He was offered the role of former astronaut Garrett Breedlove in Terms of Endearment, a role that director/screenwriter James L. Brooks wrote specifically with Reynolds in mind. The role was designed to play to all of Reynolds’s strengths and none of his weaknesses. It was also a key supporting role in a film that was widely expected to be an Oscar contender.
Or, Reynolds could star in Stroker Ace, another car chase film that was going to be directed by his old friend, Hal Needham. No one was expecting Stroker Ace to be an Oscar contender but Needham and Reynolds had made three similar films together and all of them had been hits at the box office.
Reynolds decided to star in Stroker Ace. Jack Nicholson received the role of Garrett Breedlove and went on to win his second Oscar. As for Burt, he later called Stroker Ace “the beginning of the end.”
The title character of Stroker Ace is a good old boy race car driver. He’s a typical Reynolds character. He grew up in the South and learned how to race cars by watching moonshiners outrun the police. Now, he’s a star on the NASCAR circuit but he’s also arrogant and needlessly self-destructive. Because this is a Hal Needham car chase movie, those are portrayed as being good traits. When Stroker loses his former sponsor after pouring wet concrete on him, he’s forced to accept sponsorship from a crooked chicken mogul (played by Ned Beatty, who deserved better). When Stroker’s not driving his car while dressed as a chicken, he’s romancing the prudish Pembrook Feeney (Loni Anderson).
It’s hard to describe the plot of Stroker Ace because it really doesn’t have a plot. There’s a few scenes where Burt looks directly at the camera and smirks. It’s supposed to remind us of Smoky and the Bandit but Stroker Ace doesn’t have the spectacular stunts that the first film had nor does it have the comedic energy of Jackie Gleason. Instead, it’s got Jim Nabors as a mechanic named Lugs. The former star of Gomer Pyle does say “Golly” but he doesn’t sing.
The main problem with Stroker Ace is that there’s no reason to root for Stroker Ace. The Bandit was good at his job and cared about his car. The same thing is true about the stuntman that Burt played in Hooper. Stroker is a racer who would rather destroy his car than come in second and who loses his sponsorships because of his own stupid behavior. Stroker Ace doesn’t care about anything so it’s difficult to get outraged over him having to wear a chicken suit while racing.
Reynolds later described turning down Terms of Endearment for Stoker Ace as being one of the biggest mistakes of his career. When he talked about how the Terms of Endearment role won Nicholson an Oscar, Reynolds added that he didn’t win anything for Stroker Ace because “they don’t give awards for being stupid.” It was a missed opportunity for sure and Reynolds would have to wait another fourteen years before Boogie Nights finally proved that he could do more than drive cars and smirk at the camera.
Despite the failure of Stroker Ace, Reynolds and Needham remained friends and even made two more film together (Cannonball Run II and Hostage Hotel). Their friendship later served as the basis for the relationship between the characters played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood.