Alongside Clint Eastwood, Burt Reynolds was the last movie star to bridge the gap between Hollywood’s old school and the Brat Pack-led, Multiplex blockbuster world we still live in today. A TV veteran from the late fifties, Reynolds used his trademark twinklin’ eyes, infectious chuckle, some audacious choices and some good ‘ol Southern charm to become a household name. Between 1978 and 1982, he was bar none, the biggest movie star in the world.
Somehow, despite overwhelming good will from an appreciative audience, Reynolds had a devil at the wheel and over his fifty year-plus career he had a bewildering tendency to shoot out his own tyres, to continue an appropriate racing car metaphor.
A promising football star in college – a sport to which he would return repeatedly in his films – a series of injuries led him to pursue a career as an actor. Appearances in popular shows like Gunsmoke and Dan August demonstrated enough star power to tempt Albert Broccoli into offering him the part of James Bond which Sean Connery would eventually re-accept in Diamonds Are Forever.
Deliverance, John Boorman’s classic man vs nature (and inbred hillbillies) adventure, delivered unto us a major motion picture star. Alongside established character actors like Jon Voight and Ned Beatty, the comparatively inexperienced Reynolds held his own and seized the screen as the pack’s alpha male. Almost immediately he was in demand as an above-the-title star.
He quickly built up the stock ‘Burt’ character that would serve him well for over a decade. A southern boy, anti-establishment even when playing cops, charming with a wink in his eye but always ready to throw a punch. He strutted this winning persona throughout films like White Lightning, The Longest Yard, Hustle and Gator, almost always to the sound of ringing box office tills.
One might argue that his habit of playing it safe was directly because of the negative reaction he incurred when he stepped out of his comfort zone – playing a Cary Grant-type in Don Siegel’s Rough Cut or most embarrassingly in Peter Bogdanovich’s savagely maligned musical At Long Last Love.
He admitted to taking on parts “that would be the most fun, not the most challenging,” which could explain the number of high profile roles he turned down, including Jack Nicholson’s Oscar-winning supporting role in Terms of Endearment and also, if reports are to be believed, Han Solo.
Reynolds didn’t need Star Wars. His contribution to popular culture circa. 1977 was Smokey & The Bandit, his first of many collaborations with stunt co-ordinator turned director Hal Needham. Hurtling across the deep South in his black Trans-Am with Sally Field his (real life) true love by his side, Bandit’s exploits were a box office sensation – adjusted for inflation, Smokey & The Bandit is still the 75th most successful film of all time.
It seemed that for the next few years though, all Burt Reynolds did was drive fast cars and raise his eyebrows in the direction of pretty girls. First stunt-actioner Hooper, then another Bandit film, then Cannonball Run in 1981, then another Cannonball Run film (one of cinema’s truly merit-free sequels). The audiences were starting to fade and Stroker Ace in 1983 was the last straw. “That,” he said with commendable self-awareness, “is when I lost them.”
There would be further peaks along the road, most surprisingly on television: his sit-com Evening Shade was a long-running ratings hit and even won him an Emmy. Yet every time he got himself back on the horse, somehow he’d find a way to fall back off it.
Famously, he fired his agent for getting him involved in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights, not realising that he was giving the performance of his life in one of the best films of the 1990s (a misunderstanding he appears to share with Mark Wahlberg). Despite his Oscar nomination (his only one), it wasn’t long before he was turning up in drivel like Universal Soldier II: Brothers in Arms.
I think that he was frustrated by an insecurity about his talent that made him constantly undermine himself. A refreshingly self-deprecating man in interviews, one sensed that he was too ready to accept the barbs of critics, but knew deep inside that he was better then they realised. This led to a lot of well publicised blow-ups, including a pretty messy divorce in the early 1990s.
But that vulnerability was the secret weapon he deployed without even realising it. Without that, he’d have been just another charmless hunky B-lister letting his hat do the acting. There was a good reason audiences fell in love with him in their millions and it wasn’t just that he looked good in a convertible.
By coincidence, last week I happened upon what is now his epitaph, The Last Movie Star (death has robbed him of a swan song in Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time in Hollywood). It’s not a bad film, and like so many of the genuinely bad films that he made, he’s the best thing in it. It was poignant salute to a star that to the generation who came of age in a time of only three TV channels, was the absolute embodiment of Hollywood megastardom.
Take another look at his pre-moustache period in the 1970s when he was making films like Deliverance and Hustle and you can see magnetism radiating out of him like alpha waves. Lesser stars would have had to start a bar fight and jump though a glass window to conjure up the kind of impression Burt Reynolds could make simply by leaning against a car.
He was the man so many of us kids wanted to be when we grew up. He was the last movie star, and he was better than he knew – but we did.