thick. You think I know every line in the goddamned thing?' Then I try and figure out where the hell is the door." Swanson says he often feels like a "fucking freak," and after watching the crowds mob him in Belltown, it's no wonder. Even in staid Seattle, people didn't need much encouragement to believe. One of Swanson's more skeptical encounters was with a guy who said he had "Hollywood connections" and was going to make some calls to ensure that he was really Busey. He reported later that everything "totally checked out." Though it may seem shallow, there's also something refreshingly normal about both Swanson and Seattle's desire to have a brush with fame. John Curley, host of KING 5's Evening Magazine, says Seattle's just as star-crazy as any other city, though we're loath to admit it. "The perfect example was when [the now-defunct] Planet Hollywood came to town," Curley says. "Everybody was saying we won't care. But you know what? When it opened, everybody wanted to be there to watch the stars parade down the red carpet. Seattle would like to consider itself above and beyond that, but when it comes to movies and movie stars in Seattle they're just as guilty of the guilty pleasure as anybody else." Belltown's one thing: There, you'd expect suburbanites and SoCal transplants to eat Swanson/Busey up. The question is whether the cool kids will be fooled, and in Swanson's next outing he'll mingle with the hipsters in their native habitat: Ballard. But first, he arrives at the Olympic Sculpture Park for a photo shoot. Again Swanson is dressed for the occasion. He's got on a tailored tan suit, huarache sandals, and Italian-made sunglasses. In front of the park, Swanson is polishing his Cadillac, drinking Rainier out of a paper cup (Swanson only drinks American-made macrobrews), and listening to Bon Jovi—loud. Of course there are a couple of sightings: once at the park, another while Swanson's being photographed next to his car, when the photographer gets a text message from some friends (former L.A. residents). "Saw you shooting Busey," they write. Seattle's Busey doppelganger may not be famous, but Swanson has all the trappings of a big shot. There is, of course, the car—eerily similar to the 1959 Cadillac convertible purchased by Busey's character in The Buddy Holly Story. And like Busey, Swanson is a licensed pilot, spending most weekends flying his Cessna 182 to his 3,600-square-foot renovated ranch house on Blakely Island, which Seattle Homes and Lifestyles dubbed their 1999 "Home of the Year." A Seattle native, Swanson made his fortune selling toilet paper and soap dispensers to public entities like King County and the Port of Seattle as part of his family's janitorial supply company, Coast Wide, started by his father in 1945. Swanson and his four siblings kept a stake in the company after it merged with Portland-based Paulsen & Roles Laboratories in 1998. However, by the time Paulsen & Roles bought out Coast Wide, Swanson was gone, fired over a dispute involving Swanson's loss of a longtime client and what was perceived as his mishandling of an attempt to win back some of the business. "I guess the family should have supported him more," says Swanson's brother, Dean. "Me and my brother did step up for him, but my sisters wouldn't." Long before he was shown the door, Swanson, a self-described serial entrepreneur, had been dabbling in his own ventures, with varied success. In the late '90s, he created a line of nutritional supplements called Recaps that got coveted counter space at Nordstrom but went under after only a year. He also started a company that provides storage bags for the items collected from people when they're booked into prison. Swanson sold the business years ago to a North Carolina–based firm, but the bags are still used by jails around the country, including in King County. These days he's in real estate, building townhomes all over the city, dozens of which are currently sitting vacant in a down market. "My timing is great," Swanson says sarcastically, masking any real disappointment with his aw-shucks delivery. "Anytime you want to figure out where to go, look at me and go the other way." His brother agrees: "He's the kind of guy who, for as long as I can remember, has been trying to hit home runs on all kinds of projects. But unfortunately most of them don't work out." By the time he stops for beers at King's Hardware in Ballard, Swanson's changed into black pants and a leather jacket. Linda Derschang's saloon-style hangout may be the opposite of a meat market like Amber or Twist, but once again it doesn't take long for the crowd to notice him. Whispers of "Busey" buzz around the bar as he heads from one end to the other. A group of guys in jeans and T-shirts starts pointing, then frantically texting as he sits nearby. One eventually comes up with his buddy's band's poster and asks for an autograph. "Who do you think I am?" Swanson says. "Nolte, right?" "Right," Swanson replies, before scrawling an unintelligible autograph across the bottom of the poster. (Good thing, because he spells Nolte with a "y.") People start to swarm, so Swanson decides to move on. As he nears the door, some girls—"spinners," as he refers to them (slang for girls a guy would like to spin on his penis)—call out, "We love you, Gary!" Swanson sashays over, flashing them his best cockeyed Busey grin and grunting non-answers to a few of their Hollywood questions before heading out the door. Next stop: Sub Pop's 20th-anniversary party at Hattie's Hat to mingle with the indie-rock glitterati. Here, heads turn as Swanson finds his way to the bar to grab a can of Olympia. Soon he's talking to some guy with shoulder-length hair and glasses straight out of 1972. Apparently this guy thinks he and Swanson/Busey did a movie together in 1996. Turns out it's Mudhoney's Mark Arm, and he's referring to the 1996 comedy Black Sheep. "Damn, you look good, Gary," Arm says, gearing up to relive some of his favorite Busey moments on the set. It seems even Seattle's real stars aren't immune to being fooled. The pointing and the whispers start to mount, and Swanson is swarmed by small groups of Sub Pop faithful. He pinballs around, shaking hands and smiling for photos. Then, suddenly and inexplicably, he's in the middle of the room, strangely alone. It appears that people are either trying to figure out who he is, or content to simply stare and point. This is one of the tricky things about looking so much like a star but not really being famous: Swanson often finds himself in this weird netherworld. "It's like this big explosion one moment," he says. "Then I'm left alone, holding a sparkler." In the 30 years since his one-and-only Oscar nomination, the real Gary Busey has become the kind of mythic cult hero that surpasses the need for Hollywood legitimacy. His career is prolific, to say the least: more than 140 movies and TV episodes since 1970. But it was memorable appearances in movies like Point Break, Surviving the Game, and Under Siege in the 1990s that laid the foundation for his following. "He's been in so many of these formative movies as this evil guy," says 27-year-old Greg Hudson, a longtime fan and creator of BuseyWorld.com. The actor's near-fatal motorcycle accident and brain surgery in 1988, and a second near-death experience after a cocaine overdose in 1995, have only added to his mystique. "He's compelling and has a kind of crazy intensity," Hudson says. "He does the strangest, weird, most off-kilter things. I think he's almost playing a caricature of himself." As reruns of Busey's bad-guy movies on late-night television have introduced another generation to the unpredictable star, the actor has found new fame on the small screen using the preferred venue of many a Hollywood wash-up: reality TV, where his train-wreck personality is optimized to its fullest. In the pilot for Comedy Central's 2003 series I'm With Busey, which chronicles the actor's misadventures with superfan Adam de la Pena, Busey tries to French kiss de la Pena before he'll agree to do the show, and later chases his co-star with a spear taken from his collection of native artifacts. De la Pena says he was never worried about Busey "hurting" him, though he says the actor had this crazy idea that they should swing from a rope off the top of his house during one of the episodes. In 2005, Busey bitched out straight-talking Snapple spokesperson Wendy Kaufman while a contestant on Celebrity Fit Club, insisting that they must pray to Jesus after their team won a boxing bout. "The Antichrist is everywhere!" he yelled at a wide-eyed Kaufman. (Busey, supposedly clean and sober since his overdose in '95, now belongs to the conservative Christian Promise Keepers movement.) This past February, Busey caused a scene on the red carpet at the Oscars by planting a wet kiss on the back of Jennifer Garner's neck as the actress was being interviewed by E! host Ryan Seacrest. The video clip from the incident, dubbed "When Busey Attacks," has been viewed on YouTube more than 600,000 times. And just last month, Busey was evicted from his Malibu, Calif., home for allegedly owing his landlord $50,000—rent he says he didn't pay because "unclean air conditioning vents" were posing a threat to his health. A former E! marketing executive, who would only speak on condition of anonymity, says he had enough after just one weekend in New York babysitting Busey during the actor's rounds on the late-night talk-show circuit. "I was emotionally drained," says the executive. "Once you hang out with him, you realize he can fly off the handle and go any direction at any time....I never want to be around that guy again in my life." De la Pena says that Busey essentially acts the same regardless of whether the cameras are rolling, something that Ballard resident Brad Hole (a contributor to SW's Voracious blog) also experienced while working as a location scout on the film Surviving the Game, which was shot near Wenatchee. Busey's persona "isn't something he turns into when the camera rolls," says Hole. "It's who he is. He's a space cadet." Hole says that Busey was also quite the ladies' man. "He takes this girl up to his room one night and shows up on the set with her the next day," says Hole. "When we needed him for a shoot, no one could find him. We're searching for Gary Busey in the woods on ATVs, and somebody found him in the weeds getting a hummer from this chick." Swanson reports that there were some memorable "Busey sightings" during a recent weekend in Sun Valley, where he traveled to catch Ski Tour, an annual freestyle ski and snowboard contest. "So I'm at this bar called Whiskey Jack's, and these three or four little spinners—cute little blond girls—come up and say, 'You've been on Entourage. You're on Entourage, aren't you!' I suddenly get taken over by another spirit," Swanson says through the crackle of his cell phone. "I don't know what [Busey's] mannerisms are, but I go, 'Yeah, I did a few episodes.' Of course, that leads to pictures: a picture with this one, a picture with that one; but the sand's going through the hour meter before somebody calls your bluff. Then you're standing there with your zipper down." "I saw that guy!" says Whiskey Jack's bartender Sean Buckley, referring to Swanson when contacted a few weeks after Ski Tour. "He looks just like him." But Buckley, though he'd heard stories about Swanson being in town all weekend, wasn't fooled. "He's skinnier than Busey," he says. Swanson says he sometimes feels like "the Fugitive," a classic Hollywood case of mistaken identity in which a falsely imprisoned man spends his life outrunning the cops and chasing the real criminal: the one-armed man. And he says he had a few Fugitive moments in Sun Valley. "The thing you want to do is get away on a positive note....The one-armed man is just around the corner," he says. "If not, you end up standing there, and you're still by yourself. That's where they'll pull the cape off." Swanson is happy to resemble a star with such a cult following, he says, with one caveat: He worries that he's turning into a monster. "I'm probably getting a little over the top," he says. "I may end up getting punched in the nose, or called out. Maybe that's the next thing. I'll go out looking for trouble. Busey has this thing where he goes out looking for trouble. Maybe I'm truly morphing into him." Though Swanson swears he's never used his Busey-like looks to get laid, he has taken the gag a little further than usual at least once. Last summer he met Antonia Greco, a waitress at Kells, and let her believe he was Busey all night, telling her about his multiple homes, including an award-winning chalet on a private island. They went out again the next night, and he wined and dined her at El Gaucho. It wasn't until she spied Swanson's real name on his credit card that Greco realized she'd been had. Greco, who chronicled her experience last June in a post on SW's Daily Weekly blog, says his explanation was simply this: "If I told you I wasn't Gary Busey, you wouldn't have wanted to go out with me." Swanson remembers it differently. He insists he thought she knew, at least by the second time they met, that he wasn't the celebrity. Greco, still fuming from the experience, says she thinks Swanson is "a freak." It's hard to blame someone who's angry about being fooled; many more may become so after reading this article. But it's also apparent how much people want the Swanson-as-Busey hoax to be true, so alluring is the pull of fame. "It's more about them than it is about me," Swanson says. There is one place where Swanson never gets mistaken for Busey: CityTeam Ministries on Elliott Avenue, where once a month he serves dinner to homeless men. Instead of signing autographs, he dishes up salad, and the guys in line call him by his real name. "Hey, Jeff!" one says on a recent Wednesday. "What kind of crazy salad did you make tonight?" While CityTeam secures donations for main courses, Swanson partners with Howard Cohen, general manager of the Seattle Center Best Western Executive Inn, to serve extras like salad, bread, and juice. Cohen says Swanson, whom he knows through a mutual friend, talked him into pitching in about four years ago. "He said there was a real need to get people involved in the community," Cohen remembers. "It's been a good collaboration over the years." Swanson calls a few more times to report new Busey sightings, one involving some guys at a sports bar in Bellevue. He didn't try to pull off the charade that night because he was with a date, but was amused that the men, upon finding out that he wasn't the star, were still intrigued enough to offer up suggestions of Busey lines and mannerisms Swanson should try on people. "These are bright, smart, handsome people," Swanson says of those who typically approach him. "Not derelicts on the street." Swanson has never married. He says he's used to being alone. And though he clearly enjoys it when folks approach him with stars in their eyes, he says he doesn't go looking for Busey sightings. He doesn't want to jinx it. "If I worked at it, it would probably [go] kaput," he says. "I don't go out and say 'This will be a Gary night.' I go out and say 'This will be a lucky night.' But I probably get more Gary than I get lucky." Swanson may own a massive island retreat, but his Belltown condo is your basic bachelor pad: a six-pack in the fridge, a week-old boxed pastry from nearby Macrina Bakery still untouched on the counter, and no place to sit save for an unmade bed. He boasts the boyish charm of someone who's never quite grown up, and the swagger of a man who's led a charmed life. In addition to the plane and the island escape, Swanson is an antiques nut and world traveler who's always searching for treasures in unexpected places, including close to home. A few years ago, he bought a 5-foot-tall drum that he found under a blanket in a small shop in Pioneer Square. He nicknamed it the "mongo bongo." Turns out it was a Baga male drum from Guinea, one of only 13 in the world. He sent it to the Smithsonian and a handful of other East Coast museums for viewing, had it appraised for $1 million, and ultimately sold it with the help of Sotheby's for $180,000. Swanson describes the drum as one of his "surprises in life." He often characterizes his favorite moments in such terms, and talks about them with an almost religious reverence. Whether it's the notable (finding a rare antique) or the mundane (the chance meeting at the Two Bells that led to this article), Swanson says it's life's unexpected events that give him meaning. But there's an underlying loneliness there, the feeling that Swanson is still searching for something—something that's perhaps sated by sometimes pretending to be someone else. "I think he's probably one of the loneliest guys I know," says longtime friend Todd Dean. "I'm probably one of only a handful of individuals that are his friends. I think people just don't understand Jeff. He can be hard and abrasive, and inappropriate." Dean then relays one of his favorite "Jeff stories," an outburst during a dinner party at Swanson's island retreat. One of the guests, a woman, was leaving soon for a spa in San Francisco. "And Jeff kept saying, 'You're going to the fat farm,'" Dean remembers. "[Her] husband said, 'I'd appreciate it if you didn't say that.' And Jeff just smiled and said, 'Well, it's true.'" Swanson admits tact isn't one of his strong suits. He says he's never been the kind of guy women have been anxious to bring home to Dad. "I'd probably say something inappropriate," he says, grinning broadly and brushing the hair out of his eyes. Though being Swanson's friend has been "trying at times," Dean says, "When you get to know who he is as a person, he brings a tremendous amount to the table. He has integrity, does what he says he's going to do—an extremely rare quality." Swanson and I meet on a recent Wednesday for a drink in a quiet corner of the W Hotel. He's accompanied by his pride and joy, a Pomeranian named King that he shares custody of with a former girlfriend. Set down on a leather loveseat, the dog sports a rhinestone collar and is shorn of all but a lionlike poof of fur that rings his miniature head. I ask Swanson if he's worried that once this story runs, his adventures as Busey will be over—or that people will be angry. "It's all about who you are. People will probably say [they] sympathize with the poor bastard," he says. "But there will always be those who want you to play along. People in Seattle are so hungry for celebrity that you can pick a country bumpkin like me and turn him into a folk hero." "He's a character, there's no doubt about it," says Dean Swanson. "Jeff is just Jeff. You kind of accept him for who he is." Or, if you live in Seattle, you accept him for being Busey. acurl@seattleweekly.com

 
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