Just got the word that Burt Reynolds (b. 1936) passed passed away today and I confess the news finds me less prepared than I usually am at such times. I’ve been planning to do something on him for awhile, possibly around his 1970 detective series Dan August (because we have some old TV Guides hyping that) but this gives me an opportunity (sad though it is) to do a much broader tribute.
As luck would have it — earlier today we did a post on “Football Player Actors”, and this is precisely what Reynolds was, though it’s often forgotten today. He was a college football star in his native Florida, and he resurrected his love for, and skill at, the sport in the original versions of The Longest Yard (1974) and Semi-Tough (1977) and on the tv series Evening Shade (1990-94).
After college, he went on to be a New York stage actor, and to act in television drama, where he was often (for good reason) compared to Marlon Brando. When he was younger, he kind of looked like Brando, but he also affected that same gum-chewing nonchalance, the same beatnik unconcern. From 1962 through 1965 he played the “half-breed” deputy Quint on Gunsmoke, which led to several westerns in which he was cast as Native Americans, like Navaho Joe (1966), and 100 Rifles (1969), and several in which he was not, like Sam Whiskey (1969) and The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing (1973 — although in that one he LOVES an Indian). It is sometimes claimed that Reynolds had some Native American ancestry (the claim was most frequently made in the ’60s) but I have across no credible definitive statement one way or the other.
In 1970, he got the starring role in the detective series Dan August. This led to the 1972 action comedy Fuzz with Raquel Welch. Then of course the 1972 hit Deliverance, which is a classic for so many reasons other than Reynolds’ performance (he’s not bad in it; it’s just that so many other elements are so good).
White Lightning (1973) is about where the “crackers in cars” phenomenon starts. Movies where Reynolds and the guys in the Burt Reynolds posse (I dunno, Dom Deluise, Jerry Reed) are compelled by circumstances to drive really fast in cars, sometimes smashing into things like a demolition derby. It may have been the first true revival of this kind of cinematic spectacle since the silent days, and in my tween years I truly enjoyed these dumb comedies. In point of fact, when we saw Smokey and the Bandit at a drive-in during its initial run in 1977 it may have ranked as one of the hardest times I have ever laughed at a movie, although in my defense I was 12 years old at the time. Others in this vein included W.W. and The Dixie Dancekings (1975), Gator (1976), Hooper (1978), Smokey and the Bandit II (1980), The Cannonball Run (1981), Stroker Ace (1983), Smokey and the Bandit Part 3 (1983), and Cannonball Run II (1984). Many of these were directed by former stunt coordinator Hal Needham, whose greasy handprints are all over the hoods of these loud vehicles. These films weren’t all Reynolds was doing at the time, but most of them were box office hits, and they didn’t help his reputation any, nor did his appearances in talk shows where he seemed sort of sexist and arrogant. He developed a reputation for being a bit of a vain fool. While the adjective clearly applied, the noun didn’t.
Peter Bogdanovich believed in him, casting him in At Long Last Love (1975) and Nickelodeon (1976). Stanley Donen cast him the expensive period piece Lucky Lady (1975) with Liza Minnelli and Gene Hackman. Mel Brooks gave him a self-referential bit in Silent Movie (1976). (Ironically most of Reynolds’ movies with Needham were more like silent comedies than Brooks’ homage was). Reynolds himself directed Gator, The End (1978), Sharky’s Machine (1981) and Stick (1985). In 1979 he co-starred with Jill Clayburgh in the Alan J. Pakula film Starting Over, much more mature fodder than was typical for him at the time, and it wound up being nominated for several Oscars. In 1980 he returned to the small screen for three new Dan August TV movies. In 1982 came the screen version of the musical The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, with Dolly Parton. In 1982 he costarred with Goldie Hawn in Best Friends; the following year in Blake Edwards’ The Man Who Loved Women, some more self-satire.
Somewhere around Heat (1984), written by Edwards, directed by Richard Benjamin and co-starring Clint Eastwood, the cinema magic seemed to leave him. Not without good reason! He got hit in the face with a chair, causing an injury to his jaw. He lost massive amounts of weight from not eating, relied on painkillers, and forever afterward had health problems after that.
But where there’s a will there’s a way. While he stopped having movie hits, he returned to the small screen. He starred in the cop show B.L. Stryker from 1989 to 1990. He starred in Evening Shade from 1990 through 1994, also producing and directing many of the episodes. In 1997 his terrific performance in P.T. Anderson’s Boogie Nights (1997). Around this time he also had financial problems — he suffered bankruptcies and foreclosures over the last couple of decades. Time will tell what his last official screen credit will be. He was working right up until the end. He was cast as George Spahn in Quentin Tarantino’s Manson movie Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, but didn’t get to shoot his scenes.
We haven’t gotten to Burt Reynolds as sex symbol yet. And we’re not gonna! That’s better left to others! We will mention that he was married to Laugh-In’s Judy Carne from 1963 through 1965, and WKRP’s Loni Anderson from 1988 to 1993. And he seemed to become a sex symbol the minute he got that very 70s porn mustache.
At any rate, so passes another mile marker in our time on this earth. Spend it wisely and well. I sure wish I could have had as good a time as Burt Reynolds!