I had just got back from a long afternoon walk on this gorgeous day when, after checking for incoming texts and calls, I checked my Facebook feed and discovered Burt Reynolds had passed away at age 82. Coincidentally, I have a post on Burt’s THE LONGEST YARD scheduled for Saturday, but rather than just move it up, I’ve decided to write this small tribute. Burt Reynolds has earned it. He was arguably the biggest box-office attraction of the 1970’s, number one from 1978-82, and his charismatic, wiseass persona made him a hit with audiences, if not with the critics. But what did they know… Burt Reynolds was The People’s Star.
Born in 1936, Burt’s family moved to Florida when he was ten, his father taking a job as Police Chief of Riviera Beach. Burt may not have been a straight-A student, but he excelled in sports, playing fullback for Palm Beach High. That led to a scholarship at Florida State, but injuries took him off the gridiron in his sophomore year. Transferring to a junior college, Burt caught the acting bug and was soon doing summer stock and regional theater. He started doing television, and became a regular on the Western series RIVERBOAT (1959-61), until he butted heads with star Darren McGavin and was replaced by Noah Beery Jr.
Undeterred, Burt made the rounds of TV guest shots: JOHNNY RINGO, ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS, ZANE GREY THEATER, THE TWILIGHT ZONE. He caught a big break playing Quint Asper, the half-breed blacksmith (Burt himself was, like me, part Cherokee) for three seasons on GUNSMOKE, TV’s biggest Western at the time. Burt would return to the small screen for a half-season as TV detectives HAWK (1966) and DAN AUGUST (1970-71), but movies were beckoning.
Making his film debut in ANGEL BABY (1961), Burt’s GUNSMOKE notoriety got him cast as the lead in the low-budget spy drama OPERATION CIA (1965) and the Spaghetti Western NAVAJO JOE (1966). He played in a pair of 1969 Westerns, 100 RIFLES (with another ex-football player, Jim Brown, and the sexy Raquel Welch) and the title role of SAM WHISKEY, which allowed him to show off his humorous side alongside Angie Dickinson, Ossie Davis (who became a lifelong friend), and Clint Walker.
Some minor movies followed (SHARK!, SKULLDUGGERY), but in 1972 he landed the role of Lewis Medlock in director John Boorman’s DELIVERANCE. This harrowing tale of survival shocked audiences for its brutality, especially during the rape of Ned Beatty (“Squeal like a pig”), but it gave Burt a chance to prove he could act. Also in 1972, he famously posed nude for COSMOPOLITAN Magazine…,
earning him a large score of female fans for life!
By now Burt was a big name, and he starred in a series of action films, with titles like SHAMUS (1973), WHITE LIGHTNING (’73), THE LONGEST YARD (’74), WW AND THE DIXIE DANCEKINGS (’75), HUSTLE (’75). He made his directorial debut with 1976’s GATOR, a sequel to WHITE LIGHTNING where he returned to the role of Gator McKluskey. He scored his biggest hit with 1977’s SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT, a rip-roaring action-comedy helmed by his pal, stunt coordinator Hal Needham. Burt plays Bandit, using his Trans-Am as a blocker for trucker Cledus Snow (Jerry Reed) on a 28 hour run from Texas to Atlanta, pursued by Sheriff Buford T. Justice (Jackie Gleason). Along the way he picks up Junior Justice’s (Mike Henry) runaway bride (Sally Field, with whom Burt would have a long offscreen relationship). SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT was released at the height of the CB/Trucker craze, and was the second highest grossing film of the year (the first: STAR WARS). It led to two sequels, and inspired the TV show THE DUKES OF HAZZARD.
There were more hits to come (SEMI-TOUGH, STARTING OVER, THE CANNONBALL RUN, SHARKEY’S MACHINE), but by the mid-80’s, Burt’s box office clout was fading. He returned to television for the sitcom EVENING SHADE (1990-94) as Wood Newton, ex-NFL quarterback turned high school football coach in small town Arkansas. The cast was high-wattage (Marilu Henner, Hal Holbrook, Charles Durning, Elizabeth Ashley, and old pal Ossie Davis), and the show ranked consistently in the top 20, but skyrocketing costs caused its cancellation. Burt was coasting along, taking character parts and playing himself on TV guest shots, when an offer in 1997 changed everything.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s BOOGIE NIGHTS was the saga of the rise and fall of Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg), porn star of the 70’s and 80’s. Burt plays director Jack Horner, and received his one and only Academy Award nomination (he lost to Robin Williams for GOOD WILL HUNTING). After years of playing good ol’ boys and action heroes, he was now a respected character actor. But that likeable persona was always there, the twinkle in the eyes, self-deprecating sense of humor, and infectious laugh that audiences fell in love with.
A Burt Reynolds Movie, like John Wayne and Vincent Price, became a genre unto itself, which isn’t a bad thing if you’re an actor. He may be gone, but his movies are still here to do what they were designed to do… entertain. And they still do.