Quick sprint along this man’s timeline:
First stop: Hell.
“I lived out of garbage cans for the eight months I lived on the street,” says veteran Las Vegan but rookie Strip headliner Billy Hufsey, rewinding his memory 34 years, to 1980 Los Angeles. Goals? Daytime auditions. Nighttime survival. “It was an arduous time. I had E. coli. I woke up with guns at my head. I stayed behind this one building where the heat got pushed out, so it was warm. But it was unfiltered air, so I got pneumonia, bronchitis and scar tissue on my lung. But ya do what ya gotta do.”
Next stop: Breakthrough.
Series stardom arrived in his twenty-something salad days, 1983-87. What in? Sing along: FAME!/I’m gonna make it to heaven/Light up the sky like a flame/FAME!/I’m gonna live forever/Baby remember my name. And for a time, we did remember (re-MEM-ber/re-MEM-ber/ re-MEM-ber) Hufsey’s back-flipping jazz-dance student, Christopher Donlon, flying across the floor and scrambling halfway up the damn walls. Giving girls the sweats.
Remember the nearly nekked, Billy-by-the-steaming-shower poster—all ripped, glistening bod and jet-black curls run amok, only his bashful privates taking refuge behind a towel? Then came a daytime soap—like sands through an hourglass, so were the Days of His Life, 1987-91. Bangin’ around the industry followed, bouncing gig to gig. Married … With Children and Webster, anyone? How about, um, Crazy Girls Undercover?
Next stop: Trouble and Transition.
There’s an unwelcome intruder: skin cancer. He kicked its ass. Backpedaling from The Biz, he struggled through other medical miseries: misaligned discs in his neck, exploding into grand-scale pain. Cue banking, real estate and venture capitalism endeavors born of an entrepreneurial acumen—successful, profitable, but where’s the pizzazz, the adulation, the freakin’ spotlight when building strip malls? Then enter (eww) reality TV, like VH1’s Confessions of a Teen Idol, etcetera. Action!—and fade in on career fadeouts, Hollywood’s chew-up/spit-out story.
Next stop: Upswing.
Parachuting back into The Biz in elder-statesman-style, Hufsey nurtures another side of himself as kid-star agent and coach-teacher. “C’mon, you went up there like you took five Valium!” Hufsey says—booms, really—to a 12-year-old singing hopeful who’s not quite bringin’ it in front of classmates at the Hollywood Bound Acting Academy on South Cimarron Road. “This is not a business for sissies.”
Next stop: Tonight. And every night (except Wednesdays).
Fame!/I’m gonna live forever/I’m gonna learn how to fly/High!/I feel it coming together/People will see me and cry. That’s Billy Hufsey, singing (nostalgically) to open Celebrity Idols: Movies and Music, the new revue he top-lines at Planet Hollywood’s Sin City Theatre, in his full-circle return to performing.
Life can be one hell of a journey.
What’s left to know, or at least highlight, about 56-year-old, jack-of-multiple-trades Hufsey? That, pre-homelessness/pre-Fame, he was an undefeated Golden Gloves boxer before a hyper-extended elbow KO’d his dreams of pugilistic glory in the Olympics? That in 1979, pop-culture eons before Dancing With the Stars, he won the U.S. Singles Dancing Championship? That, as current child sensation Asia Monet Ray’s manager, he was featured in this season’s Lifetime docu-series, Raising Asia?
Yes, but more to the point: Billy Hufsey is a Big Personality encased in a Big Man. Beefy and muscular, tanned and passionate, he sometimes tips into gush-speak, spraying phrases such as “giving love,” “so, so, so blessed” and “putting a smile on people’s hearts.”
And he’s a perpetual-motion testament to the power of relentlessness.
“My mother’s philosophy was, when you think you have exhausted every possibility, know you have not,” says Hufsey, who is a challenge for interviewers because he forces us to jot down almost as many exclamation points as actual words, both often sandwiched between boisterous laughs.
“I told my dad I wanted to act, and he said, ‘What? You can’t act!’” Hufsey remembers about his early career stirrings growing up in Brook Park, Ohio, just outside Cleveland. “I also said I wanted to become a singer. He said, ‘Singer? When you sing I have to put earmuffs on!’ I said I wanted to be a dancer. He said, ‘You have no rhythm!’ But he and my mother were there at every performance.”
Performances now are at Celebrity Idols, his first stage work since 2000, when he starred in Dancing to the Hits at the former Flamingo Hilton Laughlin. Idols—which he agreed to do because co-producer Nannette Barbera, his pal and onetime dance colleague, asked him to—is a potpourri of tributes to a stable of celebs including John Travolta, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carrie Underwood and Billy Idol, plus iconic films and cultural trends. Energetic singers and dancers assist the star, who now employs his body—site of nine medical procedures triggered by injuries over the decades—for gag lines, not leg splits.
“I’ve got a screw in this foot, a screw in that foot, a screw in this knee, a screw in that knee,” he tells the audience at a recent show. “I’m all screwed up!” What he’s given up in dancing, he makes up for in song, and in heart: kibitzing with the front row; blowing sax on “Greased Lightning”; cracking rim-shot jokes (“I tried to open a Big and Tall store in Tokyo”); and belting out “Great Balls of Fire,” “Johnny B. Goode,” “Mony Mony” and “Open Arms.”
Just shy of the finale, Hufsey invites one of his teen/pre-teen students—out of hundreds he’s prepped and placed in scores of TV shows and films—to knock out a chorus or two onstage. Then he stands by, radiating 1,000-watt pride.
The journey to that stage begins in this room. Students try out scenes and songs in a small classroom in a modest suite in a nondescript office building on the Valley’s west side. They’re animated, passionate and a tad nervous. Leaning back and rocking in his chair in the rear of the room, Hufsey cajoles, barks, applauds, giggles, evaluates—all of it cascading out of him like a waterfall.
“Get it out there. Stop that! Get that mouth out there! You’ve got to be more aggressive. … That’s much better, but 99 percent of the time, you’re going to have a casting director who’s 70 years old. You’ve got to sing like you’re singing to a pretty girl. … Here’s a little trick, honey: When you don’t have a large voice, you come down stage. … Gimme attitude, ’cause you got it. Let’s go! … That’s what you have to start with, that much energy, because we don’t usually get a second chance. … You have to say that my job is to go in there, kick ’em right in the face, have them chase me down the hall—‘Could you come back tomorrow at 12?’”
Verdict on Hufsey the mentor?
Ask the parents:
- “Thanks to Billy, some of the kids here know more than some adults who are teaching classes,” says Ed Whitesell, whose son, Will, joined a national tour of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.
- “He’s a great influence on all the kids, amazing,” says Danielle Ross, whose son, Tyler, is a student.
- “He’s very outgoing, very personable and has a great heart.”
Ask the kids:
- “He’s really funny and he motivates us.” (Will Whitesell, 12)
- “I used to be in the theatrical business [translation: school plays] but he helped me get out of that, all the big emotions. He taught me not to overact, just play it as if it were a real-life thing.” (Tyler Ross, 13)
- “I started out in the beginning classes, but then I heard about Billy, who is more of an advanced coach. And I’ve been working a lot since I started Billy’s class.” (Joseph Huebner, 16)
- “He understands me as a dancer, where I’m coming from, why I do certain things. I sometimes think, oh, my God, I’m with him?—wow!” (Kalen Bull, 13)
Class is over. Kids don’t file out—they bolt toward him like a cluster of little magnets whooshing toward the giant magnet, crowding him, hugging him, hanging on him. Grinning broadly, he’s clearly tickled by their breathless efforts to snatch his attention. Yes, he loves it. They just might love it more.
Boomerang back to that timeline.
This stop: National Resurrection.
Living the Dream: Seven Key Principles for Success (self-published, $20)—his book that’s part biography, part motivational life lessons—was published this year. Plus his new EP, The Lover in Me, has been performing well on the adult-contemporary charts. If this dude ever gets melancholy, as most of us occasionally do, his knack for concealment speaks to his acting chops. That internal engine, which he always seems to be gunning, pedal-to-the-metal style, speaks to everything else.
“I’m always going to give you the best Billy I can give you,” Hufsey says. “When they put that last nail in the coffin, I’ll be singing that last song.”
Next stop: Just wait for it …
Celebrity Idols: Movies and Music, starring Billy Hufsey
7 p.m. Thu-Tue, Sin City Theatre at Planet Hollywood, $60-$80, 702-777-7776, IdolsTheShow.com.