A local and national celebrity visited Van Alstyne Middle School recently, and I was really sorry I missed him. Burton "Bubba" Gilliam is well-known in these parts; some of the younger crowd might just know him as the guy in the Bonham auto dealer’s commercials, complete with leather chaps, cowboy hat and that trademark ear-to-ear smile.
To those of us in a slightly different age bracket, Bubba will always be Lyle from Blazing Saddles, with too many side-splitting scenes to mention here (need I bring up the campfire scene?), or the guy from the Pace Picante commercials ("This stuff’s made in New York City!?") Personally, I liked him best from his short appearance as Roy from Honeymoon in Vegas ("We’re the Flying Elvises, Utah chapter!") These, however, are just a sliver cut from an amazing 40-year career in which he’s starred in movies (Paper Moon, Back to the Future III, Fletch, etc.) and television (Everybody Loves Raymond, All in the Family, The Dukes of Hazzard, Evening Shade, etc.)
Did you know that this brilliant character actor is also a voting member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences? That would be the same Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences that each year hosts the world-famous Academy Awards, the biggest celebrity awards show in the universe. And Bubba is one of only 1,500 members who get a say each year. Amazing.
There’s more to Bubba than acting, however. Did you know he was a Golden Gloves boxer? If legend is true (and hey, when is it not?) then Bubba had once won more Golden Gloves bouts than anyone else in history at that time. It is even reputed that his Coast Guard boxing career record was 201-16. If even a part of the legend is true it’s impressive. He was also a firefighter before he took up acting, and he is a member of the Woodrow Wilson (Dallas) High School Hall of Fame.
I’ve had a few brushes with Bubba over the years. When I was the sports editor at the McKinney Courier-Gazette I was part of a committee that organized a big "Welcome to Texas" event for all the teams participating in the Mickey Mantle World Series of Baseball. As part of the event my managing editor Shawn Vargo and I put together a hot dog eating contest and enlisted Bubba through a mutual friend. We had the contestants on a platform down on the McKinney square in front of hundreds of people and stacked dozens of hot dogs and bottles of water in front of them. At the buzzer they started shoveling the food down, and who should bolt out to an impressive lead but Bubba? Only the joke was on me because as I’m declaring him the winner I look down and notice he had been sliding the hot dogs past his lips and down his shirt; more than a dozen of them when all was said and done. A laughing Bubba got the better of me on that day.
I ran into Bubba again when one of my sports writers was competing in a long-drive contest for charity and stationed next to Bubba. Now, know this: Bubba is an avid golfer. However, on this day, Bubba was having some issues with a driver he had just bought and, disgustedly, handed it over to my writer and said, "I can’t hit the broad side of a barn with this thing. You take it." He did and ended up with a brand new $400 TaylorMade driver.
Seeing Bubba is always a pleasure, and I’ve never been around a better storyteller. These days, Bubba lives a semi-quiet life in Allen with his wife, Susie, and their two dogs, makes the occasional school visit and plays more than a few rounds of golf. They call it the good life, and he’s earned it.
Rodney Williams is the managing editor for The Anna-Melissa Tribune and the Van Alstyne Leader. He can be contacted at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.