By Gene Lyons
Updated October 07, 1994 at 04:00 AM EDT

Everybody went to high school with somebody like Burt Reynolds: a handsome, cocksure jock with just enough humility to keep his head somewhere in the vicinity of his shoulders. Or at least, in Reynolds’ case, enough wit to laugh at himself and sufficient cunning to realize that such self-mockery could be the key to the universal admiration he craved. ”I created a character for myself who was super-cocky: a wise-cracking, carefree, outlandish, daredevil womanizer,” he writes of his early appearances on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. ”This might have been a tough man for a woman to live with, but it played great on television.”

Indeed it did. The very morning after Reynolds’ first stint guest-hosting Johnny’s show — having exchanged highly charged banter with his ex-wife Judy Carne, whom he hadn’t seen in six years — the actor was asked to read for the role of a lifetime in Deliverance, the 1972 film that helped elevate him from TV and B-movie action roles to a long run as Hollywood’s No. 1 box office star. Reynolds’ easygoing public persona, masking what he calls a ”driven … type A+ workaholic’s” temperament, also helped sustain his enduring popularity despite Reynolds’ appearance in numerous stinkers. This is the same actor, after all, who turned down the role in Terms of Endearment that Jack Nicholson rode to an Oscar; Reynolds chose instead Stroker Ace, one of the most cliché-ridden stock-car racing movies ever made.

Judging by the evidence in MY LIFE (Hyperion, $22.95), Reynolds’ breezy, anecdotal, sometimes painfully frank, often painfully obtuse autobiography, it’s not just the women in Burt’s life who’ve had a heavy load to carry. (Not that he’s ever lacked for volunteers.) ”At the beginning of your career,” Reynolds confides, in what’s hardly a startling revelation for a Hollywood biography, ”you start climbing a mountain that is actually a giant dung heap.” Rumored some years ago to have contracted AIDS, the star was actually fighting a near-fatal addiction to Halcion. Part of Reynolds’ problem seems to be that there’s just enough truth in the image to delude even its creator. Women flock to him like pigeons to popcorn, yet his judgment about them could hardly be worse. Assuming, that is, that you buy Reynolds’ version of any number of well-publicized scrapes — including his tabloid-enhanced breakup with Loni Anderson, whom he depicts as a promiscuous spendthrift. Now, some readers may question where Reynolds, who jokingly compares his libido to Secretariat’s (”It’s your duty to spread some of that wonderful bloodline around”), gets off calling anybody a tramp. But the man’s charm and self-deprecating wit nevertheless see him through. As movie biographies go, B+.