Burt Reynolds, the macho movie star who had a string of blockbuster hits in the ’70s and ’80s followed by an Oscar-nominated comeback in 1997’s Boogie Nights, died Thursday at the age of 82. In 2005, EW’s Chris Nashawaty spoke to the actor about the rise, fall, and rise again of his career in Hollywood.
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!”
Actually, Reynolds has eight movies coming out this year. And for his fans, it must be starting to feel a lot like 1978 again. That was the year the actor was coming off Smokey and the Bandit and Semi-Tough and starred in such hits as The End (which he also directed) and Hooper. It was also the year that Reynolds was anointed the No. 1 movie star in the land — kicking off an unprecedented five-year run as the top draw in America. Something neither Tom Cruise nor Tom Hanks has been able to duplicate. He was dating America’s sweetheart, Sally Field. Women swooned at the sight of him. Men wanted to grab a beer with him. In 1978, it was impossible to be bigger than Burt Reynolds.
But then suddenly the movies got smaller. Or at least his did.
After his football injury, Reynolds was unable to walk for months. Realizing that his playing career was dead, he limped as far away from sports as he could: the drama department. “There were a lot of really good-looking ladies there,” he says, laughing his sly Bandit‘s laugh. “It was a weird feeling. I walked on stage having never been in anything before in my life, and I felt like I did when I walked on the football field. I wasn’t nervous. I was totally at home.”
Reynolds dropped out of college and moved to New York, where he shared a $44-a-month fleabag apartment in Hell’s Kitchen with another wannabe actor — a Texan named Rip Torn. One day, Torn told his roommate that he’d found him a job on TV. Only later did Reynolds find out that the job required him to be set on fire. Still, he took it and started to moonlight as a stuntman. Recalling a stunt he did on his early-’70s TV show called Dan August, Reynolds says, “I was supposed to run into a burning building and run out with a baby. It was so hot when I got in there that there was this melted piece of s— that was supposed to be the baby and there was no way out. The door was gone. So I jumped through the window and hurt my shoulder. It was stupid macho bulls—, but I did it because I wasn’t sure if I was good enough as an actor.”
A utility player with good looks, Reynolds landed a $125-a-week contract with Universal in 1958. There he became friends with another young actor, Clint Eastwood. “Universal had contracts with the Miss Universes. And I don’t care what Clint says, but he cut a swath through the Miss Universes.” Says Eastwood with a laugh, “Burt likes to tell stories.” Both young actors were soon cast on TV shows — Eastwood on Rawhide and Reynolds on Gunsmoke, playing blacksmith Quint Asper for three seasons.
Reynolds bounced around unmemorably on both big screen and small until landing his breakout film, 1972’s Deliverance. “That script changed my life,” he says. “It was the only movie in 40-something years that I knew was going to be big.” Reynolds played Lewis Medlock, the alpha male among a group of four friends who go on a canoeing trip on Georgia’s treacherous Cahulawassee River. These days, the movie’s title has become shorthand for backwoods hicks playing banjos and the sodomizing of poor Ned Beatty, but Deliverance also showcased Reynolds at his most magnetic. He came off like a macho daredevil, showing off both his inner stuntman and his chops as a serious dramatic actor.
“At the end of each day we’d paddle the canoes home,” says Beatty, “and one time we went over a little waterfall and we slam down and I go under and Burt goes flipping over me. He hurt his shoulder pretty bad. But two days later, I see him talking to [director] John Boorman and he’s telling him about the accident because he wants to do it in the film!” Adds costar Jon Voight, describing a scene in which he and Reynolds are driving off-road with Reynolds behind the wheel: “He just floored it and he could have hit anything. And he’s laughing the whole time! It’s a great scene in the film, but he seemed crazy to me.”
But Boorman didn’t cast Reynolds in such a starmaking role because he’d seen him in flicks like Navajo Joe or Shark. No, he told Reynolds it was because of The Tonight Show. Reynolds was a regular guest of Johnny Carson’s and often sat in as a guest host. And it was on Johnny’s couch that Reynolds says he always felt most at ease, self-deprecatingly cracking wise about Hollywood, dishing dirt about other celebrities, and fueling his image as a swizzle-shtick playboy. It was also on The Tonight Show that Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown propositioned Reynolds to pose as a male centerfold in her magazine. He had no clue of the backlash to come.
When I bring this up, it’s the only time Reynolds gets testy:
“I couldn’t make it through the interview without asking about Cosmo…”
“You could, but f— you…”
After a very long beat, he finally laughs.
“Whoever was my publicist at the time said, ‘Look, you’ve got Deliverance coming out, so it’s not like people won’t take you seriously.’ The thing was, Deliverance didn’t end up coming out until later. And by the time the movie came out, it hurt. It really hurt.”
The Burt Reynolds Cosmo centerfold is a pictorial time capsule of the swingin’ ’70s. Wearing nothing but a grin, Reynolds lies in the buff like a mustachioed odalisque. He’s smoking a Tiparillo and his chest is almost as hairy as the bearskin rug beneath him. You can almost hear Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass playing on the soundtrack. America went nuts.
Asked why it hurt his career, Reynolds says, “Because a lot of people don’t have a sense of humor. Women got it. But a lot of men, they got pissed off. I thought it was a great joke, but truly, most people didn’t get it.”
Reynolds says the playboy label stuck with him for years and may have been why he didn’t get an Oscar nomination for his performance in 1979’s Starting Over, especially since costars Candice Bergen and Jill Clayburgh were both nominated. “I don’t think they could buy me struggling with women the way the guy in that film does.”
Despite Reynolds‘ reputation for being a lothario and his string of high-profile romances with Dinah Shore, Sally Field, Chris Evert, and Loni Anderson, he insists that the press had it wrong. “When I was going with Sally, or whoever I was going with, I’m not the kind of person to have girls on the side or go to strip clubs. But I can play that! I can play the hell out of that! Because I find that guy funny. Sad, but funny.”
When asked what he’s learned about women over the years, Reynolds (whose current companion is producer/ philanthropist Kate Edelman Johnson) shoots back, “That I don’t know s—. The guy who tells me he does is arrogant and stupid.” His costar from the new Longest Yard, Chris Rock, disagrees. He says Burt knows plenty about the ladies. “Anybody who’s been married and divorced as many times as him has got great stories. You just sit there. Burt Reynolds on women — it should be a ride at Disney.”
If Reynolds suffered from too much gossip-column scrutiny on the way up, the downward spiral was even worse. In 1984, after riding the crest of Smokey, The Cannonball Run, and Sharky’s Machine, Reynolds was making City Heat with his old friend Eastwood. During a scene in which Reynolds was supposed to be hit across the face with a prop — a chair made out of balsa wood — he was hit with the real thing instead. His jaw was shattered. He could barely open his mouth or talk. He ate only liquid foods and milk shakes and lost 40 pounds. By the end of the shoot, he says he was down to 110 pounds and wearing eight or nine sweaters under his jacket so he wouldn’t look like a ghoul.
He popped painkillers and tried everything from hypnosis to Indian smokehouses to ease the pain. “I probably would’ve drank the urine of a goat if they thought it would help.” After the film, Reynolds took to his bed, and the tabloids ran headlines claiming that he had AIDS. “In the early days of the disease, they needed desperately some well-known heterosexual guy to have AIDS and they picked me,” he says. “They had doubles checking into four different hospitals and signing my name.”
Johnny Carson visited Reynolds at his bedside and invited his old friend onto The Tonight Show to douse the rumors. Reynolds describes that time as “the lowest point of my life.” Even with the AIDS rumors dispelled, his star seemed tarnished. “I’d been the number one star in the world and I was the only guy to go from number one to number 138.” But, he adds, “that’s when you reach down and find out whether you’ve got any balls.” Adds his close friend Dom DeLuise, “When he went on The Tonight Show barely able to stand and he said, ‘People think I’m dead, but I ain’t,’ that’s tough. When you’re depressed, you don’t want a camera in your face. But he’s a survivor.”
The film offers still came, but instead of Deliverance or Semi-Tough, they were for Rent-a-Cop or Switching Channels. Reynolds says that he made a conscious decision to work again, work harder, and work often. He planted himself in the lobby of the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills just to be seen by industry players and to jog their memories. “There are three stages of an actor’s career,” he says. “Young, Old, and ‘You look good!’ I was at the ‘You look good!’ stage.”
When Reynolds did get back to work, he found humbling himself for young, know-it-all directors hard to stomach. Playing porn father-figure Jack Horner in 1997’s Boogie Nights, Reynolds had problems with his line “Is that what you want? F— her in the a–.” So he told director P.T. Anderson: “‘Paul, I have a hard time with that.’… He said, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll work on it.’ And when we got to that scene, I said again, ‘Paul, I have a hard time with this line.’ And he said, ‘Well, you read the script!’ That didn’t go over too well. We had some hard words.”
Still, when Reynolds eventually received an Oscar nomination for the film — his first ever — he was overwhelmed by the warm reactions of his peers and those critics who’d never been particularly kind to him. It was as if the industry that had been kicking him for the past decade was welcoming him back as an elder statesman. The last of the old-time Hollywood pros. “It turns out I had some closet fans,” he says, still surprised. “My career has been like a heart-attack victim’s. I was down at the bottom of the cellar and came back to the top. Now, with The Longest Yard, this picture’s like the Deliverance of this period of my life. I’ll either come out of it looking like the old man of the century, or I’ll come out of it with a pop.”
As Reynolds says this, a smile spreads across his face. It’s as if he’s outlived his enemies and now gets to write the history books. He raises an orange slice to his lips and leans back in his chair. Because after more than 75 films, he’s a man who senses that things are finally going his way again. That he’s taken whatever hits the business can dish out, gotten back up, bad knee and all, and kept running toward something only he can see — and see clear as daylight.
Getting up to leave, I ask Reynolds if he’s ever thought of retiring. He pauses for a moment. “Yeah, I’m going to retire hopefully like Cary Grant did,” he says. Working. “I’ll be on stage telling a story, everyone’s going to applaud and laugh, and then I’ll drop like a rock.”