“…underrated as a dramatic actor, underrated as a director, but also a rare movie star that seemed to be just having an absolute ball on screen. Nobody broke frame with a bigger gleam in his eye. ” Edgar Wright.
Burt Reynolds. He was one of those stars who I assumed would go on forever, the ones who seem to drop off the radar aged forty and reappear twenty years later looking not a single day older. He was the lovable rogue. Simply the coolest, best-looking urban cowboy to come out of the Seventies. And nobody – before or since – has made a toupee look that good. Although bestowed with the charm and smile of a superstar – and an incredible screen presence – he never did enjoy the same cinematic kudos awarded to his heavyweight contemporaries.
Why? Because he was too busy having the time of his life.
This is Burt Reynolds remember, the man who grew a moustache so people wouldn’t mistake him for Marlon Brando, the man who deposited a shower of horse manure over the offices of The National Enquirer (seems fair enough) via helicopter, the man who was known for loving and fighting in equal measure. He could be supremely arrogant, yet poignantly reflective, describing himself as an egomaniac, but also as someone who was haunted by insecurity in his ability as an actor. ‘My movies were the kind they show in prisons and airplanes, because nobody can leave.’
Robert De Niro once said, ‘The talent is in the choices’ and by Reynolds’ own admission, he often made decisions that prevented him for being renowned for anything other than comedy chase blockbusters like Smokey and the Bandit and Cannonball Run. Although it’s worth noting that Smokey and the Bandit was beloved by Orson Welles and David Lean – so it’s not all bad.
But then Reynolds didn’t set out to be an actor. American football was his first love and his talent for the game was rewarded with a scholarship at Florida State University in 1954. During his second year, a car accident left him with a lasting knee injury, one serious enough to end his career as an athlete. But this injury was the first small step – albeit an inadvertent one – towards owning Hollywood’s top spot for five glorious years. For Arnold Schwarzenegger, Reynolds was a pioneer. “He showed the way to transition from being an athlete to being the highest-paid actor, and he always inspired me.”
Resigned to the fact that his football career was over, Reynolds enrolled in back in college where he won his second scholarship (this time at a New York summer school) as part of the Florida State Drama Award in 1956, for his lead performance in a play called Outward Bound and it was in New York that his acting career gained traction. His first film role in 1961, Angel Baby, was followed by TV cowboy and cop roles respectively, Gunsmoke from 1962-65 followed by Hawk in 1966 and Dan August from 1970 to 1971.
In 1972, he played the role of Lewis Medlock in the brilliantly-taut thriller, Deliverance, a heavy hint at his silver screen potential. But it was Reynolds’ decision to appear as a centrefold (sorry, the first male centrefold) in Cosmopolitan in 1972 that he believed damaged his career as a ‘serious’ actor. Helen Gurley Brown, Cosmo’s editor at the time, had offered the gig to Paul Newman but he declined. Reynolds, however, had no such doubts. “Helen didn’t have to talk me into it. I was flattered and intrigued.” But the timing was all wrong. Released three months prior to the release of Deliverance, it left the shelves faster than a ‘77 Trans Am on Interstate 20.
And Burt Reynolds the sex symbol was born.
With the exception of The Longest Yard, the intervening years did nothing to develop Reynolds’ career. It was 1977’s Smokey and the Bandit (the year’s second highest-grossing picture – Star Wars grabbed the top spot) that secured Reynolds as a global hit. The film was (and remains) brilliant fun and audiences adored the obvious chemistry between the main man and his co-star, Sally Field. And subsequent comic outings firmly established the ex college footballer as Hollywood’s most bankable leading man.
One of Reynolds’ biggest career regrets was not accepting the role of Garrett Breedlove alongside Shirley MacLaine in Terms of Endearment. The role was later offered to Jack Nicholson who went on to receive an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor – which must have hurt.
He also turned down the roles of Han Solo, James Bond and wealthy businessman Edward Lewis in Pretty Woman. Imagine how different those films would have been…
Acclaimed performances in thriller Sharky’s Machine in 1981 (which he also directed) and comedy musical The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas in 1982 also fared well with audiences. Apart from TV’s Evening Shade, for which he won an Emmy, it wasn’t until 1997’s Boogie Nights that Reynolds, once again, showed his potential as a big screen actor of considerable quality (for me, he absolutely steals the show). An Oscar nomination for best supporting actor followed but his relationship with director Paul Thomas Anderson was fractious and the offer to star in his next movie, Magnolia, was declined. Rumours of a comeback soon dwindled and Reynolds went quiet again.
His performance in 2017’s The Last Movie Star – where an ageing actor ponders the highs and lows of his career – reveals some of the rarely-seen vulnerability of an actor who had made loveable, bad-ass bravado his calling card.
Patricia Hitchcock, daughter of the legendary director, said in 2000 that Smokey and the Bandit was one of her father’s favourite films. “He made his films for the audience and for entertainment – not for the critics or for self-pleasure.”
Perhaps Burt was closer to greatness than he realised.
Charities & Good Causes
Ever a man of the people, Reynolds was always keen to put back something into the community where he felt most at home – Jupiter, Florida. The Burt Reynolds Scholarship is awarded to students to develop young filmmaking talent. Likewise the Burt Reynolds Institute (again based in Palm Beach County, Florida) exists to “provide educational opportunities for writers, actors and filmmakers.”
During his lifetime Reynolds also showed great support to children’s charities – a cause close to him from an early age his family having adopted his brother from an abusive home.
Are the world’s largest organization dedicated to ending the social, physical and economic isolation of the 200 million people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. www.bestbuddies.org
Burt Reynolds Institute
The Burt Reynolds Institute is a not-for-profit organization with the mission to provide educational opportunities for writers, actors and filmmakers. www.burtreynoldsinstitute.org
For 35 years, Starlight has brought smiles to more than 60 million critically, chronically and terminally ill children in the United States, Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom. www.starlight.org
Tribute by Kieran Fahy