Irish writer and journalist Wayne Byrne pays tribute to the late and truly great Burt Reynolds.
There will be many clip reels being put together this week to honour the passing of Burt Reynolds. He was a genuine icon of the American Cinema, with over a hundred films to his name, not to mention the number one box-office star in the world from 1977 to 1981. He produced, directed and starred in several major TV shows such as B.L. Stryker and the award-winning Evening Shade. But in those clip reels you will mostly see Reynolds appearing in three films: Deliverance, Smokey and the Bandit, and Boogie Nights. Respectively, that’s one great film; one mammoth box-office behemoth; and one good-though-overrated picture that the actor himself didn’t even like. In these tributes nothing will be mentioned of the myriad films and television shows that made his a truly substantial career; it is unfortunate because there is so much more to the actor than those three films can summarise. Forget the articles what will ruminate on him not taking roles in Star Wars, Dr. No and Terms of Endearment, for Reynolds was a truly accomplished and prolific actor who made more than his fair share of memorable work since landing his first major gig as the co-star of NBC’s Riverboat in 1959. After quitting that show amidst acrimony with co-star Darren McGavin, further TV appearances followed in the likes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Johnny Ringo, and The Blue Angels before he landed roles in feature films.
Reynolds’ film debut appeared in 1961 when he was cast playing an aggressive juvenile delinquent lusting after Salome Jens in the steamy Southern melodrama, Angel Baby. It was an inauspicious appearance in an intriguing film, which had the unfortunate timing of being released just after as the similarly themed Elmer Gantry. There followed a series of enjoyable, if routine, wartime pictures, Armoured Command and Operation C.I.A., before Italian movie mogul Dino De Laurentiis cast him as the eponymous lead in Sergio Corbucci’s brilliant spaghetti western, Navajo Joe, in 1967. Shooting had to be prematurely wrapped on Corbucci’s film, as Reynolds was summoned to New York to begin filming the gritty cop show, Hawk. This series gave Reynolds his first major lead role on television, and while the show didn’t last long (despite petitions to keep it alive) it did bring Reynolds to the attention of notable producers and studio heads as a dashing, athletic, and potentially romantic leading man. As such, he was duly cast in Hollywood genre films such as the Westerns 100 Rifles and Sam Whiskey, as well as the strange science fiction adventure, Skullduggery. Exotic low-budget productions such as Sam Fuller’s Shark and the heist picture Impasse came and went. Two of his best pictures of this era are also two of his least well-known. The 1968 romantic drama Fade In was dumped by Paramount Pictures after disastrous test screenings, but the film interestingly pairs tough, blue-collar country-boy Burt with sophisticated bourgeois city-girl Barbara Loden in a romance doomed to fail amidst the inherent culture clash and small-town jealousy. Fade In is a boldly intertextual film which pre-dates more notable self-reflexive cinematic exercises such as Dennis Hopper’s two New Hollywood masterpieces, Easy Rider (1969) and The Last Movie (1971), but audiences of the time didn’t take to the film’s obfuscating aesthetic. Not long after that Reynolds portrayed another local boy who has fallen for someone from the higher rungs of the social ladder, in Run Simon Run. Here, Reynolds plays an ostracised ex-con Native American who falls in love with a rich, charitable social worker played by Inger Stevens. It was another culture clash romance; a good film with important themes at its heart, but one which failed to ignite much interest from audiences and critics.
With his film career trajectory in stasis, another foray into television police procedurals would follow in the form of Dan August, which wasn’t dissimilar to the previous Hawk, and also like that show Dan August didn’t make it past season one. Success wouldn’t elude the actor for much longer however, as Reynolds would find some formula for success when he parlayed his likeable rogue cop demeanour to the big screen into the very enjoyable Fuzz. It was in this film in which Reynolds would begin to hone the persona that many would come to associate as being definitive of the actor’s style, a considerable mixture of irreverent rapscallion charisma, everyman humility, and athletic tough guy resolve. Not to mention brooding good looks and romantic charm to beat the band. It would be Reynolds’ next film which would prove a crucial turning point in his career, John Boorman’s chilling Deliverance. Playing tough survivalist Lewis Medlock, Reynolds cemented his status as the ultimate rugged, handsome action man for the 1970s. Immense Hollywood success followed, which each film increasing the star’s media omnipresence while increasing his credibility as one of American Cinema’s most profitable and popular leading men. Amidst the haze of celebrity anointment, with his brilliant recurring appearances on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, as well as the infamous Cosmopolitan spread, and even a very decent major label country/easy listening album called Ask Me What I Am, Burt Reynolds was making damn fine films.
At Long Last Love
The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing was a raw, violent feminist western and one of the most underrated of its era. White Lightning is a classic Southern crime thriller that spawned an equally thrilling sequel, Gator. Around this time Reynolds began working with lauded auteurs of Hollywood Old and New, such as Robert Aldrich on two occasions with the massively successful prison football picture The Longest Yard and the fantastic neo-noir Hustle. The former has become one of the definitive pictures of Reynolds’ career, with him even starring in its 2005 remake, while the latter is simply one of the best pictures of both Reynolds’ and Aldrich’s illustrious careers, a dark, chilling noir that rivals Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye as one of the great film noir revivals of the 1970s. Two interesting collaborations with director Peter Bogdanovich ensued and allowed Reynolds to indulge his comedic side in the director’s tribute to D.W. Griffith and early silent cinema, Nickelodeon, and the director’s tribute to Ernst Lubitch and early sound cinema, At Long Last Love. Both films were, however, compromised by studio interference and were critically disdained. Reynolds had the misfortune of working with the brilliant Bogdanovich just as the critics turned against him for the cinematic sins of ego, excess, and Daisy Miller. Not that any of this would matter to Reynolds, as he was about to unleash one of the biggest films of the decade, and one with which he will be associated as long as he is remembered, Smokey and the Bandit. A colossal success with a $300 million return on a $4 million budget, the film would make Reynolds one of the most powerful stars in Hollywood.
It was inevitable that a star with as much financial clout as Reynolds would turn to directing. His first effort behind the camera was the aforementioned Gator, and with it he displayed a sharp command of kinetic action, amplifying the smaller-scaled elements of White Lighting to almost Bondian proportions with the stunt-heavy anarchy of the second picture. But the film Reynolds was itching to make was The End, a pitch black comedy about a terminally ill man’s absurdist attempts to commit suicide. It had been written by Jerry Belson as a Woody Allen picture, and one could certainly imagine it as prime comically neurotic material for Allen, but for Reynolds? With a plot like that and a star of his magnitude with the populist personality that he had, it shouldn’t work, but it does, exquisitely. Pairing with Dom Deluise, Reynolds clearly has a blast with the daring material and the film manages to be both funny and thematically significant. Turning The End in under-budget and under-schedule, and then seeing it make good box-office returns, only made Reynolds an even more cherished asset to the Hollywood studios.
Now at the height of his box office reign, Reynolds had his pick of material. Fine films such as Hooper and Starting Over were further indication of the actor’s dramatic abilities, while at the same time returning to the kind of cartoon-like stunt-and-gag farces that made the studios a mint, with Smokey and the Bandit II, The Cannonball Run, and The Cannonball Run II brought out to great success over the first half of the 1980s. In-between those pictures are some of Reynolds’ best work of the era. Sharky’s Machine is a terrific neo-noir, which re-imagines the 1940 film noir Laura and Hitchcock’s Rear Window in a contemporary crime thriller milieu, featuring stunning camerawork, a densely-layered plot of political intrigue and civil corruption, and a career-making turn from Rachel Ward. Sharky’s Machine was for Reynolds what McQ was for John Wayne, a chance at an urban western in the manner of Eastwood’s Dirty Harry.
Of course Reynolds would then get to share the screen with Eastwood in a moment of dream casting – two of Hollywood’s pre-eminent tough guys and most popular stars finally together. The film was City Heat, and while it is a wonderfully shot (by the brilliant cinematographer Nick McLean) and thoroughly enjoyable throwback to the Warner Bros gangster pictures of the 1940s, the production set off an unfortunate chain of events in Reynolds’ personal life from which he perhaps never truly recovered. A devastating accident took place on the set of the film in which the actor was felled by a real steel chair to the face, where a breakaway stunt chair was supposed to be used. Much medication and treatment was required, during which time his changing physical appearance was noted. In the films following City Heat, Reynolds looked notably thinner; perhaps due to his inability to eat solid food for a time following the on-set accident. But amidst the gossip and hearsay regarding the actor’s health, Reynolds was as prolific as ever, embracing the action hero image that he had been crafting throughout the 1970s. The result was the brilliant Elmore Leonard adaptation, Stick, a southern noir tale that mixes Miami high society with murky underworld figures, the kind Leonard was so great at writing. Reynolds also directed Stick with distinctive style, and subsequently went on to star in further hard-edged pictures such as the excellent unofficial Shane remake, Malone, and the interesting Las Vegas-set crime thriller, Heat.
At the turn of the 1990s, Reynolds found a home in smaller independent pictures which afforded the actor to display the depth of his scope and range. Bill Forsyth’s excellent dramatic comedy, Breaking In, contains a stunning performance from its star, one of nuance and quiet melancholy. Further into the decade Reynolds appeared in a series of striking films: Danny Huston’s macabre horror The Maddening, Alexander Payne’s topical political comedy Citizen Ruth, Ash Baron-Cohen’s stunning media satire Pups, Richard Weinman’s terrific backwoods thriller The Hunter’s Moon, Mike Figgis’ daring and unorthodox Hotel, and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights, for which he would be rightly acclaimed.
The Last Movie Star
Reynolds would give one last truly great performance in what may be a most fitting swansong to the cinema and a sincere acknowledgment to his adoring audience, in Adam Rifkin’s loving tribute, The Last Movie Star. Even though Reynolds plays the fictional character of Vic Edwards, the parallels to the real life star are obvious and intentional. In the film, Edwards revisits his past by recalling memories of his old movies, in which scenes from Smokey and the Bandit and Deliverance are used. The final shot of The Last Movie Star will now prove especially poignant, as Edwards/Reynolds breaks the fourth wall and with subtlety and grace, smiles sincerely to the audience. It is a moment in acknowledgment of the praise, the adoration, the loyalty and the commitment of a fanbase that has supported this incredible man who broke out of small-town Florida to become the world’s biggest movie star. And he was indeed the biggest movie star, but also perhaps the last movie star, and most certainly my favourite movie star.
Burt Reynolds died in his hometown of Jupiter, Florida on September 6th, 2018. His death was deeply upsetting, which is a strange thing to say about someone I’ve never met, but I idolised the man. Having been working on a book on his career and spending a lot of time with those he was friends with and those he worked with, one has been able to get a sense of the real man, and that is by all accounts the same man we watched and loved on the big and small screens: that warm personality, sensitive, inclusive, funny, and tough, but mostly sincere and honest… real. Knowing we won’t see that again is what inspires such a sense of loss with the man’s passing. A world without Burt Reynolds just feels a little less wonderful. But, he has left a staggering body of work in which we can revisit that laugh, that smile, those eyes, where we can share that undiluted sense of joy in filmmaking that Reynolds displayed every second he is on the screen. There was a magic in Burt Reynolds, a rare transcendent quality that was never seen before and will never be seen again.
“Everyone loves me… I’m good lookin’!” says Burt’s eponymous character in the film Stroker Ace. But even though it was Stroker who spoke those words, one suspects Burt was playfully referring to himself with his tongue characteristically in cheek.
Well, we sure did, and you sure were, Burt.
Wayne Byrne is a film historian, librarian and journalist. He writes for Hot Press magazine and is the author of The Cinema of Tom DiCillo: Include Me Out (Wallflower Press, 2017). Wayne has written two books due for release next year, one a comprehensive critical retrospective of the films of Burt Reynolds, the other he co-authored with legendary cinematographer Nick McLean Sr. and which is a study of McLean’s life and career as an acclaimed Hollywood cameraman. Both books will be released by McFarland & Company in 2019.
Read Wayne Byrne’s interview with Tom DiCillo, the American film director, screenwriter and cinematographer