Actor, director, and most of all, movie star, Burt Reynolds has died of a heart attack at the age of 82.
In many ways, Reynolds defined what it was to be a movie star in the late seventies, a period during which he was the highest grossing star in the world. He didn’t always make the best movies, but during his peak years, if you went to movies, you saw one or more of his movies at some point. Reynolds defined the popular conception of American masculinity in his day, and the fact that he often did his own stunts helped cement that image.
Reynolds was a football player at FSU whose career was cut short by injury. He decided to try acting, and got his first professional roles on TV, live and filmed, in the late fifties. He had a large handful of guest shots on various shows before landing a recurrent role on the short-lived show Riverboat from 1959 – 1960. More guest shots followed, lots of them, on shows ranging from Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Route 66, Perry Mason and The Twilight Zone, as well as others less familiar to modern audiences. A three year stint on the legendary TV western Gunsmoke followed. To the dismay of many, Reynolds walked away from the comparatively easy money, certainly the steady paycheck, hoping for more variety. More guest shots followed, and then a show of his own, the cop show Hawk, which ran for 17 episodes. More TV guest shots continued to get the bills paid, and by the end of the sixties, he was getting movie work, first in the forgettable westerns 100 Rifles and Sam Whiskey.
Between 1970 and 1971 Reynolds starred in 26 episodes of another cop show, Dan August, which got sandwiched in between a couple of movies-of-the-week and the feature film Fuzz, based on Ed McBain’s 82nd Precinct novels. Reynolds costarred with Raquel Welch, Jack Weston, Tom Skerritt and James McEachin, marking a long trend of Reynolds often working with the best people.
Fuzz was followed by the iconic, powerful, dark 1972 masterpiece Deliverance, directed by John Boorman from a script by James Dickey, adapting his own novel. Deliverance chronicled in terrifying detail a weekend excursion gone terribly off the rails, in which four suburban friends go for a canoe and camping trip down a wild stretch of river that’s soon going to be obliterated by a new dam. The men run afoul of the locals, and the movie became justifiably notorious for a protracted, stark depiction of the anal rape of the character played by Ned Beatty.
Reynolds was not nominated for an Oscar for the film, although he should have been.
He made 3 forgettable films in 1973, although the moonshine melodrama White Lightning did well enough to generate a sequel, Gator, a few years later, which marked Reynolds’ directorial debut. But in 1974 he made The Longest Yard, supposedly the only script ever written specifically for him. One of the best football movies ever made, The Longest Yard is also one of the best prison movies ever made, and brilliantly showcased everything Reynolds had to bring to a movie – charm, star presence, and far more intuitive, nuanced acting than he’s usually credited with.
He mocked his own image in an hysterical cameo in Mel Brooks’ Silent Movie, in which he unexpectedly finds his walk-in shower more crowded than usual.
Reynolds will, however, probably be best remembered for his collaborations with stuntman-turned-director Hal Needham, which include Smokey and the Bandit, The Cannonball Run and Hooper. None were especially well-reviewed, but all were gigantic hits. These were all made within a very short period of time between the end of the seventies and the beginning of the eighties, and in the middle of them Reynolds also made a trilogy of TV movies reprising his Dan August role, in addition to other features.
Reynolds also directed a few movies, including the dark comedy The End, as well as the glitzy cop movie Sharky’s Machine, and later on the Elmore Leonard adaptation Stick. Considering the amount of time he’d spent on TV and movie sets, and some of the directors he’d worked with, including Robert Aldrich, Woody Allen, John G. Avildsen, Richard Benjamin, Peter Bogdanovich, John Boorman, Mel Brooks, Michael Crichton, Stanley Donen, Blake Edwards, Colin Higgins, Ted Kotcheff, Norman Jewison, Alan J. Pakula and Don Siegel. It isn’t surprising that he picked up a thing or two. Reynolds also directed a great deal of television, including numerous episodes of the series Evening Shade, which he produced and starred in.
The roles Reynolds didn’t play are almost as memorable as the ones he did. He turned down the chance to be the first American feature film James Bond (Barry Nelson played the part in a live TV adaptation of Casino Royale in the fifties), because he didn’t think movie audiences would accept an American Bond. He turned down the part of Michael Corleone in The Godfather. Supposedly Marlon Brando threatened to walk if Reynolds were signed. He turned down Han Solo. According to some sources, Reynolds turned down two roles that won Oscars for Jack Nicholson – Randall McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Garrett Breedlove in Terms of Endearment. Reynolds turned down the male lead in Pretty Woman that ultimately went to Richard Gere. Supposedly he turned down Die Hard.
He also turned down Boogie Nights seven times before finally accepting the role that would win him his only Oscar nomination. Nonetheless, Reynolds was known to be less than fond of the film itself, though being passed over for the Oscar stung.
It could fairly be said that Reynolds didn’t know when to age on screen. Charlton Heston, by contrast, eased into middle-aged roles once he hit his forties, and no doubt thereby extended his career. Reynolds’ kept his hair jet black for a little too long. Nonetheless, he continued working throughout his life, and never really retired. At the time he died, he was scheduled for a couple of days work on Quentin Tarantino’s upcoming movie about the Manson Family.
Ultimately, Reynolds may always be best-remembered for his likable, wisecracking Bandit, which was a small part of a long career. But then how many actors leave even that deep an impression? It’s sort of nice to think of Reynolds in his prime, barreling down a neverending highway in a black Trans Am, picking up Sally Field in a wedding gown along the way. Not a bad exit, indeed.