Becoming known as the “biggest movie star/singer/athlete” of a particular decade isn’t something that a person gets an award or real acknowledgement for but is certainly a worthy barometer when it comes to measuring the impact of a person on the culture at large. Michael Jordan dominated the 1990s NBA and became a global icon in the process. On the music spectrum, nobody sniffs Michael Jackson and the 1980s; he had concert fans passing out in euphoria from Tokyo to Topeka while “Thriller” smashed records.
In the 1970s, Burt Reynolds was the gum-smackin’, Cheshire cat-smilin’, charisma-oozin’ embodiment of American machismo, a box office star/sex symbol nonpareil. He might steal your girl, but damn he’ll make you laugh while doing it. You can argue about which musical act owned the decade or who the bigger jock was but there was no bigger Hollywood star than Reynolds. Sadly, the mustachioed icon died yesterday in Florida of a heart attack at age 82.
The former Florida State running back and working TV actor carved out a lengthy career of many highs and a few lows but left a huge legacy thanks to his indelible work. In the 1972 harrowing forest horror classic DELIVERANCE, a pre-stache Reynolds epitomized what it meant to be a man’s man in rescuing himself and his buddies from nightmarish doom. It also made him a star virtually overnight.
Shortly before it came out, Reynolds appeared naked on a bearskin rug in Cosmopolitan. The photoshoot dovetailed perfectly with the movie to send his stock flying high with both men and women (even though he called the shoot a mistake that hurt the movie).
He had another memorable hit two years later when he revisited his pigskin roots in the screws vs. cons football classic THE LONGEST YARD. But it would be his role three years later that shot him into the stratosphere. In 1977, SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT was a rollicking chase movie in which Reynolds’s Bandit needs to smuggle 400 cases of Coors from Texas to Atlanta in 28 hours with Jackie Gleason’s Sheriff Buford T. Justice in hot pursuit (only STAR WARS made more money that year). The redneck CITIZEN KANE, said to be Alfred Hitchcock’s favorite flick, became a huge hit as Reynolds created the persona he would come to be known by: fun-loving, a little cocky, impish, and irresistible.
It was during this run that he and the cute-as-a-button Sally Field, with whom he had tremendous on-screen chemistry, were an item and felt like America’s First Couple for a stretch. “There are times in your life that are so indelible, they never fade away. They stay alive, even forty years later,” Field said in a statement yesterday. “My years with Burt never leave my mind. He will be in my history and my heart for as long as I live. Rest, Buddy.”
The inevitable BANDIT sequel arrived in 1980 before Reynolds launched another automobile franchise in 1981 with the wacky ensemble road race flick THE CANNONBALL RUN. (HOOPER, about an aging stuntman, might be the best of his car/stunt era flicks directed by Hal Needham). But soon enough, as things are wont to do in Hollywood, Reynolds’s star began to fade. Bad career decisions. Tabloid fodder. Age. An ugly public divorce. Before long, direct-to-video movies gave way to a return to TV back in a time when movie actors still looked down on TV roles.
A noteworthy appearance in the 1996 Demi Moore vehicle STRIPTEASE put him back on the cinematic map. Soon after, he would achieve his career highlight when he was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role as porn auteur Jack Horner in the sublime BOOGIE NIGHTS. Ironically, Reynolds wasn’t happy after the movie was done filming and fired his agent before the movie went on to critical and box office success.
Burt Reynolds was most definitely of a time and place that won’t be recreated again. He became a footloose and fancy-free star before the hard-edges of the ’70s gave way to the world-weary cynicism that became the norm. That smiling smart-ass persona stuck with him for 40+ years and we were all the better for it.
“I always wanted to experience everything and go down swinging,” he wrote in the final paragraph of his memoir. “Well, so far, so good. I know I’m old, but I feel young. And there’s one thing they can never take away: Nobody had more fun than I did.”