You were more likely to hear Burt Reynolds referred to as a “movie star” than an actor — but he was both.
Reynolds, who died Thursday morning at age 82 at Jupiter Medical Center in Florida, was a football player turned TV actor turned sex symbol turned box-office king — and whether he was laughing it up in a blooper reel at the end of one of his action hits, bantering with Johnny Carson on “The Tonight Show” or stepping out with one of his famous romantic interests, Reynolds always seemed to enjoy the hell out of being a star.
After kicking around Hollywood as a TV series player and getting a few movie roles here and there, Reynolds had a breakthrough year in 1972. Just three months after posing nude on a bearskin rug for Cosmopolitan (the issue sold an enormous 1.5 million copies), further bolstering his image as a great-looking, devil-may-care lightweight, Reynolds stunned audiences and critics alike with his brilliant dramatic work as the macho alpha male Lewis Medlock in John Boorman’s searing, harrowing and memorable “Deliverance.”
Turned out the handsome charmer who never seemed to take anything too seriously could deliver the goods when called upon.
Two years later, Reynolds starred in Robert Aldrich’s football prison comedy/drama “The Longest Yard,” one of his best roles, as it was perfectly tailored to his jock background and his ability to play charismatic but self-destructive rebels.
Not that Reynolds suddenly became a self-serious Method man. Throughout the 1970s, he was one of the most popular guests on “The Tonight Show” (he was also the first non-comedian to host the show), he joined in on the jokes about his relationship with older woman Dinah Shore, and he lampooned his persona in Mel Brooks’ “Silent Movie.”
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Reynolds was arguably the biggest movie star in the world, thanks to the “Smokey and the Bandit” and “Cannonball Run” action-comedy hits.
I was a bigger fan of his work in the 1980 caper movie “Rough Cut,” the 1981 noir crime thriller “Sharky’s Machine” (which Reynolds also directed) and the 1985 Elmore Leonard crime film “Stick” (another Reynolds-directed film).
(That’s another thing Reynolds rarely got credit for: his work as a director. He wasn’t a prolific filmmaker, but that twin combo of “Sharky’s Machine” and “Stick” is pretty strong.)
Another of my favorite Reynolds performances was Blake Edwards’ 1983 remake of Truffaut’s “The Man Who Loved Women.” Reynolds played a serial womanizer — hardly a stretch. But he gave his character a touch of melancholy, a hint this man was never happy even as he grinned like the devil while chasing down beautiful women. It was fine and subtle work.
In real life, of course, Reynolds WAS the man who loved women, enjoying relationships with Judy Carne, the aforementioned Dinah Shore, Goldie Hawn, tennis player Chris Evert, Farrah Fawcett, Loni Anderson, Sally Field …
At times Reynolds was better known for the tabloid reporting on his sometimes messy relationships and his yuck-it-up public persona than his acting. But he made a small-screen comeback with the CBS sitcom “Evening Shade” in the early 1990s — followed by his big-screen resurgence in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1997 classic, “Boogie Nights.”
Reynolds received an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor for his authentic, grounded performance as Jack Horner, a 1970s porn producer who exploits lost and troubled young people and thinks nothing of his own lover appearing in his films — and yet considers himself a mentor and father figure, and at times displays genuine warmth and consideration.
He lost out on the Oscar to Robin Williams (“Good Will Hunting”) and made no bones about his disappointment, but the performance lives on as one of Reynolds’ three or four best roles. (I’d put “Deliverance” and “Sharky’s Machine” on that short list as well).
I had the pleasure of sharing the better part of an afternoon and early evening with Mr. Reynolds in April of 2011, when he was a guest on a radio show with Roe Conn and yours truly at Harry Caray’s Navy Pier, in front of a live audience.
Reynolds looked a little frail, but he looked dapper as hell — still sporting the famous mustache, wearing a tan jacket and gray sweater, with a black-and-white scarf draped around his neck.
The crowd loved him. Burt loved the crowd.
During commercial breaks, every time he was introduced to a woman who wanted to shake his hand or take a picture, his eyes crinkled and he flashed a grin — in one case playfully asking a woman if she was free for dinner that night.
He wasn’t inappropriate; he was just being who he’d been for decades: Burt Reynolds, leading man and movie star.