Burt Reynolds (1936-2018): More Gator than Gable

Though he appeared in a handful of action classics, including “Deliverance” and “The Longest Yard,” Reynolds will be remembered by fans for his crass crash comedies. He turned down leads in “Star Wars” and “Die Hard” and admitted to being a “lousy” judge of his own talent.

by Glenn Lovell

Burt “Buddy” Reynolds — the good ol’ boy hero in a slew of demo-derby epics, including the roisterous “Smokey and the Bandit” — gave arguably three great performances in a wildly uneven film and TV career that spanned six decades. Make that four performances if you count his popular guest-hosting stints for the vacationing Johnny Carson on “The Tonight Show.” I do.

Reynolds died Thursday (9/6/18) in Jupiter, FL, of what’s being reported as cardiac arrest. He was 82 and for years had looked alarmingly gaunt.

As Entertainment Editor at the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, I crossed paths with the sometimes defensive and prickly leading man several times, starting with the Atlanta premiere of “Smokey and the Bandit” and including the New Orleans press sendoff for “Semi-Tough” and the gala opening of the Burt Reynolds Dinner Theatre in Jupiter. (Reynolds, Liza Minnelli, Martin Sheen and others taught at the theater’s drama school, where student actors earned Equity cards.)

Reynolds grew up nearby, in Riviera Beach and attended Palm Beach High School. An All-State fullback, he earned an athletic scholarship to Florida State, where his dreams of a pro career were soon dashed by a knee injury. He changed his major to drama and, after paying dues in summer stock, made his Broadway debut in 1961. A revival of “Mister Roberts” starring Charlton Heston led to TV offers and recurring roles on “Riverboat” and “Gunsmoke.” Often compared to Brando (not favorably), the swarthy Reynolds did a dead-on caricature of the mumbling Method icon on “The Twilight Zone.”

Universal signed him to a six-year contract but cut him after a year. “They fired Clint Eastwood, David Janssen and me at the same time,” he recalled in Atlanta. “They said Clint’s Adam’s Apple was to big and he had to have it operated on. They said Janssen’s ears were too big and he sounded too much like another Gable. And they told me I was incorrigible, which was their way of saying I was untalented.”

After a handful of low-budget actioners, including Sam Fuller’s “Shark,” Reynolds got his big break in “Deliverance,” based on the James Dickey bestseller about four Atlanta friends on a weekend canoeing trip that turns deadly. Reynolds was paid $50,000 for the plum part of Lewis, the poseur survivalist. Next came the coveted title role in “The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing,” a big-budget adaptation that costarred Sarah Miles and drew attention in the tabloids for the stars’ steamy behind-the-scenes romance and the suicide of Miles’ personal assistant.

Along with “Deliverance,” Reynolds best performances came in Robert Aldrich’s “The Longest Yard” and Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Boogie Nights.” For the former he didn’t have to reach far to play a fallen gridiron star who lands in prison where he’s forced to don helmet and pads for a high-stakes scrimmage. In “Boogie Nights” (1997), he appeared as a San Fernando Valley porn director who’s surrogate father to cast and crew. He was ballyhooed as a shoo-in for Oscar nominations for “Deliverance” and “The Longest Yard.” Almost a quarter century later, he received one for “Boogie Nights,” an adult “family movie” he didn’t pretend to like or understand.

Peter Bogdanovich saw Reynolds as the modern-day incarnation of the ah-shucks hayseed often played by Gary Cooper and Joel McCrea. He cast him first as a hammy matinee idol in “Nickelodeon,” his Valentine to the early days of picture-making, and then as a tux-and-tails sophisticate in “At Long Last Love,” a tone-deaf musical costarring Cybill Shepherd. The stars sang and danced to Cole Porter. Badly.

Reynolds also costarred with Gene Hackman in “Lucky Lady” and Clint Eastwood in “City Heat.” Both period buddy pictures tanked.

When the mainstream studio films didn’t pan out, Reynolds returned to his southern rural base, which couldn’t get enough of the unapologetically crass interplay between Jackie Gleason’s sputtering sheriff and Reynolds’ legendary bad boy in the first two “Smokey and the Bandit” movies. Much in the same vein were “White Lightning,” “Gator,” “Hooper,” “Stroker Ace” and “The Cannonball Run,” a mostly improvised cross-country race for which the star was paid a then-record $5 million. The even less organized “Cannonball Run 2,” likened at the time to “a Texas barbecue with a hundred of your closest friends,” co-starred Reynolds’ pals Dom DeLuise, Marilu Henner and Mel Tillis. Aging Rat Packers Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Henry Silva and Shirley MacLaine dropped by for cameos.

Reynolds knew the slapstick comedies hurt his reputation, but they paid the rent. When we sat down, he was in a been-there-done-that mood and more than ready to segue into something more challenging. His next films: the underrated “Semi-Tough,” based on the Dan Jenkins’ outrageous novel about the NFL, and “The End,” a leaden attempt at a Woody Allen dark comedy. Reynolds, prone to dizziness and anxiety attacks, identified with the latter’s hapless hypochondriac.

” ‘Smokey’ will probably be the last of the chase films,” said Reynolds, who ruled the box office with “Smokey II” and its ilk from 1978 to 1982. “I don’t think anybody will be able to top it. I think we said it all.”

On five feature films and a ton of TV episodes Reynolds called the shots behind the camera. While hardly a great director, he was a decent one, especially on “Sharky’s Machine” (1981), a grim, surprisingly cynical cop thriller.

Reynolds, who lived a stone’s throw from the National Enquirer, was perfect tabloid fodder. His always seemed in the midst of relationship and money woes. Though he played the womanizer in Blake Edwards “The Man Who Loved Women” and other films, he was in fact an old-fashioned romantic who tended to carry a torch for his true loves — singer-TV host Dinah Shore, 20 years his senior, and Sally Field, who rode shotgun in “Smokey and the Bandit I & II.” (Reynolds admitted jealousy over her Oscar win for “Norma Rae” led to their breakup.)

“I’d be lying if I said (the tabloid gossip) didn’t bother me,
he said in the spring of 1977. “If I were married and running around, I would deserve to be called a womanizer. But I’m a bachelor and that means I should be able to go out with whomever I choose — a different lady every night if I want.

“But all the press puts a lot of pressure on my relationships; it scares the ladies off. Where can we go so we won’t get that kind of pressure? The public library?”

Reynolds again became tabloid fodder during his acrimonious split from second wife Loni Anderson. He wrote about the divorce and protracted custody battle in his 1994 memoir, “My Life.” On the book tour Reynolds sat with KGO radio’s Ronn Owens for an interview that quickly went from uncomfortable to hostile when a caller asked the star, “What species of wig do you have on? Chipmunk?”

The top box office draw for five consecutive years always seemed one residual check from bankruptcy. In recent years he sold movie memorabilia to settle debts. Which explains why he worked right up until the end. He’s in two upcoming releases, including Quentin Tarantino’s Charles Manson movie, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.”

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