Earlier today, Burt Reynolds died of cardiac arrest at a Florida Hospital. He was 82 years old.
How do you sum up a career as legendary as the career of Burt Reynolds? It’s not easy. Burt Reynolds always used to say that he couldn’t act but his fans knew better and the critics sometimes knew better too. Burt Reynolds always said that most of his film were terrible but, for every Stick or Malone, there were movies like Sharky’s Machine, The Longest Yard, and White Lightning. Burt always joked that he might never win an Oscar but he had plenty of People’s Choice Awards to make up for it. Burt did deserve an Oscar nomination for Deliverance and he received one for Boogie Nights. Reynolds lost to Robin Williams but it does no disservice to Williams’s performance in Good Will Hunting to say that the Oscar should have gone to Burt.
Despite having been born in Michigan, Burt Reynolds was often viewed as being the archetypical good ol’ boy. He first found fame as a jock, playing football at Florida State University. After injuries ended his college football career, Reynolds considered becoming a police officer but, at his father’s suggestion, instead transferred to Palm Beach Junior College. That was where an English professor named Watson B. Duncan heard Reynolds reading Shakespeare in class and was so impressed that he pushed Reynolds into trying out for a play that he was producing. Reynolds was cast in the lead role and soon had a new career.
As Reynolds would often recount, he didn’t become a star overnight. He did a few plays in New York and he worked odd jobs. He auditioned for a film called Sayonara and impressed director Joshua Logan. Logan said he couldn’t cast him because he looked too much like the film’s star, Marlon Brando, but he still encouraged Reynolds to move out to Hollywood. Still not feeling confident enough to attempt the transition into movies, Reynolds remained in New York and became a mainstay in TV westerns, including Gunsmoke, where he played Quint Asper. He also appeared in an episode of The Twilight Zone, playing a pompous method actor who was clearly modeled on Marlon Brando.
Like his good friend Clint Eastwood, Burt used his television fame to secure low-budget film work in Europe. He even starred in a Spaghetti western, playing the lead role in Navajo Joe. Reynolds appeared in several forgettable B-movies before his performance in the Oscar-nominated Deliverance made him a star. His performance as Lewis Medlock dominated the film. When Lewis suffered a compound fracture while trying to navigate a raging river, audiences knew that if the river could take down Burt Reynolds, it could take down anyone. Around the same time, Burt would earn lasting fame (or perhaps infamy) by appearing as the centerfold in an issue of Cosmopolitan. Reynolds would later describe that as being his biggest mistake, saying that it made him a star but it also prevented him from being nominated for an Oscar but it also kept people from taking him seriously as an actor.
But if Burt never got the awards or the acclaim that he deserved, audiences loved him. Smoky and the Bandit was his biggest hit. The critics may have hated it but audiences love it to this day and they know that only Burt Reynolds could have played the Bandit. When the Bandit looked straight at the camera after escaping police pursuit, that was a move that only Burt Reynolds could have pulled off. Burt made it look easy.
Burt started off the 80s with one of his best films, Sharky’s Machine. Unfortunately, the rest of decade saw his career in decline. No longer getting good scripts and starting to show signs if the ill health that would plague him for the rest of his life, Reynolds became better known for his sometimes messy personal life than his films. Reynolds eventually returned to television, winning an Emmy, in 1992, for starring in the sitcom Evening Shade.
In the 90s, Reynolds struggled to transition into character parts. A new generation, including myself, first discovered him when he co-starred in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights. Reynolds gave one of his best performances as porn director, Jack Horner. Reynolds invested Horner with what can only be called a wounded dignity. When Dirk Diggler abandoned him, the betrayal felt as real as Horner’s angery when he was eventually reduced to filming sleazy limo ride hook-ups on video tape instead of his beloved film. Reynolds received his first and only Oscar nomination for the role of Jack Horner.
Sadly, Reynolds’s poor health kept him from capitalizing on his comeback and he was soon back to appearing in small roles in films that weren’t worthy of his talents. Quentin Tarantino cast him as George Spahn in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood but Reynolds passed away before filming his scenes. His final film appearance was as the lead character in the fittingly titled The Last Movie Star.
Burt Reynolds may be gone but his films live on. Burt may have said he wasn’t a good actor but we all know better. The outpouring of grief at the news of his death is proof that Burt Reynolds was more than just a movie star. He was an American icon.
Burt Reynolds, R.I.P.