Remembering A Legend
Ladies and Gentlemen –
We are gathered here today to say our farewells to an American treasure. More than just a mustache, more than just a tough-as-hell, Trans-Am driving bootlegger – Burt Reynolds was truly one of the last of a dying breed. With an undeniable charm and charisma, infectious laugh and an aura of cool the likes of which are rarely seen these days, Burt Reynolds was a man who could do it all.
Need a fill-in host for The Tonight Show? Call Burt Reynolds. It’s the late 1970’s or early 80’s, and you need a leading man for your upcoming car chase movie or romantic comedy – or both? You’d be an idiot not to give the role to Burt Reynolds (and most likely out of a job).
By now I’m sure you’ve had a chance to read one or two of the countless articles on Burt’s passing, all pretty much the same variation of the same biographical story with a rundown of his filmography and some sort of Smokey and The Bandit pun or two. Don’t get me wrong, Bandit is a legendary character in pop culture lore, but defining a man on just one performance alone is a quick grab at the low-hanging fruit in a bountiful orchard of nourishing entertainment.
The string of Southern-themed car-chase comedy classics, romantic comedies, memorable TV cameos (Golden Girls, Archer, etc.), Evening Shade, (I guess, if that’s your thing). Burt even branched off into video games (as the voice of real estate mogul Avery Carrington in 2002’s GTA: Vice City) and animation (most notably for his frequent reference and subsequent guest appearance on Archer in 2012).
We also know the hits – like the aforementioned Bandit, The Longest Yard, Boogie Nights in the later years and of course, 1972’s Deliverance – with its uncannily accurate and still true to this day stereotype of mountain people (probably).
Whenever Burt was on screen, your attention couldn’t help but gravitate toward his character. Every scene he was in felt important – even if he didn’t have lines. His reach went well beyond the screen and up to the highest altitudes of the pop culture stratosphere. Before McConaughey was philosophically peddling Lincolns, Burt Reynolds was helping Pontiac Trans-Am topple the Chevy Camaro as America’s favorite fast car.
It’s All About The Name
Apart from being a major auto sales influencer and the greatest gum-chewer who ever lived, Burt was also the benefactor of some of the greatest character names in the history of cinema. I mean, you can’t really give a guy like Burt Reynolds the name “Bob Smith” (which ironically, is my grandfather’s name).
Quick sidebar: Growing up, my grandfather always reminded me a lot of Burt Reynolds. Both had strong, wavy hair, legendary mustaches, an intense, smoldering gaze, cool nicknames (Bandit and Smitty, respectively) and ridiculous modes of transportation. Burt, of course, with the Pontiac Trans-Am and Bob with the Ford Mustang Cobra. Grandpa could drive the hell out of a car, dabbled in racing and always had a pack of cigarettes rolled up his sleeve ready to tell a story to anyone who would listen. If the Midwest had their own Burt Reynolds, Bob Smith was it.
Back to those character names.
There is no way anyone other than Burt came up with these gems. There had to be a contract clause in which he was given carte blanche over the beyond cool nomenclature that could also be mistaken for a list of adult film stars.
Just a few of my favorites – Sam Whiskey, Gator McClusky, Paul “Wrecking” Crewe, Bo “Bandit” Darville, Sonny Hooper, Stroker Ace, Stick Stickley, Mex Escalante, Charlie B. Barkin, Jack Horner and of course, Turd Ferguson. (Oh wait, that was Norm MacDonald playing Burt Reynolds on SNL back in the day). Maybe this will refresh your memory…
A Fitting Tribute
It’s only fitting then, a larger-than-life pop culture icon such as Burt Reynolds be given the ultimate tribute in the inaugural edition of our larger-than-life pop culture in memoriam column, How To Eulogize In 10 Days.
I’m one who unironically celebrates the entire Burt Reynolds catalog, so I could think of no other way than to spend a week-and-a-half than by watching the man perform his craft, taking notes and putting together this farewell together.
As I was coming up with my list, I tried to mix in the hits with a few deep cuts (Not too deep, though. Let’s just say The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing was definitely not what I thought it would be). After some time, I was able to finally whittle down to a list I was happy with – all offerings from the big screen, in chronological order.
Day 1: Deliverance (1972)
Time to kick things off with a little backwoods banjo playin’ – and that’s pretty much it for this one. Nothing else happened in those Deliverance woods. Nothing. I forgot how shredded and facially smooth Burt Reynolds is in this movie, which was released right around the same time the infamous Cosmo photoshoot dropped.
The success of Deliverance made Hollywood take notice of Burt’s acting chops, while the women of the world were focusing on his “other” chops. His legit acting skills coupled with the risqué photoshoot of a rugged man sporting the greatest mustache alive while lying on a bearskin rug created the perfect recipe for a Hollywood megastar. The Burt Reynolds era had begun.
Day 2: White Lightning (1973)
The first entry in the Gator McClusky (such a great name) saga, White Lightning kicked off a string of Southern car chase comedies that would be become Burt’s bread and butter, helping him ascend to his rightful place on the Hollywood throne. Burt called it “the beginning of a whole series of films made in the South, about the South, and for the South… you could make back the cost of the negative just in Memphis alone. Anything outside of that was just gravy.”
Fun movie to watch, with tons of action, a nearly 12-minute car chase scene and some hilariously snappy dialogue (see below). Burt would go on to direct his first film, Gator (the sequel to White Lightning) a few years later, but White Lightning was always my favorite between the two. It’s just a shame we’ll never be able to see Sterling Archer’s proposed sequel, Gator 2.
Day 3: Longest Yard (1974)
Only Burt Reynolds could make an audience root for convicts to beat the hell out of prison guards on a football field. Burt stars as former all-everything quarterback Paul Crewe, who is tossed in the slammer for 18 months after a wild, drunken police chase. The warden of the prison wants him to coach his semi-pro team of prison guards (not sure why every prison doesn’t do this), but Crewe refuses. After being beaten something fierce, Crewe gains respect in the yard and decides to form an all-inmate team to take on the guards.
Of course, hilarity and ass-kicking ensue.
Fun Fact: Not too much of a stretch here, as Burt played real-life football at Florida State and was an All-American athlete in high school. (Yes, ladies and gents, the legend of the Bandit began in Tallahassee, where he carried the pigskin for the Seminoles and undoubtedly romanced his king’s bounty of FSU coeds).
Fun Fact: Burt also makes an appearance in the underappreciated and pretty hilarious 2005 Adam Sandler near-shot-for-shot-remake, donning the pads for one last crack at gridiron glory. Sure, 1974 Burt Reynolds was way more believable as a former NFL QB than Sandler, but the laughs are there and the nostalgia factor is a nice touch. Memberberries are delicious.
Day 4: Smokey and The Bandit (1977)
This is peak Burt Reynolds. The one film which perfectly encapsulates everything the world loved about him. When SkyNet eventually takes over and enslaves humanity, I hope this movie is one of the few they spare to play on a constant loop in our holding cells. Comedy, action, great storyline, even better theme song and late 1970’s-era Sally Field. I forgot how much fun this movie was to watch and can’t help but think how much fun the cast and crew had making it.
Bandit kicked off a five-year run of Burt Reynolds box office dominance, being Hollywood’s top star from 1978 through 1982.
Day 5: Hooper (1978)
A rocket-powered Trans-Am jumps over a 300-foot gorge while smokeshow Sally Field (hello, again) looks on. What else needs to be said? Think Smokey and The Bandit minus the bootlegging and throw in a thousand more explosions in this romp of a tribute to the stunt performer industry. Hooper also features the best Burt Reynolds laugh track you can find. Try not to smile.
Day 6: Cannonball Run (1981)
Released the night before I was born in 1981, Cannonball Run is one of the most memorable films in the Burt Reynolds catalog. (Partly because of the great gag reel at the end of the film). Burt plays racer J.J. McClure and teams-up with his real-life buddy Dom DeLuise (a.k.a Victor Prinzi, a.k.a Captain Chaos), to pilot a souped-up ambulance in a transcontinental road race filled with hi-jinks aplenty.
But wait, it gets better.
Sammy Davis Jr. and Dean Martin show up as con-men dressed as Catholic priests (insert joke here) and bring the Rat Pack vibe, while James Bond himself – well, Roger Moore, shows up, too. To recap – you have Burt Reynolds, half the Rat Pack and James Bond in the same movie. My VCR almost melted from so much machismo being on the screen at once.
Fun Fact: The film is based on the 1979 running of the Cannonball Baker “Sea-To-Shining-Sea” Memorial Trophy Dash, an actual cross-country outlaw road race which was held four times in the 1970s, starting at the Red Ball Garage on 31st Street in New York City (later the Lock, Stock and Barrel Restaurant in Darien, Connecticut) and ending at the Portofino Inn in Redondo Beach, California, just south of Los Angeles.
Day 7: Stroker Ace (1983)
Again with the amazing “could also be a porn star” character name. Stroker Ace? Really? The only name better than Stroker Ace is Dirk Diggler – but we’ll get to that later. Try and guess what Burt Reynolds is doing in this movie. If you’ve learned anything by now, this should be easy. Driving fast cars (this time as a champion NASCAR driver), cracking jokes and bedding beautiful women (WKRP In Cincinnati star and eventual Mrs. Burt Reynolds, Lonnie Anderson). It’s really just a way cooler version of Talladega Nights. Before Ricky Bobby and Buddy Thunderstruck (great Netflix show, by the way), there was Stroker Ace.
We’re one week into our tribute, and we’ve already watched five Southern-themed car chase movies and another car chase to open The Longest Yard. You have to hand it to him, Burt definitely knew his wheelhouse – and his audience. Nobody in the world did it better.
Day 8: The Man Who Loved Women (1983)
If you’ve ever had some weird fantasy which involved Burt Reynolds giving Mary Poppins the business, this flick is for you. “A simple story of one man’s pursuit of a meaningful relationship – with half the human race.” I’m pretty sure you could never get away with half of this stuff in 2018 due to the faux outrage epidemic brought on by social media, but right or wrong, this type of movie was par for the course back in 1983 (Besides, no one in their right mind would ever get behind #BoycottBurtReynolds).
I love this description of the movie, with a few added edits of my own: “David Fowler (Reynolds) is a successful sculptor whose fast and loose love life (a real stretch) slams him head-on into a mid-life crisis when his insatiable hunger for women begins to render him socially, artistically, and “romantically” impotent (probably not the impotent part, The Bandit always stood strong). His quest to end his losing streak (Burt Reynolds doesn’t have losing streaks) leads him to the couch of attractive psychiatrist Marianna (Julie Andrews, a.k.a. Mary Poppins), to whom David must explain everything in an attempt to regain control of his life.”
This is a definite change of pace from fast cars and explosions, but I’m assuming a Burt biopic was in the studio contract somewhere, and this movie is pretty much it. Rather than the cool, beer swiggin’, Southern-fried bootlegger Burt Reynolds, we get the smooth, big-city, sweater-wearing ladies’ man. This version of L.A. Burt almost certainly drinks the finest wines and has a vast collection of neatly categorized Yacht Rock vinyl to impress his plethora of conquests.
Favorite Line: Woman in Car: “I better leave before one of us gets pregnant.” Classic Burt: “Well, I’m not that fast.”
Day 9: Cop and a Half (1993)
Perhaps the greatest grizzled-veteran-police-officer-being-teamed-up-with-an-inner-city-kid buddy comedy released in 1993 (or ever, to be honest), Cop and a Half – like so many other Burt Reynolds joints, brings the funny and the action. Yes, the premise is absolutely ridiculous, but it was directed by The Fonz, and he just won an Emmy, which automatically bumps up this film’s value. It’s science.
Fun Fact: The “and a half” in this movie (Norman D. Golden II) is now a rapper by the name of Enormus. Surprisingly, the dude has a pretty nice Outkast-esque flow. Check it out.
Day 10: Boogie Nights (1997)
We close out our tribute with my favorite Burt Reynolds role of all-time – as adult film producer extraordinaire Jack Horner in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1997 masterpiece, Boogie Nights (which happens to be in my Top 5 favorites list, don’t @ me).
A common theme throughout everything we have watched up to this point seems to be Burt playing slightly modified versions of himself while clearly having a blast on set, which naturally transferred over to the screen. The guy was out there living his best life, having fun, making movies with his friends and beautiful women, and being the absolute definition of cool.
Boogie Nights was a different story.
You have to remember, at the time Boogie Nights was being cast, Burt Reynolds had fallen off the radar somewhat. Sure, there was the Evening Shade run in the early 90’s that garnered him an Emmy for “Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series,” but the well had pretty much dried up in terms of big-time success. Hell, even his dinner theater in Florida went under after he filed for bankruptcy in the mid-90’s. Burt Reynolds “the man” never really lost his cool factor, but the brand, mystique and Hollywood clout was all but a distant memory.
Much has been reported about Burt’s disdain for Boogie Nights and how even months before his death, he claimed he still has never seen the film, which is a shame. He puts on such a masterclass performance in a role which saw him take home a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture (He was robbed of the Oscar at the 1998 Academy Awards, which went to Robin Williams for Good Will Hunting).
Playing porn producer Jack Horner in Boogie Nights was such a departure from the typical Burt Reynolds role and definitely uncharted territory for the grizzled vet. He was stepping out of his comfort zone at a crossroads in his long and impressive career, and Boogie Nights offered a shot in the arm Burt desperately needed – even if he went kicking and screaming, which he did (literally).
It’s a fairly well-known fun fact of an on-set altercation between Burt and director Paul Thomas Anderson, with it nearly coming to fisticuffs. Tensions were high, Burt seemingly wanted no part of the film, and all hell was breaking loose. It seems there was a method to PTA’s brilliant madness, though, according to first assistant director John Wildermuth.
From Grantland’s “A Livin’ Thing,” which is an absolute must-read for any Boogie Nights fan: “The reason I [think] that Paul baited Burt is that the next day we shot the scene in the backyard by the pool where Jack tells Dirk to do the scene, and Dirk says, “It’s my big cock, I wanna do whatever the fuck I want,” and the two of them get into a shoving match. And all of that energy between those characters was real energy that had been building and manifesting over the weeks prior. And then it exploded all in that scene on camera.”
Let’s just say; shit got real.
In retrospect, there was no one else who could play this role. Once again, like so many other times throughout his career, Burt Reynolds was the perfect choice. He brought an old school father-figure feel to Jack, with such real compassion and gravitas that you couldn’t help but respect the man. Much like any father worth his salt, he commanded your respect without demanding it. Burt Reynolds was the moral compass and anchor of his unconventional and dysfunctional surrogate family, both on and off the screen.
Jack Horner cared about the art, about the beauty of the film he was shooting, much like the real man behind the character. It’s a very meta role in a sense, with both Jack and Burt being old Hollywood guys in the twilight of their careers, on the verge of desperation for one last great run. Much like Jack finds his resurgence in Dirk Diggler, Burt found his with Boogie Nights.
There’s a great line where Jack and his editor are putting the final touches on Dirk’s Angel’s Live In My Town, and Jack turns to him with a proud gleam in his eye and says “You know, this is a film I want them to remember me by.”
Regardless of the reports of Burt not liking the script, subject matter or director Paul Thomas Anderson, I think deep down he knew how great this character (and film) really was. His performance was so honest, so real – heavy and loving and everything else in between. My favorite Burt Reynolds role by a mile.
This is the film I will remember him by.
Burt Reynolds will certainly be missed, but what may be missed more is the idea of a guy like Burt Reynolds. The archetype of Burt Reynolds, if you will. He wasn’t just a tired cliche of a “guy’s guy” or simply a “ladies man” – he was both and everything in between. America loved him because he was one of us – and let’s be honest for a second – that mustache was an irresistible force for us all. He worked hard, paid his dues and was fortunate enough to live his life doing what he loved, and damned if he didn’t have fun doing it.
So fast, so cool, so iconic. There will never be another one quite like him.
Rest In Peace, Burt Reynolds (Feb. 11, 1936 – Sept. 6, 2018)