The star of Smokey and the Bandit was, of course, Burt Reynolds, a man of great passions, great flaws, and ultimately great loyalty to the people and place he came from. “I love the South,” he emphatically states to this very day. His is a career that — sometimes for worse but more often for better — stands as a testament to that simple heartfelt sentiment.
The man who would become one of the most popular movie stars of the last quarter century was born in 1936, the son of a small-town police chief in Florida. He grew up handsome and tough, randy and reckless — by fourteen, he had lost his virginity to a much older woman, and soon after knocked up the prom queen (his attempts to cajole her into marriage were rebuffed by the girl’s society-maven mother, who forced her daughter to abort the baby). Such antics were an early harbinger of both the charismatic charm and voracious, self-destructive appetites that would define (and sometimes decimate) his later career (a typical joke — Q: Why didn’t Burt Reynolds ever take Loni Anderson out to dinner? A: He made it a rule never to date married women.)
Like John Wayne thirty years earlier, an injury ended Reynolds’ budding college football career, and in 1955 he turned toward acting. Future stars like Joanne Woodward and Rip Torn were early friends during his New York salad days, and the connections he built there ultimately allowed him to journey west in the late Fifties to seek his fortune in Hollywood. At the time he bore an uncanny resemblance to superstar Marlon Brando, and along with new pals like Clint Eastwood he spent long, disheartening years scrambling between minor roles in various television shows such as Riverboat and Gunsmoke. He even served as a contestant on The Dating Game. “I spent a long time playing the third Indian from the left,” he says ruefully of those early jobs.
From the start of the “swingin’ Sixties,” he seldom felt at home among the young, self-important thespians who would eventually rule the industry. “I don’t belong in places like New York or Los Angeles,” he insisted when pressed. “I should be on a farm with a few cases of good beer.” Reynolds’ first marriage, to the English actress Judy Carne, disintegrated when he couldn’t bring himself to join the never-ending drug-infested parties she presided over with an assortment of heroin-addicted hippies and Charles Manson rejects.
While many of his friends tried to emulate the new hip stars of that decade and their space-cadet ways, Reynolds was drawn to a different world, one to which his pal Hal Needham provided the gateway. “One time,” Needham remembers, “[Burt] mentioned that he didn’t know much about motorcycles, so I suggested that he come over to my place and practice. I had motorcycles and a tree where we used to do high falls. Every weekend there were fifteen or twenty stunt guys practicing. Burt started coming around every weekend. He got along well with all of the guys.”
In that way, over a long period of association, Reynolds’ persona became more of a stuntman than an actor — and for the most part, that was fine by him. The rarefied careers of emotive twerps like Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino didn’t interest him. “There are two or three young actors around,” he once said in his heyday, “I won’t mention any names — who if I see them painfully staring at the rug in one more picture, I’m gonna puke.” I imagine Reynolds shares that thought, then and now, with a vast swath of the nation’s movie-going public. The Needham/Reynolds friendship grew over the course of fifteen years, and Reynolds never forgot the way his pal shared his contacts and expertise.
By the end of the 1960s, Reynolds was an established television personality, but his early work had stereotyped him as a serious, angry, morose action star, a role that didn’t jive with his true nature. Something important was missing from the mix: humor. The venue Reynolds ultimately used to introduce his jocular side to the public was novel. “The beginning of almost everything good that ever happened to me,” he says, “was a result of my being on the Tonight Show.” His first appearances there were a revelation, creating a pop-culture electricity that today is hard to fathom. “The guy on Evening Shade [his successful early 1990s TV sitcom] is who I am and always was,” Reynolds feels. “The guy on the Tonight Show is who I was after seven vodka and tonics, which is generally what I had before I walked out.”
Whatever he drank, his stints on the program utterly transformed his persona in the eyes of the public. Instead of the usual actors taking themselves ultra-seriously, mumbling about how much effort and technique and skill they put into their roles, Reynolds would cheerfully call his latest film a flat-out turkey, poke fun at his lack of top-flight acting ambition, and shamelessly play the part of a rich, sexy, fun-loving Hollywood star who was enjoying the wild ride like no one else.
The following 1974 appearance on the Tonight Show, made while promoting The Longest Yard, gives the modern viewer an idea of the early swagger that he would later parlay into the films that made him the top box-office attraction of the late Seventies and early Eighties:
[youtube RNR0V8qjhIY — click here to watch in full-screen]
Soon the fairly unknown TV star was Johnny Carson’s hottest guest, to the point where Carson often had Reynolds guest host the show for him. The fame gained from these appearances rocketed him out of the Hollywood doldrums. For the first time, the name BURT REYNOLDS on a marquee opened movies all by itself, and he now had his choice of what kind of projects to do.
But crucially, rather than go the usual route of chasing Oscars, he opted for a more personal direction. “My friends all wear cowboy hats and have horse manure on their boots,” he said. “They ask me if I knew John Wayne, and I say ‘no,’ and that’s the end of the show business talk.” So with his new-found clout he began doing Southern “hick flicks,” many of which (Deliverance, White Lightning, The Longest Yard, Gator) became popular, making him a beloved figure throughout flyover country. Tellingly, these projects were spaced out with other, more mainstream roles, many of which weren’t popular at all. Reynolds was getting stereotyped again, but this time as a character America was warming to.
In the mid-Seventies, with Needham still living in Reynolds’ guest house after his divorce twelve years earlier, the chance finally came to pay back a karmic debt to his old friend. “One day,” Reynolds says, “[Needham] gave me a script he’d written. Titled Smokey and the Bandit, it was scrawled on a yellow legal pad in his own handwriting. Cheap bastard hadn’t even had it typed.” He read the script and was underwhelmed. “Now Hal and I had one of the tightest friendships in show business. He’d directed second-unit footage and coordinated stunts on six of my films. My God, we’d lived together longer than either of us had lived with any of the women to whom we’d been married. So it was hard to tell him I thought it was the worst script I’d read in my life.”
Nevertheless, he saw some potential in the tale — its outlaw, Robin Hood conceit might be greatly appealing, if the dialogue and scenes could be spruced up to match. Various agents and hangers-on told Reynolds he would be crazy to star in a madcap, low-budget screwball comedy. He needed more movies, they argued, like Deliverance — parts that could further his reputation as a serious actor. “Every single one of my advisers and friends,” Reynolds says, “went down on their hands and knees begging me with tears in their eyes not to make that film. Mind you, if you had read the original script, you’d probably have done the same.”
But beyond Reynolds affinity for the basic plot and the Southern atmosphere, he felt he owed his friend a good turn. Hal Needham was in his forties and nearing the end of his useful life as a stuntman, and Reynolds well knew of his desire to move into directing. So, when Needham tried and failed to get any of the studios interested in the picture, Reynolds made it known around town that he would be willing to star as the Bandit. Instantly, studio doors opened wide, and Needham found his previously derided script in demand. It was, Needham later admitted, “the biggest thing anyone has ever done for me in my life.”
If Reynolds had saved the script by putting his potent box-office muscle behind it, Needham himself added some necessary guts to the package. Reynolds remembers how
[film executive Mike] Medavoy wanted to make a movie with me — but not Smokey. Instead, he handed Hal the script of Convoy and said he could direct that one if I starred. Hal, who’d never directed, considered the bigger-budget offer and said, “No, it’s mine or nothing.” That’s the reason I love Hal. He’s a hell of a man.
It would have been easy for Needham to fold his hand, toss away his script, and try to make someone else’s movie. But he perceptively decided that Convoy had none of the charm, authenticity, or raw excitement that his own Smokey and the Bandit tale promised, and he held firm under withering studio pressure.
Looking back, Burt Reynolds epitomizes not only the best but much of the worst that movie stardom has to offer. Stardom often went to his head, something he freely admits in his autobiography. He’s known for having a short fuse. All the womanizing left him a twice-divorced, 73-year-old lonely bachelor. Vanity led to cadaverous plastic surgery (compare Reynolds’ futile attempt to still look 40 to the gracefully aged visages of contemporaries like Sean Connery and Clint Eastwood). Many of his films are now derided as junk, projects he undertook even as he rejected such choice roles as James Bond, Trapper John in M*A*S*H, Han Solo in Star Wars, the (Oscar-winning) astronaut Garrett Breedlove in Terms of Endearment, John McClane in Die Hard, and many others.
In 1996, the former superstar’s spendthrift ways caught up to him, and he was forced to file bankruptcy with assets of $6.65 million against debts of $11.2 million — a pathetic pittance of an estate for a four-decade member of Hollywood royalty. Reynolds suffered his share of plain old bad luck as well: acute hypoglycemia in the Seventies, a horrible case of temporomandibular joint disorder in the Eighties. He once mused wryly that when life-threateningly ill, “you make a hundred bargains with God. But as soon as you feel better, you break them.”
But there’s another side to Burt Reynolds: the stand-up guy, full of graciousness and generosity to fans and friends. Note that he never has built his personal politics into a wall between himself and the public. One incident in particular hammers this home for me. Back in 1985, when AIDS was first entering the nation’s consciousness, the activist group AIDS Project Los Angeles asked Elizabeth Taylor (a close friend of the then-dying Rock Hudson) to organize a fundraiser that would help create mainstream awareness of this feared disease. Taylor called everyone she knew asking for help, but according to her virtually everyone balked. “The people in this town didn’t give a damn!” she remembered many years later. “That made me cynical about Hollywood. What a sad lesson. It’s a very sad comment on this town.”
Actually it’s par for the course — today many of those same people fly private jets while lecturing the rest of us about carbon emissions. But it says a lot that — with Rock Hudson having only weeks to live, and everyone else afraid to attend an AIDS fundraiser that might hurt their careers — Burt Reynolds was one of only a small handful of stars to say “yes” to Taylor’s request. Not only that, he took upon himself the most thankless task of the event: reading aloud the pledge of support that the hated Republican President, Ronald Reagan, had generously sent from Washington. Let it be noted for the record that, on September 19, 1985, actor Burt Reynolds stood up at Taylor’s event and read Reagan’s letter, while being roundly booed by a mass of angry activist attendees. That counts for something in my book.
(as an aside: at a similar event some time later, Reagan showed up in person to once again graciously pledge his support for AIDS research. The same classless ingrates from ACT UP who had booed Reynolds began doing the same thing to the President. To Elizabeth Taylor’s everlasting credit, she grabbed the mic and shut them all down, yelling, “I don’t care what your politics are, I don’t care how you feel about the President or what he’s not doing, he is still the President of the United States of America and you owe him some due respect, so shut the f*** up!” Properly chastised, the buffoons did shut up, and Reagan was able to give his speech.)
In light of all of this, I’ve got a question for you: do you know if Burt Reynolds is a Democrat? A Republican? An Independent?
No clue, right?
“Most of my friends are very political,” Reynolds admits, “and they were chagrined when I wasn’t active during the 1976 Presidential campaign.” He was making Smokey and the Bandit during that time, and could have joined the usual suspects in protesting and posturing and shrieking hate at ordinary Americans, all in an attempt to fit in with the Hollywood gang and grease the wheels of his career. Instead, he chose to “shut up and sing.” As conservatives and as movie lovers, we should give him due credit for that gift of silence.
Hal Needham dismisses those in Hollywood who think of Reynolds as a jerk, and reminds us that, “Without Burt, I’d never have had a chance. Burt has this capacity for loyalty and caring. He has made it and he doesn’t forget anyone he has ever cared for, man or woman.” That caring extends not only to friends like Needham, but to all the people who have enjoyed his films over the years. On September 24, 1981, at the height of his fame, Reynolds immortalized his hand and footprints in the famous forecourt of Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood. He took the opportunity to scratch a simple line into the moist cement, one that speaks for itself and that modern Hollywood would do well to emulate:
Next Saturday in For Conservative Movie Lovers: The Great One. ‘Nuff said.
Previous posts in the series “Hal Needham, Burt Reynolds and Smokey and the Bandit“:
FURTHER READING and VIEWING
If you ever find yourself in the Miami/Fort Lauderdale/West Palm Beach area, you might consider taking a detour to Jupiter, Florida to visit the Burt Reynolds Roadside Museum, located in an old bank building and filled with memorabilia, autographed pictures, awards, and other items.
After making such a point about Reynolds’ laudable decision to keep his politics to himself, I should mention that NewsMeat: America’s Most Popular Campaign Donor Search Engine lists a mere two political contributions from Burt Reynolds: one to Florida Senator Bob Graham way back in 1986, and one to Bill Clinton during his first run in 1992. Both Democrats, but also Southerners who Reynolds might have known and felt obligated to help on grounds other than raw politics.
To balance the scales, the entry for Smokey and the Bandit director Hal Needham lists three donations, one for the Dems and two for the GOP. Poke around the site and examine their celebrity donation lists — you might be surprised to find out how many of your favorite stars are closet Republicans.
Reynolds’ My Life is one of the better celebrity autobiographies out there. Like all such volumes it is more than a bit self-serving, but overall it lays bare the ups and downs, and gives some crucial insights into the blessing/curse of fame. If you haven’t seen Reynolds’ excellent four-hour-long one-man show An Evening with Burt Reynolds (alas, it’s not available on DVD, and who knows how many more times the seventy-three-year-old Reynolds is going to perform it live), reading this book is the next-best thing.
Like Barbara Walters’ painfully inane TV specials, Inside the Actor’s Studio has long been a safe place for actors and directors to preen like peacocks, cry like children, and indulge in the fantasy of being a thoughtful intellectual. Nevertheless, excepting perennially vacuous questions like “What sound or noise do you love” and “What is your favorite curse word,” this Bravo TV show occasionally teases enough insight and anecdotage out of its subjects to make it worthwhile. Here are four YouTube videos (part 2 has been deleted by YouTube, probably because of the Smokey clips) showing Reynolds braving host James Lipton’s Lamb’s Den.