Burt Reynolds, the macho movie star with a string of blockbuster hits in the ’70s and ’80s, followed by an Oscar-nominated comeback in 1997’s Boogie Nights, died Thursday in Florida, according to his manager. He was age 82.
Reynolds most recently appeared in writer-director Adam Rifkin‘s 2018 drama The Last Movie Star, which drew on elements of Reynolds’ own life in a story about a fading matinee idol confronting his mortality and legacy. He was also cast in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which is currently filming. In the movie, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, Reynolds was to play George Spahn, the blind rancher who owned the property that Charles Manson and his followers were living on when they hatched their most infamous murders.
With his sex symbol good looks and mischievous, self-deprecating sense of humor, Reynolds always seemed like a shoe-in for big-screen stardom. But he only took up acting after a promising football career was cut short by a knee injury while playing at Florida State University. “My dad probably took it harder than I did,” Reynolds told EW in 2005. “He was crushed.”
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Born Feb. 11, 1936, the Georgia native got his start in show business taking life-threatening jobs as a stuntman and bit parts on TV before landing a $125-a-week contract with Universal (along with another up-and-comer named Clint Eastwood) and a regular spot on the popular ’60s Western Gunsmoke.
But in 1972, Reynolds rocketed into the rarified air of the Hollywood A-list thanks to director John Boorman’s white-knuckle, white-rapids survival thriller, Deliverance, in which he played one of four male friends whose backwoods canoeing trip goes seriously awry. “That script changed my life,” Reynolds said. “It was the only movie in 40-something years that I knew was going to be big.” That same year, he became infamous as well as famous, thanks to a centerfold in Cosmopolitan magazine in which he wore nothing but a grin as he smoked a Tiparillo cigar splayed on a bearskin rug that was nearly as hairy as his chest. It would be hard to sum up the ‘70s more perfectly than that one photograph.
For the remainder of the ’70s and the first half of the ’80s, Reynolds ruled the box office (and The Tonight Show as one of host Johnny Carson’s favorite guests), racking up hit after hit as a rebellious, Southern-fried merry prankster in the Cannonball Run and Smokey and the Bandit films.
Reflecting on his ascent in 1981, Reynolds told the New York Times, “You know, there are three ways to make it in Hollywood. You can become an ‘ac-tor’ — a guy with things standing out in his neck — or you can become a personality, or you can become a star. I always wanted to be all three. I think … I think I may have made it.”
Though he continued to work steadily, Reynolds’ box office power waned. He found a home on TV, winning an Emmy in 1991 for his starring role in the long-running down-home sitcom Evening Shade, and he enjoyed a brief film comeback in the late ’90s thanks to his unlikely role as a patriarchal porn producer in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights, a role that earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
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Off screen, Reynolds was known for his tabloid-worthy personal life as a sort of Me Decade Don Juan, including his early-’70s relationship with singer and talk show host Dinah Shore (who was 20 years his senior), his relationship with Smokey costar Sally Field, and his tumultuous marriages to comedian Judy Carne (1963-65) and actress Loni Anderson (1988-93). Nonetheless, Reynolds was happy to live outside the Hollywood spotlight, making his home in Jupiter, Florida, where he founded the Jupiter Theatre and mentored younger actors.
In his later years, Reynolds often played elder-statesman roles, in such movies as Adam Sandler’s Longest Yard remake and the big-screen adaptation of The Dukes of Hazzard, in which he portrayed comic villain Boss Hogg.
Ahead of the release of The Last Movie Star in March 2018, Rifkin spoke to EW about working with Reynolds. “There’s a saying: Never meet your heroes, because you will inevitably be disappointed,” he said. “But whoever said that never met Burt Reynolds.”