Burt Reynolds is back on top -- Life and work are finally going well for the ''Evening Shade'' actor

It’s morning on the set of Evening Shade. The actors are arriving for a read-through of the week’s script, and a raucous camaraderie prevails. Elizabeth Ashley is tearing around in half-glasses and black chiffon. Resident teen heartthrob Jay Ferguson is sticking out his tongue at the show’s secretary, exposing mouthfuls of partially chewed doughnut. Guest star Brian Keith saunters in, a grizzly of a man, in cowboy boots and a black Stetson. Someone makes a comment about the hat. ”Hell,” roars Keith, ”I thought this was a Western.” Everyone laughs.

Except the quiet guy in the glasses, who hasn’t looked up from his script. That’s the co-executive producer, director, and star. His name is Burt Reynolds.

It’s a bit disorienting. Last time I checked, Brian Keith was the quiet, serious type, and Reynolds was the one with the stacked-heel boots and the ever-ready smirk.

But those were the ’70s, when Keith was the rumply Uncle Bill on Family Affair and Reynolds was quarterbacking in The Longest Yard. This is 1991. And Reynolds has never been happier. He and actress Loni Anderson are going strong after nine years together and have a 2 1/2-year-old son, Quinton. And now there’s Evening Shade, the popular Monday-night CBS sitcom with Reynolds as an ex-football pro who returns to his hometown to coach the high school team and hang around with a passel of endearingly eclectic locals, including Charles Durning as the town doctor; Elizabeth Ashley as a barnstorming, busybody aunt; Ferguson as Reynolds’ son (who has his heart set on an acting career); and Hal Holbrook as Reynolds’ father-in-law, publisher of the local paper. After a string of disappointing movies in the mid- and late ’80s (including such quickly forgotten pictures as Stick, Heat, Switching Channels, and Rent-a-Cop), Reynolds says, ”It’s a wonderful feeling to love to go to work and to be working on something that you’re really, really proud of. I don’t think this is ordinary television.” Judging from the reviews and ratings, neither do viewers.

”Yeah,” says Reynolds, ”I’m happier than I’ve ever been.”

Me, I’m a tad chagrined: Mature, contented actor/directors aren’t as quotable as devil-may-care actor/studs. I was kind of looking forward to an interview with good ol’ Burt. I figured he’d drop an arm over my shoulder, call me kid, pour me a vodka tonic.

”Do you want some mineral water?”

The read-through is over, and we’re in Reynolds’ dressing room. He hands me a glass of Evian, and fixes himself an iced tea. I wait for him to sit down. An awkward silence ensues. ”You can start asking your questions any time you want,” he says, not looking up from his glass. His manager warned me that Reynolds had grown wary of print journalists over the past few years.

He sits down. At the far end of the couch. I look at my list of questions: 1. Let’s talk about Loni. She seems so different from Sally Field….

”Um, let’s talk about Wood Newton. He seems so different from your other characters ” Reynolds is Newton on Shade — a soft-spoken, warm-hearted guy from the South, crazy about his wife (Marilu Henner) and his three kids. ”Is this the real Burt Reynolds we’re seeing here?”

Reynolds nods. ”Much more so than anything I’ve ever done,” he says.

That’s not by accident. Reynolds and executive producers Linda Bloodworth-Thomason and Harry Thomason (Designing Women) sat down to dinner one night and talked for three hours about a show the couple had been planning and how Reynolds might fit in to it. He and Thomason discovered they had some common ground. Reynolds played football at Florida State and had hoped at one time to coach; Thomason actually did coach football in his hometown of Hampton, Ark. ”We sort of married my experience and Burt’s together,” he says.

Could Burt Reynolds really have been happy with the life of Coach Newton, the anonymous small-town family man?

Reynolds takes a sip of iced tea (from a Superbowl III glass). ”No question.”

But what about the Burt we all heard about in the ’70s? The freewheeling, wisecracking macho rogue of The Longest Yard, Smokey and the Bandit, Semi-Tough, Hooper, and The Cannonball Run? ”You mean you were never really a…”

”A cocky, womanizing jerk? The press would like to think so, because that’s what sells newspapers.”

I run a line through question 11 (Of all the tabloid rumors about you and famous women, which ones do you wish had been true?).

”I wasn’t married for a long time,” says Reynolds, ”and I dated some well-known women (Dinah Shore, Sally Field, Chris Evert), but I wasn’t dating five at a time. If people think that’s what I was, it’s because I played those characters very, very well.”

That’s just the Burt Reynolds school of acting. (Actually, there really is a Burt Reynolds school of acting — the Institute for Theater Training, founded by Reynolds in Jupiter, Fla., where he and Anderson own a large ranch.) And if people mistake Reynolds for, as he puts it, ”an arrogant putz,” it’s because that’s what he played best and most often, becoming, from 1978 to 1982, the country’s No. 1 box office attraction. Reynolds turned down plum acting and directing opportunities — particularly after 1981’s much-acclaimed thriller Sharky’s Machine, which he directed and starred in. ”I had a lot of bad advice at the time. Most of my agents, for reasons that are now obvious to me, wanted me to take those 2- and 3-million- dollar offers I was being given.”

Thanks to time spent in fast cars and mediocre films, Reynolds became one of the industry’s most, as one colleague put it, ”viciously underrated” actors. If he’d held out for more films like Sharky’s Machine, Deliverance (1972), and Starting Over (1979), things might have gone quite differently. Had he taken the part offered him in Terms of Endearment in 1983, for example, instead of doing Stroker Ace for his buddy, action director Hal Needham, he might have wound up with the Oscar that went to Jack Nicholson for his performance as an ex-astronaut.

Does he regret not having taken his career more seriously? He shrugs. ”Yeah, I think it’s probably hurt me in a lot of ways. But it’s also helped me. If you take success so seriously that it becomes like this god to you, then when it does go away, you fall apart. If you can have a few laughs about it, then you’re going to be okay.”

In Reynolds’ case, the laughs were few and far between during the mid- to late ’80s. There’s nothing funny about temporomandibular joint disorder. Particularly when the press suggests that the resulting weight loss was because of AIDS. Between the illness and the rumors, he spent most of 1985 to 1987 off the set or involved in critically panned movies.

There is a knock at the door. It’s Reynolds’ secretary with lunch-salad and chicken soup. As they talk, I look around the room. The walls are covered with framed photographs of friends and idols, — actors like Sylvester Stallone, Betty White, Steve McQueen, and Glenn Ford, football players like Joe Namath, No reporters.

”I haven’t seen your name in the tabloids much lately,” I offer. ”Except that one in the Globe a couple weeks back: ‘Burt Has a Secret Son.”’

Reynolds casts a narrow-eyed, sidelong look, like Paul Crew in The Longest Yard just before he decks a girlfriend in the opening scene. ”I find it very interesting,” he says, ”that they would be saying this about a guy who for the last 25 years in every interview he’s ever done has talked passionately about how much he wanted a son or a daughter. And suddenly they say, ‘Well, you’ve got a son. He’s 27 and he just didn’t want to tell you.’ Now he tells me, and I say, ‘Ah, screw him’?! Right.” He stabs a chickpea. If life were a Looney Tunes cartoon, there’d be smoke coming out of this man’s ears right now.

On the set, Reynolds is at ease. He’s among friends, doing what he loves most — directing. Reynolds says he enjoys directing as much as he would have enjoyed coaching football. ”They’re really very similar,” he says. ”You’re part cheerleader, part wrangler.” But this afternoon he’s doing little cheerleading or wrangling. He hardly looks like a director. He’s not yelling through a megaphone or pointing. He is watching quietly, arms folded across his chest like a cigar-store Indian.

I mention this to costar Elizabeth Ashley. ”Yes,” she says. ”When Burt directs, there is no ego there. Which is a very rare thing among the monumentally talented. He trusts his actors. He never has a preconceived notion of what he wants from you. He wants you to surprise him.”

Which is not to say that Reynolds just stands around. Every few minutes he steps in, improvising a line or stage direction. The scene is a showdown between runty, bespectacled assistant coach Herman Stiles (Michael Jeter) and his visiting father, a macho lout (Brian Keith). As Jeter stands up from a counter stool to confront his Keith, Reynolds interrupts. ”Try stepping down from the counter as you say that. Now realize how much bigger he is, and step right back up.” Jeter complies, and it’s exactly what the scene needed.

Evening Shade marks the first time prime-time television has benefited from Reynolds’ comic talents. (B.L. Stryker, his low-profile ABC detective drama of the 1989-90 seaon, wasn’t big on laughs.) A lot of his best lines aren’t delivered on the air, but from the director’s chair. Take the scene they’re working on now, for example, in which Wood Newton (Reynolds) mistakes a traveling cash register salesman (Henry Gibson) for Stiles’ father and invites him to dinner. In the script, Gibson is puzzled, and that’s the last we see of him. Reynolds decides to expand Gibson’s part and have him show up at dinner. The following scene finds the strange little man surrounded by plates in the Newtons’ dining room, still eating after everyone else is through. Gibson takes the ball and runs. He putters in and out of the rest of the scene, carrying coffee cups and clambering up onto the kitchen counter to reach the creamer. Reynolds doesn’t steal the spotlight, he shines it on everyone else.

This brand of selfless, on-the-spot humor has made him a popular fixture on the talk-show circuit, not only as guest but as host. In the 1970s, he filled in regularly as Tonight Show host, and this month he begins taping two CBS late-night specials, Burt Reynolds’ Conversations With…. Not your average gab session, this — the roster for the first show (expected to air in April or May) includes James Stewart, Anthony Quinn, and Mickey Rooney.

Though Reynolds refers to himself as only ”halfway amusing,” he admits his comic skills are one reason he’s been around so long. As he sees it, versatility is the key to longevity. ”It’s the fact I can do comedy and I can play heavies, I can direct, produce, do a talk show.” His staying power might also stem from the fact that he has a reputation in the industry for being a heck of a nice guy. He is one of the rare big fish who’s not considered a shark.

Back in the dressing room, Reynolds and I are talking about fatherhood. He and Anderson adopted a baby boy in 1988. So Reynolds, at 55, is a new dad. That’s nothing, I tell him. My father was 63 when I was born. He is amazed, perhaps a bit cheered.

”Maybe that’s why I was never any good at sports,” I muse. ”My father never took me out to play ball.” This may not have been the best thing to say.

”Yeah,” says Reynolds, ”I suppose I’ll have trouble with that.”

Perhaps not. Anderson says Quinton already steals the sports page at breakfast. Never mind that he can’t read; he looks at the pictures and she claims he knows football from baseball from golf. (Football is his favorite.) Reynolds is thrilled. Anderson less so: ”He drop-kicks everything in the house.”

I ask Reynolds whether he’d like his son to play pro football.

”Oh, anything he wants to be.”

”A journalist?” No comment.

”An actor?”

”I hope he’s not an actor. It’s a field with so much rejection.”

His own father, Burt Sr., also frowned upon and acting career, but Reynolds proudly reports that his dad, now 90, is a fan of Evening Shade. ”He’s very critical of my work, but he likes this show.” But Reynolds’ most vociferous fan may be his son. ”He gets really upset when they cut to commercials,” Anderson says. ”He wants Daddy to be on the TV all the time.”

There is another knock on the door: They’re waiting on the set.

No problem, I tell him, you’ve got things to attend to. Actually, so do I.

I always say, you don’t know a man until you’ve seen his bathroom. I shut the door. Pictures of Loni and Quinton on the wall. A quote attributed to Theodore Roosevelt (”It is not the critic who counts…”) over the toilet paper. An Evening Shade script, two pairs of reading glasses, a bottle of English Leather. And a package of Fig Newtons.

That’s our Burt.