I’m a little late to the party, I know, but I really needed a day to gather my thoughts before I wrote my tribute to Mr. Burton Leon Reynolds, Jr., who passed away yesterday at the age of 82. Cause of death was listed as a heart attack.
I grew up in Tampa, and if there’s one thing that Floridians were always proud of it was that Burt Reynolds was one of us! Yes, he was born in Michigan but at age 10 he and his family made their way to the Sunshine State, so he’s one of ours!
Burt became an actor by accident. He attended Florida State University on a Football Scholarship (in high school he had been named both ALL STATE and ALL SOUTHERN as a fullback). In his sophomore year, he injured his knee. He later injured the other knee, and ruptured his spleen, in an automobile accident. These injuries hampered his ability and, seeing his dreams of playing professional football dashed, he decided to look for a career. After hearing him read Shakespeare in English class, his professor convinced Reynolds to try out for a play he was producing, called Outward Bound. Reynolds won the lead role and, for his performance, was given the Florida State Drama Award.
With the award came a summer at the Hyde Park Playhouse in New York. There Burton met actress Joanne Woodward, who introduced him to agents in the area. This lead to his first appearance on Broadway, in the play Look We’ve Come Through, earning good reviews. He went on the road with the show but soon found himself out of work. However, he soon found himself in the company of Mister Roberts, with Charlton Heston in the lead role. The play’s director got Reynolds an audition for the film Sayonara, but that film’s director, Joshua Logan, informed Reynolds he couldn’t use him as he looked too much like the film’s star, Marlon Brando. Logan did encourage Reynolds to go to Hollywood, where he soon found himself in small roles on television.
His big break came when he starred on the television show Riverboat. He gained more fame when he joined the cast of Gunsmoke as Quint Asper, a “half-breed” blacksmith. As his success in television grew, he began doing films, including Angel Baby and Navajo Joe. Reportedly producer Albert Broccoli asked Reynolds to be George Lazenby’s replacement as James Bond, but Reynolds turned him down, being unable to imagine an American playing the British secret agent.
Reynolds ascended to star status with his role in the film Deliverance. The film, coupled with Reynolds appearing as the centerfold of “Playgirl” magazine began a run of success that would, by the end of the decades, see him named as the most popular actor in Hollywood.
His meteoric box office run included such films as The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing, White Lightning, Gator, The Longest Yard, Lucky Lady and the second most popular film of 1977: Smokey and the Bandit (damn you, Star Wars!) 1978 gave us all a double shot of classic Reynolds, as both Hooper and The End are released.
As the 1980s rolled in, he continued his streak with roles in Smokey and the Bandit 2, Cannonball Run, Best Friends and Paternity. He also took more interest behind the camera, directing several of his films, including Sharky’s Machine, which was both a box office and critical success. Having released an album in the early 70s, Reynolds was a natural to star opposite Dolly Parton in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. He later went on to star on the long running television series Evening Shade, earning an Emmy as Best Actor in a comedy.
Though he has played many an iconic character, Reynolds also turned down many roles that made other actors stars. Besides James Bond, he turned down the role of Han Solo in Star Wars, Michael in The Godfather and John McClain in Die Hard. The one role he regrets turning down was one written especially for him, that of former astronaut Garret Breedlove in Terms of Endearment. Citing a promise to his friend Hal Needham to do the film Stroker Ace, Reynolds turned the role down. The part was given to Jack Nicholson, who would go on to win the Academy Award as Best Supporting /Actor for his work. The one role he’s glad he turned down? Edward, the lonely businessman played by Richard Gere in Pretty Woman. Reynolds actually repeatedly turned down the role that would bring him his only Oscar nomination, that of Jack Horner, the adult film director in Boogie Nights.
We at Media Mikes have many fond memories of Burt Reynolds. Both Mikes (and our wives) met up in New Jersey, where Reynolds was scheduled to be a guest at the Chiller Theater convention. Due to scheduling reasons, Reynolds could not attend, but we spent the weekend making each other laugh as we all tried to impersonate Reynolds classic, high pitched “Ha-ha!” laugh. In 2011, Mike G. got the envious job of getting to interview Reynolds for the site. You can read that interview HERE
And if you want to hear that classic laugh, click HERE.