"Marriage," the irrepressible and, alas, late Burt Reynolds is once supposed to have said, "is about the most expensive way for the average man to get laundry done." Your reaction to this quotation — visceral disgust, quiet groaning, or a simple nod of agreement — will probably go a long way towards predicting your overall feelings about the Bandit.
For my part, I loved him. And for me, that line gets at the heart of his appeal: Reynolds was, simply put, the average man, but a heck of a lot cooler. He liked to drink beer; he liked to hunt and fish; he liked high-performance automobiles and gambling. He cared about his clothes and had a great look, but not an outré or expensive one. And he believed, in an old-fashioned and uncomplicated way, one that now enjoys about as much open cultural currency as phrenology, that men are not well suited to doing household chores.
Reynolds' particular charm came across in everything he did, including his commercials for Florida orange juice and Miller Lite.
I don't care about car culture, and I would even be willing to argue that private automobile ownership has been a disaster for civilization, but when I watch Reynolds behind the wheel of a Trans Am, I want to get in a fast car and do things that are illegal in service of a good cause, like making sure that the owner of a NASCAR team gets to celebrate his victory "in style" — i.e., with Coors.
When he mocks the guitar-playing New South bobo whinging about "the law," he speaks for everyone in the audience who finds it incomprehensible that judicial niceties matter more than punishing rapists, even those of us who are not quite sure of our ability to avenge our friends with accurate bow-and-arrow shots through the heart. When he rallies a bunch of convicts to victory in a football game against a sadistic band of prison guards, he is fulfilling the fantasy of ultimate if short-lived triumph over evil and all-around tight-assedness shared by everyone who has been on the receiving end of injustice, behind bars or otherwise.
This is not to say that everything Reynolds did was a success. Over the course of his long career Reynolds failed many times, in surprisingly average ways. A promising halfback at Florida State who dreamed of being an All-American and going pro at a time when the sport beyond the college level was even more disreputable than it is today, he suffered a knee injury and dropped out of college. Fresh from his breakthrough in Deliverance in 1973, he recorded one of the worst country albums ever made. After being being hit in the face with a chair while filming City Heat in 1984, he found himself, like goodness knows how many hundreds of thousands of his aging male fans since, addicted to prescription painkillers. In the mid '90s, after a number of ill-advised investments fell through, he declared bankruptcy.
It would be a mistake to assume that contemporary critics of Reynolds such as Roger Ebert should speak for history. His movies were big and loud but they were not dumb. At the time of his death, Alfred Hitchcock, of all people, insisted that Smokey and the Bandit was his favorite film of all time. It has been many years since Hollywood has made an action film as well crafted as even the Smokey sequels — and it looks increasingly unlikely that we will ever see one that features anything like that amount of actual driving or real-life stunts.
It is worth pointing out that Smokey appeared in 1977 and was the year's second highest-grossing picture, behind the initial entry in the most successful film franchise of all time. Whatever else one might say about it, it is hard not to argue that Star Wars was the beginning of the end for real action movies, especially funny ones. George Lucas' classic is the direct ancestor of every bloated unwatchable Marvel CGI-fest. Despite his indubitably '70s open-chested look, Reynolds was actually a retro figure in cinema, one of the very last in a tradition that stretches back to Errol Flynn. We don't have heroes like Paul "Wrecking" Crewe anymore. Instead we have Aquaman.
In common with, I suspect, many of my own generation, my first exposure to Reynolds was his voice acting turn in Don Bluth's bizarre animated masterpiece All Dogs Go to Heaven. It was as good an introduction as any, not least because the character of Charlie Barker, a roguish gambler who dies to save an orphan girl, points to the admixture of machismo and everyday sweetness that was the secret of Reynolds' very average allure for millions of filmgoers.
Good night, sweet mustached prince, and may cartoon dog angels sing thee to thy rest.