Kim Morgan on Burt Reynolds

“Frank Capra said something about acting that makes sense to me: ‘Drama isn’t when the actor cries, it’s when the audience cries.’ Amen. I can’t stand to watch actors painfully staring at the rug. And I don’t go in for jargon. One of the things I didn’t get about the Actors Studio was the lingo. Whenever I heard terms like ‘justification’ and ‘affective memory,’ I thought, I wonder how many more classes I’ll have to go to before I can talk like that. But I don’t reject that stuff completely. I find myself somewhere in the middle between Method actors and the great movie actors I admire, people like Spencer Tracy, James Stewart, and Gary Cooper. They seemed to be playing not for the back row, but just nice and easy. And fun. And most of all, truthful.” – Burt Reynolds, “But Enough About Me”

In 1979 Burt Reynolds was a guest on The Tonight Starring Johnny Carson. He’d already been a guest before that – famously – and one of the greatest recurring guests Johnny ever had (Reynolds even guest-hosted the show – he invited his ex-wife Judy Carne on). He was always so funny and so charming and so gorgeous and so self-deprecating and so incredibly quick-witted, that had he done nothing but been a guest on Johnny’s show, that would have already been an impressive collection of performances for quite some time.

I mean, of course he could and should and did do a hell of a lot more than just that, obviously – Burt (I’ll be calling him Burt frequently here) is in the pantheon of great movie stars – but being that on-the-spot hilarious and that charming live isn’t easy. Burt, in movies, in television and in personal appearances, made it look so damn easy, and, at times, it even put us at ease. (I met him in 2012 to interview him with the cast of Deliverance, and I must admit, I was starstruck. He was as charming as ever – a bonafide movie star – he also discussed some thoughtful takes on the picture. And, he put me at ease.) No wonder he loved Fred Astaire so much, whom he claimed made dancing also look so damn easy. Burt knew how hard that achievement was: To be precise, specific and technically perfect, while making it look effortless. 

Even the fashion style of Astaire – Reynolds thought Astaire was so elegant, that he could pull certain things off, things that maybe he, himself, could not. In his memoir, “But Enough About Me” (which will be quoted quite a bit in this piece, as well as his autobiography, “My Life”) Reynolds said: “The first time I saw [Astaire] in person he was wearing a necktie around his waist instead of a belt. I thought it looked terrific, so I did the same thing and a guy came up to me and said, ‘Here’s twenty bucks, buy yourself a belt.’”

Oh, Burt. I can imagine you relaying that anecdote on Carson, even in print, you had impeccable timing. And, by the way, don’t listen to that guy (I’m talking to him like he’s still here – and he is – he’s always with us!). You could have worn a tie as a belt. You could wear enormous belt buckles and cowboy hats and velvet jackets and light blue polyester pant suits and not everyone can pull off brown leather pants and you looked fantastic in them. I’m not sure even Fred Astaire could have pulled that off. Burt knew that his sartorial choices, often dressed up to him up to maximum sexiness (check out the full-length photo in his, I think, good, country music album “Ask Me What I Am” – those pants are something), were even just a little hilarious. Just a little.

Burt often made jokes about his hairpiece: “It’s better if you do the jokes first,” he wrote, ‘When somebody asks me if I wear a hairpiece I say, ‘Of course! Do you think I’m crazy? But I take it off at night to let my head breathe.’” Women were usually fine with it, he wrote, it was men who sometimes had the problem: “One night in a bar in New York some idiot came over and made a crack about a ‘pelt’ on my head and I said, ‘If you can get it off before I beat the shit out of you, you can have it.’”

He knew how handsome he was and in his own gracious way, knew that his handsomeness was, well, funny. To be that ridiculously handsome, you can’t take your looks too seriously (in that way he was much like Cary Grant), otherwise you could be something of a conceited asshole. Or boring. When he posed nude in that infamous shot for Cosmopolitan (Helen Gurley Brown talked him into it – everyone else around him told him not to do it – he later regretted it), on a bear skin rug, only his privates covered, he managed to make something incredibly and almost embarrassingly sexy while being highly amusing. It makes you smile.




And he knew it – he somehow, while totally embracing his sex-appeal, got the joke of 1970s mustachioed macho mandom before people starting poking fun at it in the 80s and 90s and onward. And yet, Burt IS the 70s in many respects. But he also understood that this nude photo shoot was a take on how female sexuality is presented, how women often posed naked, and were probably a little tired of seeing that all over the place. How about a man pose in a centerfold for a change? He wrote, “I thought it was a big joke. I wanted to do it as a takeoff on the Playmate of the Month. I’d list my hobbies and favorite colors, there’d be a black-and-white shot of me pushing a supermarket cart, and a quote: ‘I love sunsets and hate mean people.’”

But back to that 1979 Carson appearance. Burt, dressed crisply in a black suit (he mentions that he’s not wearing as much brown leather as before) walks out to massive applause. Carson brings up that Reynolds had been awarded twice that year by the People’s Choice Awards – the most popular actor and the most popular entertainer of the year. Burt was huge (one of the biggest stars, most powerful stars ever at that time). He knew it, he was happy about it, though he said he banged his hand on a window while “puttering around the house.” The window didn’t care that he was a big star, he joked. Carson continued:

Carson: What do you have to look forward to now?

Reynolds: A tank of gas?

Carson: Now be honest…

Reynolds: The Oscar …the Oscar would be good. Wouldn’t that be nice? But I don’t think I’ll ever win it.

Carson: Why not?

Reynolds: Well, it’s very seldom that the industry likes what the people like.

Carson: You mean if you did Hamlet or …

Reynolds: Well, I’d like to something really historic like … Smokey meets Hamlet.

And that is one (among many) of the reasons why I love Burt Reynolds. This whole beautifully timed exchange encompasses the charming contradictions of the man. Yes, he wanted an Oscar, and he wanted one his whole life (his autobiography, “My Life,” ends with him writing, “The only unfortunate thing with which I’ve come to terms with, is that I will probably never win the Big One of my profession – an Academy Award.” And then he follows with what his speech would be, it begins “I want to thank the Academy for finally realizing that I’m not planted at Forest Lawn…”) but he also understood that he wanted to please the public, to give people joy, via movies like Smokey and the Bandit and Hooper and The Cannonball Run, all directed by his best pal, ex-stuntman Hal Needham.




But within that there were movies like Michael Ritchie’s smart Semi-Tough, a football movie, of sorts, but also about some 70s new age philosophies and/or cults (specifically Werner Erhard’s Erhard Seminars Training – known as est  – in the film it is called B.E.A.T. and Bert Convy is the creepy leader). Reynolds, alongside Kris Kristofferson and Jill Clayburgh in a modern friendship/relationship between two football players and the owner’s daughter (they all live together), are a joy to watch – these are characters who are allowed to breath and interact so naturally, you really feel they know and love each other. And it’s funny. It’s also one of Burt’s finest roles. It came out the same year as Smokey and the Bandit. He wasn’t only driving a fast car that year.

He surely craved the respect of his peers, but you got the sense that Reynolds thought awards were not the most important accolade for an actor (even though he wanted one). And, yet, he was nominated, for the first time, for his brilliant performance in Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterful Boogie Nights (as the paternal, somewhat mysterious, simultaneously kind yet intimidating pornographer, Jack Horner – Reynolds makes him so many things at once). But Reynolds famously went against the film. He claimed he never saw it. He said it would be unpleasant to him. The experience working on the movie was unpleasant to him. Some thought that hurt his chances of winning the award. Maybe it did? Still, in a 2017 podcast interview with Movie Geeks United, Reynolds reflected, “I didn’t know I was going to get that kind of acclaim [for Boogie Nights] … I did look him up [Anderson] and tell him I was full of shit and he was right… And I’d work with him again. I don’t know if he’d want to work with me again but I’d like to work with him again.”

Alas, if only. And I’m sad he didn’t make it long enough on this earth to work with Quentin Tarantino in Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood. Reynolds would have been fantastic, and I sense those two would have had a blast.

Reynolds mentored actors in Palm Beach County, Florida, and his loss last year was deeply felt there. Ben Crandell, in The South Florida Sentinel, wrote: “Andrew Kato, producing artistic director at the Maltz Jupiter Theater, worked his way through high school and college in the same building more than three decades ago when it was known as the Burt Reynolds Dinner Theater. Kato said Reynolds’ legacy can be found in hundreds of students he touched over the years: ‘Burt was about giving opportunities to people. Burt would want to be remembered … I’m sorry,’ Kato said, stifling tears. ‘He would want to be remembered as a teacher rather than the superstar that he was.’”

I’m sure he would. And, yet, Burt was such a superstar. He may not have gotten enough of the sweet parts later (he was terrific doing more character work in movies like Breaking In, Striptease and Citizen Ruth), but he always remained a star. In Adam Rifkin’s The Last Movie Star (truly an ode to Burt), the role is written as almost a goodbye, and almost a bummer because we’re not ready to say goodbye. Reynolds is so vulnerable in the picture, still so complex, and, of course, still so acerbically funny. Even as the movie juxtaposes his young face with his older one, almost looking mask-like, this is a man who still has it. Charisma. It doesn’t fade with age. I don’t care how slowly he walks – he’s still Burt Reynolds.

And that may be, because, in spite of any of his personal or financial difficulties later, Reynolds continued to study and teach and stretch himself – even in some crappy movies. (He was also wonderful on his popular sitcom – Evening Shade) I’ve watched some of his worst movies and he is still electric, he’s still a natural, and pretty much every scene he’s in (granted, I have not seen every bad Burt movie), is watchable. Physical Evidence (directed by Michael Crichton) is something of a slog – but it’s also something I couldn’t stop watching for Burt, circa 1989, still ruggedly handsome, still quick and still holding (not hogging) the camera – that camera that loves him so much. Also check out Harley Cokeliss’ Malone (1987), an entertaining picture co-starring Cliff Robertson and Lauren Hutton. And R.M. Richards’ Heat (1986). In spite of these pictures’ flaws, there is still, Burt, Burt… he’s so big-screen wonderful. How much that man can elevate any scene and make a movie cinematic by his mere presence is a testament to how talented he was.

These actioners, though fun, however, seem far away from Reynolds in one of his greatest roles, Alan J. Pakula’s Starting Over (1979, written by James L. Brooks – and not showing this month at the New Beverly, hopefully another month), in which he gives a vulnerable, funny, at times heartbreaking performance as a recently divorced man trying to make his way through the dating world. There are so many beautifully realized scenes – Burt putting together his lonely bachelor pad, Burt dating Jill Clayburgh after she threatens to cut his balls off (it’s a show stopping scene, in which she thinks he’s a stranger following her on the street – turns out he’ll be the man she’s being set up with that night – his reaction to her is amused, not angry, intrigued, thoughtful – perfectly Burt), Burt still trying to get over his ex-wife (Candice Bergen) who has embarked on a dubious music career (she can’t sing – but her songwriting – not bad, it’s catchy). He’s playing the role just as good-looking as he is, but he’s depressed. There’s a dark cloud hanging over this guy but he’s trying to make the best of it. He’s even kind of over himself, it seems, nothing is terribly exciting. It’s so incredibly human. It may be my favorite Burt performance.

There’s a scene where Reynolds has an anxiety attack while shopping for a mattress, and, to, me, it’s the most realistic depiction of what an anxiety attack is like. When I learned that this moment was taken from Burt’s real life, right down to the strangers all handing him a Valium, I wasn’t surprised – this is someone who understood. As he wrote about his anxiety: “Hyperventilating became a regular thing with me. I never dreamed help would come from Clint Eastwood. He quietly helped me make sense of this flight of confidence by telling me that he hyperventilated too. Appreciative of the support, I still couldn’t picture Clint gasping for air.”

Reynolds contended that the part was the most him – that was who he was. Interesting. And interesting because Brooks later offered Reynolds Jack Nicholson’s part in Terms of Endearment. Reynolds turned it down for Hal Needham’s Stroker Ace – he had promised pal Needham that he’d do it. Nicholson won an Oscar for that – and Burt could have too (I think Burt would have been even better in that role, as much as I love Nicholson). But, somehow, promising Hal Needham also seems very Burt Reynolds. He was loyal to his friends.


Burt Reynolds and Hal Needham Burt with Hal Needham


Though he grew and changed and life threw a lot at him in his later years, he seemed to always have some of that younger guy rooming with Rip Torn in New York in the 1950s in him, that guy just starting out – giving a side eye to all those “serious” actors in what Torn called those “black turtlenecks,” while at the same time, studying them, admiring many, learning, taking bits and pieces from the Method (which he didn’t entirely ascribe to, but didn’t entirely reject) and classical acting (he revered Spencer Tracy who gave him his best advice about acting: “It’s a great profession,” Tracy said, “as long as nobody catches you at it.”). The way he wrote about those early days in both of his memoirs makes me think of how he looked at his co-stars in movies – intrigued, wondering, listening, and forming an opinion, not a judgement, but an opinion. A take. A take he may have to drive around the block a few times (to paraphrase Double Indemnity, and to, literally, drive – there’s few things as natural fitting and as cinematic as Burt driving a car at full speed). He took in a lot. As he wrote in his memoir, he even took in the big city of New York when he first arrived by staring at the advertisement for Camel cigarettes of a man blowing smoke rings – he gaped at it, for an hour. New York was like “Oz” to him. Burt wrote that he fell in love with New York City. “Unfortunately, he quipped, “New York didn’t fall in love with me.”

So, New York kicked his ego around a bit and Hollywood too, and you know… it’s good for you, I’ll bet he thought. And he surely got frustrated too. But he was a serious man, sometimes intense, sometimes haunted and was always introspective, especially, it seemed, later in life, but you frequently feel him thinking – dammit, don’t take yourself too seriously. And as others will take themselves too seriously, crack wise, laugh (oh, that distinct laugh he had), but listen, learn, even learn from what annoys you, what hurts you. Use it.

You see this cracking wise, and that unforgettable laugh on display so spellbindingly and with such absolute joyful abandon in Smokey and the Bandit – not shockingly, the fourth most popular film released in 1977. It’s an epic cartoon of car chases and banter and lovely Sally Field (Reynolds had wonderful chemistry with many of his female co-stars – Goldie Hawn, Jill Clayburgh, Dolly Parton – Parton sings “I Will Always Love You” to him in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas – try to watch that now and not cry). And, then of course, Jerry Reed’s Snowman and his unforgettable theme song and, not forgetting here, Jackie Gleason. For a southern-fried comedy actioner, this is as good as it gets, but it’s also something beyond that – it’s such escapism that it, at times, feels like a drug. Hooper (also directed by Needham), though not as gleefully cartoonish as Smokey, was another Burt showcase – fun, sweet-hearted, gently mocking, it was an ode to stuntmen and to Burt, who oozed charm in every frame. Burt Reynolds was having fun. And he was one of the biggest movie stars in the world.

Born Burton Lee Reynolds, Jr., February 11, 1936, young Reynolds eventually moved to Riviera Beach, Florida with his parents. He went by the name Buddy. At Palm Beach High School, Reynolds was a football star, and went to Florida State University on a scholarship. He was hoping for a career in professional football, but he was injured. Football dreams – over. Reynolds wrote:

“Everything had fallen in place: I’d had a great career in high school and I’d started strong at Florida State, which was becoming a national powerhouse. The pros were even sniffing around me. Football was my reason for being, my great passion in life. And it was over, just like that. It would take a long time to get through my thick skull that there could be more to life than playing football and chasing sorority girls. I had no idea what to do. But what’s that old saying? When one door closes, another door opens. I didn’t find another door, I found another building.”

What next? Acting. He didn’t expect that to be the case, but a teacher saw something in him – his first acting mentor – Watson Duncan. According to Reynolds:

“One day [Watson] said, ‘Buddy, you’re going to be an actor.’

“‘Professor Duncan,’ I said, ‘you’re a smart man, but I have no talent and no interest in being an actor.’

“’Tomorrow we’re reading for a play,’ he said. ‘Be in my office at three o’clock.’ I had no intention of going, but the next day at three I found myself sitting across from him in his office. He pushed a play over to me. I picked it up and read one word — I think it was the — and he said, ‘You’ve got the part!’

“’You’re kidding,’ I said.

“’You’ve got the part,’ he said.

“’You mousetrapped me!’ I said. ‘I’m stuck now and I can’t get out of it!’”

He realized he didn’t want to get out of it and took acting classes at Palm Beach Junior College, excelled quickly, eventually winning a State Drama Award scholarship. He went to New York to do summer stock. And there he was off embarking on his career – but it wasn’t so easy. He worked on stage, in television (among them, TV series such as Riverboat and Gunsmoke.) His raw power, his physicality in those days drove frequent comparisons to Brando.

In 1961, Reynolds made his film debut in the fascinating, strange Paul Wendkos picture Angel Baby, playing a brute, and playing him very well. A few years later he starred in the Sergio Corbucci spaghetti western Navajo Joe (which Reynolds later said was “So awful it was only shown in prisons and airplanes because nobody could leave.”) I actually like the movie quite a bit and Ennio Morricone’s score is unforgettable.

In 1969 he starred in Samuel Fuller’s Shark! (originally entitled Caine and Maneater), a picture Fuller disavowed (control was taken away from Fuller) and though it is something of a mess, it is a fascinating mess, and one where we can see flashes of Fuller throughout. And Burt is an absolute star. Burt discussed the film, briefly, in “But Enough About Me”: “I made a picture in Mexico with Samuel Fuller called Shark! It was a terrible film and Sam was tough, but I loved him. Know what he did instead of saying ‘Action’? He shot a gun off. There I was with my arms around the gorgeous Mexican star Silvia Pinal ready to do a tender love scene, and all of a sudden, BAM! ‘Sam,’ I pleaded, ‘can’t you just say, ‘Action’?’ He puffed on his cigar and said, ‘No.’”

He made a few more pictures during the 1960s and early 1970s and he didn’t regard them as much. He always managed to make fun of his movies on the talk show circuit. But those talk shows, that self-effacing humor and that intelligence (you have to be smart to be that quick-witted) – that landed him one of his greatest roles.




John Boorman’s masterpiece, Deliverance (1972) was his breakout – a picture in which people (Audiences? Critics?) realized Reynolds could really act (I mean, he always could – he just had a superior movie and a stronger part). And Reynolds as the tough guy of the group with that crossbow and who …. in a shocking scene among many, is cast out as the film’s typical hero when he suffers a compound fracture. There are many moments to discuss, but there’s that banjo sequence, I love this scene for so many reasons. It’s most famous for Ronny Cox and Billy Redden and their dueling banjos, but I always take a moment to look at Burt too. It’s both a joyful moment and some kind of portent of doom and you feel that, of all the characters, Reynolds, who knows these people and knows this rural area in Northern Georgia better than any of his friends – he senses – somehow, that this isn’t just a light respite. We see all of the characters’ personalities in their responses to the music. Cox is playing and thrilled – he’s so amazed by this kid’s virtuosity that he finally says “I’m lost” (indeed he is, and all will be, in more ways than one). Voight is smiling kindly, well-mannered, pipe in mouth, he’s likable and gentle. Ned Beatty, though impressed, is poking fun at the men in the gas station a little – he even claps a bit with humor after eyeing the old man dancing. And then there’s Reynolds – he leans against the truck and watches. He’s trying to hire a rider to help with the cars as he and his friends drive down to the river for what will be that perilous, tragic canoe trip, but for a moment he simply looks at the players. There’s a small smile on his face. His head lifts up a bit as if he’s studying something further going on here. He’s enjoying it, but he’s not letting himself go because you can see him thinking. He’s the so-called alpha male of this outfit, yes, and that’s part of it, but there’s also something more … he’s watching, listening, he’s wondering, and he’s got to remain in control.

Well, that control, that take-charge, and again, those talk shows, that got him the part in Deliverance. According to Reynolds: “I wanted to know which of my movies had made [Boorman] think of me, so I began listing the pieces of crap I’d done. ‘Did you see me in Navajo Joe? Sam Whiskey? 100 Rifles?’ ‘Actually,’ he said, ‘I saw you hosting The Tonight Show.’ It was my turn to miss a beat. Boorman said that he’d been impressed by how I took charge of the show and that he thought I was fearless, just like Lewis in the novel. ‘I’m too stupid to be scared,’ I said.”

Too stupid to be scared. And he was smart enough to know that.

Burt made Buzz Kulik’s Shamus – an entertaining PI movie that boasts a terrific opening sequence  – he’s waking up, tired, getting ready in the morning, with a smoke dangling from his mouth, even nearly brushing his teeth with it there. His bed is crafted out of a pool table. And he went on to other better pictures (and these are the pictures showing during our New Beverly series – there are many more to list beyond that, including movies Reynolds directed that I’m kind of fond of, like Gator, The End and Sharky’s Machine, I need to catch up with his other directing efforts) including Joseph Sargent’s exciting moonshining picture, White Lightning, in which Burt played Gator McKlusky, a moonshiner who is let out to collect dirt on a crooked sheriff (played by Ned Beatty). The movie received mixed reviews, but it’s a stunner, at times crafted with invention – you can feel the sweat and heat of the film – and Reynolds, tough and serious-minded, is also an exceedingly charming so-and-so. He’s peak macho Burt here, and there’s a few winks here and there, and he’s likable as all hell. Even when he’s up to no good.

Robert Aldrich’s The Longest Yard – one of Burt’s greatest movies – also boasts one of his most complex performances. He plays an absolute scoundrel – a bad person – and we’re not sure how to feel about him in the beginning. An amazing sequence of supreme speed demon self-destruction opens the picture as Burt plays washed-up pro football player Paul “Wrecking” Crewe who was banished from the sport for point shaving. Here we have our beloved Burt – staggering out of bed with a woman. This scene turns ugly. This is not a likable man. He jumps into a fancy Citroen/Maserati SM and speeds down the street, drink in hand, Lynyrd Skynyrd blaring, cops in pursuit. But does he care? Nope. He’s got nothing to live for it seems. So much so, that when he finally stops the madness, he doesn’t turn himself in; he simply allows the car to topple into a watery grave. He then waltzes into a bar for more drinks – and casually insults the officers, and finally, slugs the fuzz. He goes to prison and playing on a football team in which the prisoners play the guards – he will learn more about being a better person there, than in the outside world. It sounds rather simple – a prison football movie – but Aldrich and Reynolds make it something special. In “Robert Aldrich: Interviews” (by Eugene L. Miller and Edwin T. Arnold), the director said of the picture and of Emperor of the North:

“I like to believe that my indelible trademark is my affection for the struggle to regain self-esteem. Now, the likelihood of doing that is remote. Still, it’s the costs that make it into a gallant struggle. In ‘The Longest Yard,’ perhaps Burt Reynolds is not going to have a happy prison life; perhaps he’s not going to go on living at all. And in ‘Emperor,’ perhaps Lee Marvin hasn’t really prevailed over anything. But in each case a man has fallen from grace, done something he’s ashamed of, and then struggled to recapture his opinion of himself. Now, I think the odds against succeeding in doing that are overwhelming. It’s not in the cards that that’s probably going to happen. But I think you admire the people beside you who say, ‘The hell with it. I’m not going to quit. I don’t give a shit what other people think about me. I’m going to try and hold myself in esteem.’ That’s what all these pictures are really about.”

You see some of that “the hell with it. I’m not going to quit. I don’t give a shit what other people think about me. I’m going to try to hold myself in esteem” throughout Burt’s career, as vulnerable and as disappointed and as regretful as he may have been in some of his choices – in his career and in his life. You see it but you don’t feel the strain, because you rarely see the strain of Burt Reynolds acting. That quality, that distinct laugh, that delight and that darkness — there was so much to Burt that’s relatable, aspirational and mysterious. He’s open but he’s not an open book. And that makes us lean in and look a little longer, listen a little more. And, then, we laugh.

As he joked to Johnny Carson in 1979, about Smokey meets Hamlet, Johnny laughed. And then he laughed again. It was a joke that kept staying funny as you pictured the image in your mind. Burt as Hamlet tearing down the highway in a Trans Am, Jackie Gleason’s Sheriff Buford T. Justice, a.k.a. Smokey, hot in pursuit. As Polonius said, “Though this be madness, yet there is method in it.”

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