One of my most popular blogs is about Burt Reynolds. I find interesting. Burt is back in the news with a movie he is appearing. The other night I was also watching one of his old movies, Sam Whiskey (1969), and I got to thinking about what made him such a popular celebrity and why he is so enduring.
At 82 years old, Burt is still acting and makes selected public appearances. If you have seen a photo of him recently you see that time has chipped away at the Bandit but there is still something in his eye that 40 years hasn’t touched. Which is an interesting statement because he nearly always wears glasses with tinted lenses.
I was thinking about his career, in relation to several of his contemporaries: Robert Redford, Clint Eastwood, Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty. All five had remarkable careers and were the top stars of the 1970s in terms of box office and popularity. Each had a long career trajectory, Burt’s flamed out first, although Burt’s was arguably the hottest at its peak.
Bad film choices, poor investment decisions, overexposure and health issues all contributed to a career and financial decline. With a few exceptions, his films over the past twenty-five years have been for the paycheck.
Let’s go back to 1969 which seems a transition time for him. He had spent the 1960s doing mostly television work. Supporting work in Riverboat and Gunsmoke; and then starring roles in Hawk and Dan August. In the 1969 he made a few films but had not broken into the big time, in fact, Dan August was still ahead. Deliverance, The Longest Yard and the Playgirl magazine centerfold were a few years away, but his time was coming.
Sam Whiskey is an interesting film. It is not a great film, but it showcases the Burt that we would begin to see and would form much of his film and celebrity persona. Sam Whiskey is a drama but it is very light-hearted and allows the fun, self effacing Burt to shine through. Sam Whiskey is the Bandit; he’s also Paul Crew and he’s the guy from the Cannonball Run films. He’s also the guy who appeared on The Tonight Show 62 times.
With Redford, Nicholson, Beatty and Eastwood you saw different characters, at least characters different from themselves. When Burt shed his own persona and immersed himself in a different character as in Deliverance, White Lightning or Starting Over, we saw him stretch and expand his repertoire.
Remember when Sally Field won her second Academy Award as Best Actress? At the podium she said with great emotion, or maybe struggled with her recognition: “You like me.” In a sense, that’s been Burt’s issue. Confirmation. Acceptance. In the 1970s, he was everywhere, and he kept coming back to the character that he felt audiences liked most.
In his interviews, Burt often claimed that he wasn’t offered serious parts or allowed to work with the best directors. He was the Number One Box Office earner during a chunk of the 1970s. He wasn’t offered parts that Redford, Eastwood, Nicholson and Beatty were offered? I find that difficult to believe. However, Burt acknowledges that he was offered Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Arc and other big films, but turned them down.
The other actors I mentioned also developed some of their own scripts and films in partnership with others. That leads to me think that each had a career arc they were following, in part developed with trusted advisors. I don’t know if Burt had a plan for his career and selected his parts and films in accordance with that vision, or he tended to select his roles based on the film, location or chance to work with other actors.
In the 1980s, Burt’s career suffered some major setbacks. He was no longer white-hot and he was heading into middle age. Other actors hit a slump and are able to move their career in another direction. Gene Hackman comes to mind. Hackman made some mediocre films in that time period but was able to alternate between lead and supporting roles for another 20 years. Burt’s response to his dry spell was to return to the familiar ground of series television. Granted, Burt and Gene are different actors, but deep down, both are character actors who played their careers differently.
Burt released his latest autobiography back in 2015, his version of the song, My Way. He reflected on the passage of time, missed opportunities, the joys in his life, and regrets. He had a few. Water under the bridge now.
Nicholson and Beatty had dropped off the radar, living mostly private lives. Redford continues to work and is active in his environmental causes and other interests. Eastwood, past age 80, continues to direct films, and promotes his own political views. Burt is active, as much as his frail health will allow, thought he has always steered clear of controversial views.
Burt’s interest is Burt, and his legacy. It is understandable. He still wants us to like him. It’s okay, Burt. Despite the ugly divorce from Loni and years of tabloid stories about his finance and failed relationships, and his own bitterness in recent years – we still like him. We have all the movies and old shows to prove it. All he has to do is see that smile, with or without the mustache, the Bandit or Paul Crew, and we’re hooked. It’s okay, we really like you.