Burt Reynolds’ rise to the A List of movie stars and king of box office was a slow, gradual climb. He wasn’t always driving around in the black Trans Am with Jerry and Sally. The days of the longest yard seem so long ago. Today, Burt walks with the assistance of a cane and seems every bit of his 79 years.
You might not like some of his films or tabloid battles with ex-wife Loni Anderson, but his disarming smile, silly laugh, and good old buy manner is difficult not to like. I like Burt, I always have. I thought he made some very good early career choices and climbed to the top of his profession but failed to capitalize on his unique success and seemed afraid to take the next step in his career. Could it have been bad career advice? Maybe. Bad luck? Maybe. Changing audience tastes? Maybe. For a period in the 1970s, Burt was the biggest star in the galaxy. His fall, as a top earner and maker of quality films, along with his loss of health and financial solvency, happens frequently to movie stars, athletes and musicians. Risky investment, divorces, career missteps. During the past twenty years most of the Burt Reynolds news has generally been bad news.
Recently, Burt was guest at the Macon Film Festival where he presented two of his favorite films. Mostly out of public view in recent years, photos showed Burt as frail and gaunt, but greeted warmly and seemed to enjoy the chance to talk about his films and career.
While most big name movie stars steer clear of publicity events, including appearing on talk shows, Burt Reynolds of the 1970s was everywhere promoting his films and basking in the attention and adoration that came with stardom. Ever see Eastwood, Beatty or Redford on the Tonight Show, Mike Douglas, Merv or Dinah? I don’t think so. Burt was that rare breed of movie star that enjoyed being a movie and being in front of the fans. At least he did then.
Through the 1970s and into the 1980s, even as his popularity and box office appeal began to decrease, Burt was still our guy. His two high profile relationships, first with Dinah Shore and then with Sally Field, left him bruised and open to public scrutiny, probably the beginning of his withdraw from the public to a safer area. During filming of City Heat, his one film with Clint Eastwood, he suffered a jaw injury that resulted in a gaunt and unhealthy appearance. Rumors spread that he was seriously ill and his public image suffered, running parallel to a downshift in his film career. Quality films began to dry up. Remember Cop and a Half? During this time he married Loni Anderson, which would serve to keep him in the tabloids, first in a positive manner and then in a negative manner as financial and marital problems seem to overtake his life.
Burt’s career never seemed to get back on track. While he kept making films, the quality of his roles declined. He moved into television, first in the B. L. Stryker detective role (anyone remember that series?) and then in the sitcom Evening Shade, not long before his ugly divorce and mounting financial problems. By the mid 1990s, he was buried in debt, and while he began to dig himself out, the more difficult job seemed to be gaining back his public image. His film roles garnered him good reviews as he began to take edgier supporting roles. His role in Striptease was a real departure, particularly as he lost the ever-present toupee, and stepped outside the Burt Reynolds persona. Next was his role as a porn producer in Boogie Nights, opposite Mark Wahlberg. Again, good reviews, but again, a role he despised and seemed to retreat rather than moving forward with this new career path. Needing to work to regain his financial solvency, he began taking television roles, guest roles in series and television films. At times, he was able to salute his career by playing off his image, actually using the self-deprecating humor that he used to embrace, but often he took offers just to keep working.
Burt is frequently quoted as saying he never got to work with A List directors or got the best scripts. I don’t believe that. While I don’t know most of the scripts he turned down, I imagine he passed on films that made other actors big stars. Instead of taking a Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind or Indiana Jones role (I am only using those as possible offers), he chose Smokey and the Bandit II, The End and The Cannonball Run. As far as not working with the best directors, between 1972 and 1989, he did work with John Boorman, Blake Edwards, Peter Bogdanovich, Michael Crichton, Ted Kotcheff, Norman Jewison, Robert Aldrich, Joseph Sargent, Alan J. Pakula, Colin Higgings, Richard C. Sarafian and Woody Allen. That’s a very impressive list. Look up the credits of those folks and you’ll see the quality. Not all of the films he made with those folks were great films, in fact, some were just average. But instead of continuing to seek roles that stretched him, he kept going back to director Hal Needham or directing himself, playing it safe in well-worn roles.
So, with all that film talent, and the power to green light films just by agreeing to star, why did his career stall? Burt could have been a very good actor if he had wanted to be. He could also have carved out a successful directing career if he had taken it seriously. At the height of his powers, Burt could have followed the path of his contemporary Clint Eastwood and maintained a strong career through the decades. He continued to work with his friends and return to the lovable, good old boy persona. Lacking a solid career plan, and being afraid to lose the toupee, Burt seemed to be frozen in time, even as his career and public tastes moved on. By losing the wig, Burt could have gone the route of Sean Connery and embraced his age, adapting his look to character roles, and been willing to develop himself as an actor. Instead, he chose to play it safe and failed to fully utilize the power and success that is so fleeting in Hollywood.
While I ponder what might have been, Burt Reynolds gave us some very enjoyable films and took us on a great ride through the 1970s and early 1980s in a canoe, a Trans Am and a long leap across the goal line. He scores.