Ask most actors why they got into the business and they’ll talk about a calling, a seductive siren song that drew them to the stage. But the sound of Burt Reynolds’ calling was more like a pop, a rip, and a bloodcurdling scream.
As a freshman at Florida State, Reynolds was a star tailback. Football was more than a game for him. It was how he related to his tough-love father and a passport to a world beyond the panhandle, an open-ended ticket out of his hardscrabble roots and into a life of ease, fame, and women. But in the first game of his sophomore season, while returning a punt, Reynolds heard a horrible sound come from his knee as he took off with the ball. As he crumpled to the ground, an opposing player pile-drove into his leg and finished the gruesome job. When the 19-year-old looked down, his knee joint resembled a Swiss Army knife opened at an unnatural angle. His football career — and, as far as he was concerned, his life — was over. ”It tore me apart,” Reynolds recalls 50 years later. ”My dad probably took it harder than I did. He was crushed.”
As Reynolds tells his story, he sits behind a desk in the study of his Hollywood Hills estate. In front of him is a plate of tiny orange slices. And on the far wall of the room is a large photograph of Reynolds dressed in a football uniform for his 1974 film The Longest Yard. In the photo, Reynolds is tanned, muscular, and at the height of his box office good looks. There’s a cocksure defiance in his stare. A rascally willingness to take on all comers.
Thirty years later, Reynolds favors his knee a bit and his face is a little tighter, but it still carries the same mischievous grin. He’s taken more hits than just about any actor of his generation, rising to the top of his profession, then falling to the bottom, picking himself up and dusting himself off. But at 69, Burt Reynolds is still running.
Reynolds lives exactly like you’d expect Burt Reynolds to live. His home is sprawling, airy, and appointed in white like a Grecian temple. Out front, a tinkling fountain and a Bentley stand as tokens that this is indeed the home of a movie star. In the back, a glistening swimming pool sits atop a cliff with a jewel-box view over downtown Los Angeles. It’s a long way from Riviera, Florida, a blue-collar fishing village where his father was the police chief.
Still, it’s Florida that the self-acknowledged good ol’ boy considers home. Thirty-six years ago, he bought eight acres of waterfront property in Jupiter, an upscale community of golf-happy CEOs and other retired jocks with troubled knees like Bobby Orr and Joe Namath. ”As soon as a director said ‘It’s a wrap,’ I had one foot on the airplane back to Florida,” he says. ”But I haven’t been home in nine months. I’ve done five pictures in a row. Two I think are going to be pretty good. One of them might go right to video.”
While he won’t say which the stinker is, the two films he’s bullish about are this summer’s Dukes of Hazzard (Aug. 5), in which he plays the Southern-fried blowhard Boss Hogg, and Adam Sandler and Chris Rock’s remake of The Longest Yard (May 27). Reynolds admits he has mixed feelings about seeing someone else tackle The Longest Yard, one of his most beloved movies. ”I can’t describe it as a bad feeling, and I had a very good part in it. But it was a bit strange. I realize it ain’t Hamlet, but it’s Paul Crewe, and I created him!”