Recently the world mourned the loss of legendary actor Burt Reynolds who died at age 82. While most people think of him as “The Bandit” in Smokey and the Bandit his most famous film role, in reality Reynolds had a long and varied career with many ups and downs.
He was born Burton Leon Reynolds, Jr. in Lansing, Mi. in 1936. When he was ten his family moved to Palm Beach Fl. where his father became the local police chief. As a high school student Reynolds received all-state honors in football which earned him a scholarship to Florida State University. There he roomed with future ESPN football analyst Lee Corso. Unfortunately, injuries both on and off the field ended his football career. Despite this, Reynolds remained a lifelong FSU supporter, endowing a chair at the school and donating to the school’s theatre department. In turn, FSU gave Reynolds an honorary doctorate in 1981.
Reynolds left FSU to attend a community college in the hopes of going into law enforcement. While taking an English class he was encouraged to try acting. He did and won the 1956 Florida State Drama Award for his very first performance in Outward Bound. The award came with a scholarship to a summer stock theatre in New York. There he was befriended by Oscar winning actress Joanne Woodward who cast him in a play and got him an agent. When the scholarship ended he did off-Broadway plays and summer stock, and took acting classes. Though Reynolds generally received good reviews, the roles dried up and he took to doing odd jobs.
He caught a break in the new medium of television where he made his debut in 1958 playing in two episodes of Flight. He got his first starring television role in 1959 on the show Riverboat, but was an unhappy experience resulting in Reynolds quitting after 20 episodes. From then until 1970 Reynolds made numerous guest appearances on various television shows. One of his most memorable roles was as a James Dean-type actor who tells William Shakespeare that he does not know anything about drama in the Twilight Zone episode The Bard.
Reynolds became a recurring character, Quint Asper, a “half-breed” blacksmith on Gunsmoke, playing the character 50 times from 1962 until 1965. Then in 1966 Reynolds got his own t.v. series Hawk, in which he played a police detective, It lasted 17 episodes. From 1970- 1971 he again played a police detective in Dan August which ran for 26 episodes.
After the failure of Dan August, he did not appear on another scripted television program until 1986, except for guest hosting Saturday Night Live on April 20, 1980. He was a frequent guest on The Tonight Show and when his good friend Johnny Carson suffered an unexpected injury and could not go on the air, Reynolds guest hosted for him.
His film debut came in 1961 in Angel Baby, a low-budget film about a faith healer that was almost sexually assaulted by Reynolds’ character when she was 13. In many of Reynolds early television and movie roles in played characters that were all or part Native American. (Reynolds claimed that he was part Cherokee, but some have disputed his assertion.) He once quipped “the only Indian I haven’t played is Pocahontas.”
Reynolds’ big break came in 1972 when he starred in Deliverance, a film about four suburbanites who go on a canoe trip in the back woods with rather dire results. In an interview at the time Reynolds said, “I’ve waited 15 years to do a really good movie. I made so many bad pictures. I was never able to turn anyone down. The greatest curse in Hollywood is to be a well-known unknown.”
The film also started a love affair between Reynolds and the state of Georgia. One director called it “Burt’s good luck state.” From then on, many of his most successful movie and television projects would be filmed in the Peach State. Not surprisingly, the Michigan native was often seen playing a “Southern good ole boy” throughout the 70s and 80s. In 2003 he was honored at the Atlanta Film Festival for his contributions to the state’s film industry.
Deliverance earned $46 million at the box office and was Oscar Nominated for Best Picture and Best Director. Although many consider it Reynolds’ best performance, much to his life-long regret he did not receive an Oscar nomination, nor any other award nomination, for this film. Reynolds blamed the snubs on his posing nude for Cosmopolitan magazine in what was supposed to be a parody of a Playboy centerfold to help promote the film. “It was really stupid. I don’t know what I was thinking. I wish I hadn’t done that.” He later admitted that he was drunk at the time. Because of this, Reynolds felt critics had trouble accepting him as a serious actor.
Despite his regrets, the public bought 1.5 million copies of the magazine and throughout the 1970s and 1980s Reynolds would consistently find himself near or on the top of “sexiest men” polls.
Also in 1972, Reynolds appeared as the “Sperm Switchboard Chief” in Woody Allen’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (But Were Afraid to Ask).
For the next couple of years Reynolds established himself as an action and comedy star. One of his best films of that era was 1974’s The Longest Yard a comedy about an imprisoned ex- pro-football player that was actually shot in a Georgia prison. Reynolds received a Golden Globe Award nomination for his performance, the first award nomination for him as a movie actor.
In 1976 he made his directorial debut in Gator. Also in 1976 Reynolds parodied himself in Mel Brooks’ Silent Movie. (A scene with Reynolds, Brooks, Dom Deluise and Marty Feldman in a shower together is considered one of the film’s highlights.)
In 1977 Reynolds played the role that he would be forever associated with, Bo “The Bandit” Darville in Smokey and the Bandit with Jackie Gleason, country music star Jerry Reed, and Sally Field. Reynolds lobbied hard for Field, with whom he would become romantically involved with during the film’s shooting. Most of the dialogue was improvised.
Smokey and the Bandit would go on to make $300 million against a budget of only $4 million (of which Reynolds got $1 million in salary) and was the second highest grossing film of the year behind Star Wars. (Ironically, Reynolds turned down the role of Hans Solo, much to his regret). The Pontiac Trans-Am, the car Reynolds drives in the film, became one of the hottest selling automobiles in America.
The film also started a professional a relationship between Reynolds and the film’s director, Hal Needham, a legendary Hollywood stunt man. The two would go on to make Hooper (1978), a film about stuntmen based on Needham’s experiences, the obligatory Smokey and the Bandit II (1980), Cannonball Run (1981), a star-studded film based on an actual, and illegal, cross country race held in the 1970s, Stroker Ace (1983) a film about NASCAR, where he met his future wife Loni Anderson, and Cannon Ball Run II (1984).
While none of these films were critic’s darlings, most of them made lots of money cementing Reynolds superstar status. Still he became disillusioned about working with Needham. He hated Smokey and the Bandit II saying it “was only made to make money.” Regarding Cannon Ball Run, Reynolds freely admitted, “I did that film for all the wrong reasons. I never liked it. I did it to help out a friend of mine, Hal Needham. And I also felt it was immoral to turn down that kind of money. I suppose I sold out so I couldn’t really object to what people wrote about me.” Reynolds considered 1983’s Stroker Ace, a box-office bomb (which again he did as a favor to Needham) as the beginning of the end of his days as the reigning box office champ. “That’s where I lost [the fans].” Though the two did not work together after 1984, Needham lived in Reynolds’ guest house for twelve years.
Reynolds tried his hand at some more serious films, appearing in the highly-hyped pro football comedy-drama Semi-Tough (1977) with Kris Kristofferson and Jill Clayburgh and he directed himself and Sally Field in the dark comedy The End in a role that was written for Woody Allen. Neither film made a major dent at the box office.
He had a string of hits as an action hero in Sharky’s Machine (1981), which he directed, and is considered one of Reynolds’ best films, a musical, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982) with Dolly Parton and a comedy Best Friends (1982) with Goldie Hawn. While the variety of the films showed that he was a versatile actor, and a very popular as he was voted most popular star in America for the fifth straight year, he still had to deal with hostile critics.
Part of Reynolds image problem (besides the Cosmopolitan picture) was that he was viewed as a womanizing playboy whose relationships were tabloid fodder. In 1963 he married British comedienne-actress Judy Carne (the “sock-it-to-me” girl on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In), but the marriage only lasted two years because, according to Carne, Reynolds could not handle her being a bisexual. For five years he had a relationship with talk show hostess Dinah Shore, who was twenty years his senior. In the early 80s he was with Sally Field. From 1988 until 1993 he was married to Loni Anderson (WKRP in Cincinnati) with whom he adopted a son. But the marriage ended in a very messy and expensive divorce when Reynolds left Anderson for a cocktail waitress.
With his success, Reynolds opened restaurants and a dinner theatre. He was part-owner of the United State Football League’s Tampa Bay team, appropriately called the Bandits from 1982 till 1986. He also co-owned a NASCAR team with Needham. Their number 33 car, driven by Harry Gant, was sponsored by Skoal Bandit chewing tobacco.
Best Friends would be Reynolds’ last hit film of the 1980s as almost every film he made afterwards was a financial, and often, a critical disappointment. Despite a strong promotional push, the 1984 dream pairing of Reynolds and Clint Eastwood in the film noir comedy City Heat was a box office disappointment. Even worse, during filming, Reynolds was hit in the face by a metal chair which led to him losing thirty pounds from not eating and several years of addiction to pain killers.
Reynolds lent his voice to animator Don Bluth’s 1989 film All Dogs Go to Heaven. Reynolds, who played Charley the German Sheppard, recorded most of his lines with his good buddy Deluise and the two wound up adlibbing most of them. Burt’s wife Loni Anderson also had a part in the movie. However the film, which went up against Disney’s The Little Mermaid made only $13.8 million against a budget of $27.1 million and received mixed to poor reviews from critics, many of whom felt the film was too dark for children. However, it became one of the biggest selling VHS tapes of all time, with three million sold in the first month alone. This led to a sequel and a television series, though Reynolds did not participate in these latter projects.
With his film career stalled, Reynolds went back to television, starring in B.L. Stryker, a crime drama set in Florida. The series ran for only one season in 1989-1990. However, Reynolds found success again in his next series Evening Shade.
The show which ran from 1990-1994 was about an ex- Steeler who had to retired due to injury returning to his home town of Evening Shade, Arkansas to coach the local high school football team which has a losing record. (Reynolds was a real-life Steelers fan and former Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw appeared in two of Reynolds’ films). Evening Shade featured Reynolds’ friends Marilu Henner, Ossie Davis, Hal Holbrook and Charles Dunning. The show was a hit with both viewers and critics and Reynolds won his first major acting awards, an Emmy and a Golden Globe, for his performance.
In addition, Reynolds also help create and produce the popular television game show Win, Lose or Draw which aired in various formats from 1987 until 1992. Supposedly the game was one that Reynolds and some friends had created and actually played in his home, which may explain why the set looked exactly like the actor’s living room. Reynolds appeared in the pilot and appeared in several episodes.
But by 1996 Reynolds was forced to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy due to failed investments, his divorce to Anderson, and his extravagant lifestyle.
Reynolds was often his own worst enemy. Besides turning down the role of Hans Solo, he also turned down, much to his regret, the role of James Bond, Michael Corleone in The Godfather, Richard Gere’s part in Pretty Woman, John McClane in Die Hard, Jack Nicholson’s parts in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Terms of Endearment (both of which earned Nicholson an Oscar). He also turned down a major part in the film adaptation of M*A*S*H.
Ironically, Reynolds received his only Oscar nomination for a role he regretted playing, porn filmmaker Jack Horner, in 1997’s Boogie Nights. Though he received 15 major acting award nominations, winning 12, for his performance, he did not enjoy working on the film as he and director/writer Paul Thomas Anderson did not get along.
Reynolds had never made it a secret that he wanted to win an Oscar. When he won the Emmy for Pickett Fences he joked that his acceptance speech was his “Oscar speech.” Though considered by many to be the favorite to win the Best Supporting Actor Oscar, Reynolds lost out to Robin Williams for Good Will Hunting.
Reynolds would spend the rest of his days as a working actor, generally playing big parts in small films and/or small roles in big films. Among his more notable performances was Boss Hogg in 2005’s The Dukes of Hazzard. The same year he appeared in a remake of The Longest Yard with Adam Sandler playing the role Reynolds had done in 1974.
In 2016 Reynolds made his last television series Hitting the Brakes, which lasted only ten episodes. Proving that he still had his acting chops, he turned in a critically acclaimed performance in 2017’s The Last Movie Star playing an aging film star in a role written especially for him.
In addition to his film and television work, Reynolds wrote two memoirs, My Life (1994) and But Enough About Me (2015). However, financial problems would still continue to plague him. In 2011 his Florida home was repossessed to cover a $1.2 million debt.
Burt Reynolds died on September 6, 2018 in Jupiter, Fla from a heart attack at age 82, after years of health issues which included back surgery in 2009 and a quintuple by-pass in 2010. At the time of his death he was cast for Quentin Taratino’s Once Upon A Time in Hollywood about the Manson Family Murders. Sadly, Reynolds died before being able to shoot his scenes. His remains were cremated.
Reynolds’ legacy should be of one of those rare breed of entertainers who transcend their work to become a cultural icon. He was also a much better actor than many critics gave him credit for. Yes, he will always be remembered as The Bandit, but he was so, so much more than that.
Staff Writer/Resident Historian: Nerd Nation Magazine