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One of the most popular stars in the world for decades, Burt Reynolds was the boyishly charming but undeniably rugged star of such action and drama films as "Deliverance" (1972), "The Longest Yard" (1975), "Smokey and the Bandit" (1977), "The Cannonball Run" (1981) and "Boogie Nights" (1997). He discovered acting in the late 1950s after injuries put an end to his dreams of football stardom, but he struggled to find his niche for over a decade until his turn in the gripping thriller "Deliverance" thrust him into the spotlight. His easygoing nature and ladies' man reputation made him enormously popular with audiences, which he parlayed into a string of popular comedies and action films through the 1970s and '80s. But a string of flops and personal setbacks knocked him off his perch at the top of the box office, and by the early '90s, he was not only out of step with the movie industry, but financially bankrupt. Redemption came in the unlikely form of "Boogie Nights," an indie drama about the lives of adult film stars; Reynolds' graying presence meshed perfectly with his character, an ambitious but flawed director, and he earned an Oscar nod as well as a career revival. He was remarkably active, though...
One of the most popular stars in the world for decades, Burt Reynolds was the boyishly charming but undeniably rugged star of such action and drama films as "Deliverance" (1972), "The Longest Yard" (1975), "Smokey and the Bandit" (1977), "The Cannonball Run" (1981) and "Boogie Nights" (1997). He discovered acting in the late 1950s after injuries put an end to his dreams of football stardom, but he struggled to find his niche for over a decade until his turn in the gripping thriller "Deliverance" thrust him into the spotlight. His easygoing nature and ladies' man reputation made him enormously popular with audiences, which he parlayed into a string of popular comedies and action films through the 1970s and '80s. But a string of flops and personal setbacks knocked him off his perch at the top of the box office, and by the early '90s, he was not only out of step with the movie industry, but financially bankrupt. Redemption came in the unlikely form of "Boogie Nights," an indie drama about the lives of adult film stars; Reynolds' graying presence meshed perfectly with his character, an ambitious but flawed director, and he earned an Oscar nod as well as a career revival. He was remarkably active, though if not at the level of his '70s heyday, for much of the next decade, and retained the roguish, self-deprecating persona that made him such a superstar decades before. Burt Reynolds died in his adopted hometown of Jupiter, Florida on September 6, 2018. He was 82.
Born Burton Leon Reynolds, Jr. in Lansing, MI on Feb. 11, 1936, his early years were filled with transition. His father was drafted into the U.S. Army while Reynolds was a boy, and for a time, they shuttled between their hometown of Lansing and Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri. When his father returned from service in Europe, the family returned to Michigan, where he struggled to fit in with the local children, who were comprised of rural families and Native Americans. Reynolds himself claimed Cherokee ancestry. After his discharge from the Army in 1945, Reynolds' father moved the family to Riviera Beach, FL, where he had been hired as a general contractor for a housing development. The region and its rugged landscape and people held a particular fascination for the young Reynolds, and his feelings of exclusion and isolation soon gave way to a more social outlook. At times, this stance could get the better of him; school zoning forced him to attend a high school far from his home, and the discomfort led to moments of truancy and devil-may-care stunts. This most likely clashed with the family's newfound status in the town; Reynolds' father had transitioned from the contractor job to owner of a lunch counter before joining the Riviera Beach police force and eventually becoming its chief. In later years, Reynolds would describe his father as a tough disciplinarian who never expressed pride in or love for his son, who would later seek that approval in the public eye.
At 14, Reynolds discovered football. He had never shown much interest in organized sports prior to this, but he took to the game with enthusiasm and skill. By the time he was a senior, he had claimed the First Team All-State and All-Southern titles, and received multiple offers for football scholarships. Reynolds eventually chose Florida State University for his higher learning, and fully expected to make a career in professional football; even being drafted by the Baltimore Colts. However, a pair of accidents - one on the gridiron, the other, more devastating, in a car - ended his dreams of an athletic career. Devastated, he briefly considered following in his father's footsteps and becoming a police officer, but the elder Reynolds convinced him to keep up his studies and become a parole officer. While taking classes at Palm Beach Junior College, Reynolds was convinced by a drama teacher to audition for a play. He ended up winning not only the lead role in the production, but the 1956 Florida State Drama Award for his performance.
Despite this early acclaim, acting was still not Reynolds' main endeavor. If anything, he viewed it as an agreeable alternative to more physically demanding work. But fate intervened in the form of a scholarship to the Hyde Park Playhouse, a summer stock theater in New York. There, Reynolds met Joanne Woodward, who helped him get an agent and win a role in "Tea and Sympathy" at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York. Positive reviews for his performance led to him touring with the production and even driving the tour bus. He then returned to New York to acquire more acting training. The pursuit was difficult, and Reynolds briefly considered quitting and returning to Florida after one trying class. But he soon landed on his feet and in a production of "Mister Roberts" with Charlton Heston. He so impressed the play's director, John Forsythe, that an audition in Hollywood for the movie "Sayonara" was arranged. The tryout was unfortunately a bust; Reynolds' physical resemblance to the film's star, Marlon Brando, took him out of the running, so he returned to menial work while waiting for his next opportunity.
Reynolds' fondness for stunt work landed him one of his earliest television appearances: he was offered $150 to jump through a plate glass window on live television. Eventually, more substantial (and less dangerous) onscreen work began to come his way. He landed guest shots on a number of series before becoming a semi-regular on "Gunsmoke" (CBS, 1955-1975) as half-Native American blacksmith Quint Asper from 1962-65. His feature film debut came a year earlier with the low-budget drama "Angel Baby" (1961), which was soon followed by more movie appearances in low-budget productions. His friend Clint Eastwood suggested that he try his hand in one of the countless spaghetti Westerns lensed in Italy - the idea had launched Eastwood's career - and in 1966, he starred as an Indian gunslinger serving revenge on the men who massacred his people in "Navajo Joe." The film, though sufficiently violent and action-packed, was later the butt of much self-deprecating humor by Reynolds on talk shows, where he claimed that he had signed on to the film thinking that the director was Sergio Leone, only to find Sergio Corbucci behind the camera.
Reynolds soon followed this with another turn as a Native American, though considerably less bloodthirsty, on the short-lived police drama "Hawk" (ABC, 1966), which cast him as an Iroquois working in the New York District Attorney's office. He continued to appear in minor features at the dawn of the 1970s, and got another shot at TV stardom with "Dan August" (ABC, 1970-71), another cop show. All of these efforts were soon forgotten when Reynolds was cast alongside Jon Voight, Ned Beatty and Ronny Cox in John Boorman's adaptation of James Dickey's harrowing novel "Deliverance" (1972). Reynolds' turn as an Atlanta businessman who taps into his inner savage when assaulted by backwoods marauders won him considerable acclaim from critics as well as a fan base among male actors who appreciated his athleticism, particularly in scenes where his character was required to use a hunting bow. He soon won over the female side of the moviegoing audience with a highly publicized nude layout in the April 1972 issue of Cosmopolitan.
Reynolds soon settled into a string of popular action dramas that drew upon his newly minted screen persona - that of a fun-loving good ole' boy who, when pressed, had a quip for every thrown punch or tossed kiss. Many of these traded upon his Southern upbringing; he drive-in crowd pleasers "White Lightning" (1973) and its sequel, "Gator" (1976), which marked Reynolds' debut as a director, and the more nuanced "W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings" (1975). But he was equally at home in urban settings, as evidenced by the detective thrillers "Shamus" (1973) and "Hustle" (1975); in period pictures like the Western "The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing" (1973); and sports dramas like "The Longest Yard" (1974), one of his most enduring popular features. The film, about an incarcerated former football player who leads his fellow inmates in a game against brutal guards, earned him a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor.
Occasionally, Reynolds stepped out of his comfort zone to try his hand at other genres. Usually, these were not met with critical or commercial success: "At Long Last Love" (1975) was director Peter Bogdanovich's tribute to 1930s musicals that featured Reynolds gamely but ineptly warbling some of Cole Porter's greatest songs. The Roaring Twenties comedy "Lucky Lady" (1975) with Gene Hackman and Liza Minnelli also tanked, as did Bogdanovich's comedy "Nickelodeon" (1976), about the early days of the film industry. Clearly, audiences liked Reynolds on the rough and tumble side, and he quickly returned with one of his biggest hits to date. "Smokey and the Bandit" (1977) was a Southern-set comedy about a roguish truck driver and his hot rod pal who accept a dare to move a shipment of Coors beer (then unavailable east of the Mississippi River) across state lines in less than two days. The film delivered everything that Reynolds' fans wanted from him: slam-bang action, broad comedy courtesy of the legendary Jackie Gleason as the "Smokey" of the equation, and winning romantic chemistry with the film's female lead, former television star and "America's Sweetheart," Sally Field. In real life, Reynolds and Field were an item, and their undeniable charisma onscreen helped to sell the film to female viewers, which in turn helped to make "Smokey" the second highest-grossing film of the year; second only to "Star Wars" (1977).
The success of "Smokey" was another high water mark for Reynolds during the 1970s, a decade he was beginning to own as the preeminent Hollywood leading man. His box office appeal during the latter half of decade was nearly unstoppable, even in the face of several flops in a row. He was a frequent guest on talk shows, most notably "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson" (NBC, 1962-1992), where he entertained with his freewheeling manner and knack for outrageous stories which never failed to leave Carson in stitches. In fact, Reynolds was the first non-comic actor asked to guest-host "The Tonight Show." He first sat in for Johnny in 1972, and among his guests that evening was his ex-wife, comedienne Judy Carne, whom he had not seen in six years after a bitter divorce. The couple were married from 1963-65 and their breakup would foreshadow a future filled with public recriminations and broken hearts left in Reynold's wake. Indeed, his love life was as much a source of interest to the public as his work onscreen. The media intensely followed his love affair with Field. They were America's favorite couple for a time, but the relationship ended after the actress turned down Reynold's numerous proposals. He would later speak fondly of her as a positive influence on his life and that she had been the love of his life. In addition to Field, he made the tabloid rounds for squiring such famous performers as Tammy Wynette, Lorna Luft, tennis star Chris Evert and entertainer Dinah Shore. The latter was particularly notable due to the couple's age difference, as Shore was some two decades older than Reynolds. So great was his appeal during this period that despite a less than stellar singing voice, he was called upon to do so on numerous occasions, and even released an album, Ask Me What I Am, in 1973. Indeed if Farrah Fawcett-Majors was the decade's most iconic female sex symbol, Reynolds was quickly becoming her male counterpart.
The end of the 1970s saw Reynolds continue to rack up box office hits while stretching as an artist in favorable ways. Starring opposite Field in their final film together, the aptly titled "The End" (1978) cast him as a terminally ill man who attempts and fails miserably to take his own life, while "Starting Over" (1979) found him slipping easily into everyman status as a divorcé who pines for his ex-wife while exploring a new romance with Jill Clayburgh. Of course, Reynolds still gave his fans what they wanted, as evidenced by the comedy "Hooper" (1978), about a risk-loving stuntman (based on Reynolds' friend and frequent director Hal Needham) who struggles with the toll his career has taken on his body while attempting one last, dangerous stunt. "Smokey and the Bandit II" (1980) was an inevitability, and a similar success; in fact paving the way for one of Reynolds' biggest hits, the cartoonish road comedy "The Cannonball Run" (1981). A broad, seemingly improvised farce about a cross-country road race, the film featured many of Reynolds' friends and regular co-stars, including Dom DeLuise, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis, Jr., football great Terry Bradshaw, and Farrah Fawcett-Majors. Dismissed by critics during its release, its barrage of immature gags and car crashes made it a massive success among moviegoers and a bit of a cult favorite decades later.
The advent of the 1980s started out strong for Reynolds, with the sex comedy "Paternity" (1981) and the violent cop drama "Sharky's Machine" (1982), which Reynolds directed and populated with a host of top character actors, including Charles Durning, Brian Keith, Bernie Casey and Henry Silva. It was his highest-grossing effort as an actor-director, but it also signaled the beginning of a sharp decline in his personal fortunes, as well as his reign at the top of the box office. Reynolds was cast alongside Dolly Parton and several of his longtime cronies in the film version of the hit Broadway musical "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas" (1982), which failed to match the popularity of its source material. "Best Friends" (1982) with Goldie Hawn was a chance to return to the more mature comedy of "Starting Over," but it too lacked appeal for Reynolds' longtime followers. A reunion with "Cannonball Run" director Hal Needham resulted in the loud comedy "Stroker Ace" (1983) and the self-indulgent "Cannonball Run II" (1983). The sole high point during this period was his highly publicized courtship of and marriage to TV star, Loni Anderson of "WKRP in Cincinnati" (CBS, 1978-1982) fame, whom had co-starred with him in "Stroker Ace." But as history soon revealed, even that haven of bliss would prove disastrous.
For the remainder of the 1980s, Reynolds stumbled from one flop to another. There were occasional modest hits; "City Heat" (1984) was a period comedy co-starring the then-reigning box office champ, old buddy Clint Eastwood, and the Elmore Leonard adaptation "Stick" (1985) as well as "Heat" (1986), both of which had their noirish moments. But for the most part, he was mired in efforts like "Rent-A-Cop" (1988). "Breaking In" (1989), with its script by John Sayles and direction by Bill Forsyth, reminded viewers that Reynolds could, when given the proper material, play a full-blown character - in this case, an aging safecracker who partners with an up-and-coming hood. Reynolds, who had entered his fifties by this point, won praise for his performance, which required him to strip away the self-satisfied persona he had borne for decades, including his long-rumored toupee, but too few viewers saw the film, and he was soon back to forgettable material like "Cop and a Half" (1993) and the campy thriller "The Maddening" (1996).
Television proved to be a solace for Reynolds' foundering career. With his friend actor-singer Bert Convy, he enjoyed success as the producer of the game show "Win, Lose or Draw" (NBC/syndication, 1987-1990), which utilized many of his celebrity friends as guests. He starred for one season as "B.L. Stryker" (ABC, 1989-1990) a carefree private detective who lives on his boat docked in southern Florida. Even more popular was "Evening Shade" (CBS, 1990-1994), a genial sitcom again set in his beloved South, with Reynolds as a former pro footballer who returns to his hometown to coach a doggedly losing high school team. The series generated some of the most positive reviews of Reynolds' later career, as well as an Emmy and Golden Globe for his performance. But the momentum generated by the series was soon undermined by an ugly personal scandal.
For years, Reynolds' marriage to Anderson was held up as one of Hollywood's strongest unions. It had endured his reputation as a ladies' man, and even survived his two-year struggle with morphine and antidepressant addiction, which came after an injury on the set of "City Heat" required reconstructive surgery on his jaw, and allegations that the extreme weight loss incurred by the accident was the result of AIDS. The couple's adoption of a son, Quentin, Reynolds' sole offspring, only seemed to solidify things, but in 1993, he shocked friends and fans alike by filing from divorce from Anderson. Irreconcilable differences were cited as the reason for the split, but rumors of infidelity swirled around the court case that followed. Reynolds was, in fact, having an affair with waitress Pam Seals, and tabloids ate up every morsel of the "he said"/"she said" that flew back and forth between the warring couple. In fact, the pressures of their respective careers had also weighed heavily on the divorce; "Evening Shade" had demanded much of Reynolds' time, and at the time of their split, Anderson had signed on to the final season of "Nurses" (NBC, 1991-94). However, there was no denying Reynolds had moved on to Seal, signaling the end of yet another fabled Burt Reynolds relationship.
Whatever the case, the divorce took a deeper toll on Reynolds beyond its emotional impact. By 1994, "Evening Shade" had run its course, and he was mired in a financial tailspin due to the legal and alimony costs of the split from Anderson, as well as a string of bad investments. There were solid turns at the movies in "Citizen Ruth" (1996) and "Striptease" (1996), but the news that year was firmly focused on his bankruptcy filing. Reynolds, once the toast of Hollywood and one of the most popular performers in the world, had appeared to hit bottom. However, as was often the case with Reynolds, a comeback was right around the corner. He was approached by then-unknown director Paul Thomas Anderson to play a fading adult film director in "Boogie Nights" (1997), an Altman-esque character study of the tragic figures swirling around the Los Angeles porn scene in the late '70s and early '80s. Reynolds was initially reluctant to play the proud, wounded Jack Horner, and even dismissed the film in early press as a mistake on his part, but its subsequent critical success soon turned his opinion around. Most of the ink spilled on the picture centered on his performance, which earned him a Golden Globe and countless critical awards. He was considered a shoo-in for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar, but lost to Robin Williams for "Good Will Hunting" (1997).
The exposure and acclaim Reynolds received for "Boogie Nights" gave his career the boost it desperately needed, and for the next decade, he was a constant present in both Hollywood and independent features. Some were hits; a remake of "The Longest Yard" (2005), with Adam Sandler in Reynolds' role, and a big-screen version of "The Dukes of Hazzard" (2005) with Reynolds as Sorrell Booke's Boss Hogg, scored with audiences, but most were modest efforts that made their debut on cable or DVD. As the years passed and Reynolds entered into his senior years, he seemed to make peace with his superstar past, and spoofed it on many occasions; most notably in a series of Miller Lite beer commercials. He also mounted his own one-man show, the aptly titled "Burt Reynolds' One-Man Show," in which he told stories of his famous friends and poked gentle fun at his own foibles. In 1994, he penned his autobiography, My Life, which detailed his difficult upbringing and his adventures in Hollywood. In 2009, he checked into rehab after admitting to an addiction to painkillers following back surgery.
Ever the survivor, Reynolds returned to work in the new decade with a 2010 appearance as a retired Cold War-era agent stalked by Russian assassins in an episode of the action-adventure series "Burn Notice" (USA Network, 2007-13). Reynolds picked up the pace the following year with a number of projects, among them a turn opposite Chevy Chase in the low-rent, direct-to-DVD spoof "Not Another Not Another Movie" (2011) and a supporting role as the fishing-obsessed father of a small-town girl (LeAnn Rimes) who returns home to reconnect with her roots in the romantic comedy "Reel Love" (CMT, 2011). Employing his distinctive voice, the actor also played himself in the action-crime video game "Saints Row: The Third" (THQ, 2011) and performed similar vocal duties for a 2012 episode of the animated spy spoof "Archer" (FX, 2009- ). Reynolds gave longtime fans a scare, when in January 2013, the 76-year-old icon was rushed to the intensive care unit of a Florida hospital. In a released statement it was revealed that Reynolds had been diagnosed with a worsening bout of influenza. After a string of minor direct-to-video films, Reynolds starred in indie drama "The Last Movie Star" (2017) and romantic comedy "Miami Love Affair" (2017). Burt Reynolds died of cardiac arrest at his home in Jupiter, Florida on September 6, 2018. He was 82.
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