Burt Reynolds, 1936–2018
The Hollywood heartthrob who played it for laughs
In the late 1970s and early ’80s, Burt Reynolds was America’s favorite hunk of beefcake. With his self-depreciating Southern charm, his rakish mustache, and a hairy chest that he bared frequently onscreen, the actor could single-handedly propel movies held together by the flimsiest of plots—such as car-crash comedies Smokey and the Bandit and The Cannonball Run—to blockbuster status. Offscreen, Reynolds became famous for his playboy lifestyle and terrible career choices. He turned down the roles of Han Solo in Star Wars, retired astronaut Garrett Breedlove in Terms of Endearment, and cop John McClane in Die Hard. “I think I’m the only movie star who’s a movie star in spite of his pictures,” he once said, “not because of them.”
Born in Lansing, Mich., Reynolds grew up in Riviera Beach, Fla., “where his father was police chief,” said The New York Times. A star football player in high school, he went on to play for Florida State University, “but his sports career ended in 1955 when he was seriously injured in a car crash.” Reynolds started going to drama classes—to find “the pretty girls,” he said—and moved to New York City to pursue a theater career. “He literally crashed into television work,” said The Washington Post, “when he was offered $150 to fall through a glass window for a TV series.” One-quarter Cherokee on his father’s side, Reynolds was often cast as Native Americans in 1960s TV shows such as Gunsmoke and Hawk.
He “came to big-screen prominence in Deliverance (1972),” director John Boorman’s brutal tale of a weekend trip to the wilderness that ends with rape and murder, said Variety.com. Reynolds won critical acclaim for his role as the macho Lewis Medlock, but he thought the movie was overshadowed by what he called his “stupid” decision to pose as Cosmopolitan’s first-ever nude centerfold that year. That shot, Reynolds claimed, made it tough for Hollywood to take him seriously as an actor, so he began taking lighter roles. In 1974’s The Longest Yard, he played an imprisoned football star who leads “a rag-tag team of prison inmates in a game against the guards,” said The Hollywood Reporter, and in 1977 he played a daredevil, Coors-smuggling driver in Smokey and the Bandit. The movie grossed $126 million—“only Star Wars took in more that year”—and led to a romance between Reynolds and his co-star, Sally Field, whom he later called “the love of my life.” There’d been no shortage of past loves: His exes included singer Dinah Shore, country star Tammy Wynette, tennis player Chris Evert, and actress Farrah Fawcett.
By the mid-1980s, Reynolds’ star was beginning to fade, said The Times (U.K.). His 1983 stock-car racer movie Stroker Ace flopped, and while filming the following year’s City Heat, he suffered a shattered jaw during a fight scene. Struggling to eat and addicted to painkillers, Reynolds lost 30 pounds, leading tabloids to falsely claim he had AIDS. No longer a box office draw, “the actor found himself mired in debt.” He blamed his financial woes on his messy divorce from actress Loni Anderson, who accused him of battery. But his extravagant lifestyle—he had 100 horses, a petting zoo, and an always on-call private jet at his Florida ranch—was also a factor.
Then in 1997 he experienced something of a career revival, winning his first Oscar nomination for his sympathetic turn as a “curiously sexless director of pornographic films” in Boogie Nights, said The Daily Telegraph (U.K.). Looking back at his career in 2015, Reynolds expressed regret that he hadn’t begun to take acting seriously until he was in his 40s, but said he still believed that his greatest role might be ahead of him. “I may not be the best actor in the world,” he said, “but I’m the best Burt Reynolds in the world.” ■