Film Feature: Remembers Burt Reynolds

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CHICAGO – The Bandit. Gator. The Man Who Loved Women. Jack Horner. Burt Reynolds played all these roles, in a roller coaster career that encompassed three eras of film and television. Reynolds died last month at age 82, taking with him a different breed of movie star, one that stole a scene with a self assured wink, mischievous smile and high pitched laugh.

Burt’s on-screen career began in 1958, and he had the distinction of being a regular on a hit TV show (“Gunsmoke”) in the 1960s, a movie star in the 1970s (“Smokey and the Bandit”) and ‘80s, and then back to TV (winning an Emmy for “Evening Shade), before getting his only Oscar nomination for “Boogie Nights.” His later career was notable for essentially being Burt Reynolds, as his second generation fans went on to produce shows like “Archer,” where Burt voices himself as Burt, and despite being named a different character in “The Last Movie Star” (2017), it was all pure Burtness. For the complete obituary of Burt Reynolds, click here.

Burt Reynolds, 1936-2018
Photo credit: Joe Arce of Starstruck Foto for

For this special tribute contributors Patrick McDonald, Spike Walters and Jon Lennon Espino write of their favorite Burt Reynolds films, along with a guest contributor, New York State screenwriter David Wilson. Also included is the story of the the creator/producer of “Smokey and the Bandit,” Robert L. Levy, with photographs from his personal collection.

StarDELIVERANCE (1972) by Patrick McDonald

Photo credit: Warner Home Video

When Ronald Reagan’s film career was in decline, he became obsessed with his performance in “King’s Row” (1942). He thought he deserved an Oscar nomination, and would screen it over and over. Burt Reynolds had his own King’s Row, the powerful and weirdly unforgettable “Deliverance.” Adapted from a James Dickey novel and directed by John Boorman, it was Reynold’s favorite character and performance, especially in his later years when reminding people of his chops as an actor. Four friends – portrayed by Reynolds, Jon Voight, Ned Beatty and Ronny Cox – take a canoe trip in the remote Georgia wilderness, only to encounter the local mountain men. Reynolds portrays Lewis Medlock, an experienced outdoorsman who represents the morality of survival, and he did it without his trademark mustache. It is a performance coiled with both righteous strength and entitled anarchy.

Although Boorman and the film itself was nominated for Academy Awards, Reynolds and the other actors were snubbed. It ate at Burt for the rest of his life, and he often theorized that his goofy centerfold for Cosmopolitan magazine might have been the factor that denied him the nomination. If anything, it was the best performance of the second phase of his career, after his early television roles and before superstardom as the Burt image. The film was also preserved in 2008 by the U.S. National Film Registry in the LIbrary of Congress.

ALL PURE BURTNESS: In a interview with Patrick McDonald of in 2011, Reynolds named John Boorman his favorite director because… “He takes chances, but he takes the same chances that you do. When we went down that river in a canoe, which we had no business going down, he was in a canoe right beside us. We also shot it all in sequence. And I remember one day I said to John, ‘This is great, shooting it in sequence. Why don’t they do more pictures like this?’ And he said, ‘this is in case one of you drowns.’

StarTHE CANNONBALL RUN (1981) by Spike Walters

The Cannonball Run
Photo credit: HBO Video

For my six year old self, “The Cannonball Run” was the epitome of what I, as a child, referred to as Burt Reynolds’ “car stuff movies.” Essentially it’s one big car chase with a celebrity-roast-worthy cavalcade of stars, and the film would find Reynolds (as J.J. McClure) coasting on a smirk and a distinctive laugh all the way to bank. Reynolds treats the whole film as one big goof, and this would mark the last time the public would come out in droves for this particular brand of Burt. The celebrity walk-ons – including Sammy Davis Jr. and Dean Martin as priests, and that era’s James Bond, Roger Moore, playing Roger Moore – are the closest thing the film has to jokes, but Dom DeLuise has a costumed alter-ego (Captain Chaos) so that’s something. Even Reynolds can’t seem to believe he’s getting paid for this, and we’re invited along for the ride, which was one I thoroughly enjoyed at the time. But admittedly now, “The Cannonball Run” makes “Smokey and the Bandit” looks like Masterpiece Theatre.

ALL PURE BURTNESS: J.J. McCLURE: When you don’t want him he’s around! When you want him he’s not around! I’m gonna go get a beer! CAPTAIN CHAOS: DA-DA-DUM!

StarBOOGIE NIGHTS (1997) by Jon Lennon Espino

Boogie Nights
Photo credit: Warner Home Video

Burt Reynolds will always be an American badass. He effortlessly exuded the cowboy swagger and sex appeal that made us both want to be him or want to be with him. He is always magnetic in every role, even the ones he’s not the star of, which was the case with “Boogie Nights.” It’s hard to believe that he turned down the role seven times. Although Marky Mark (Wahlberg) was technically the lead in the film, it was Reynolds who stole the focus as porn director Jack Horner. His performance in this film was dynamic, but also unexpected as he plays a character atypical to anything he had done before (or would ever do again). The depth to his character is the evident culmination of every role he had played before. “Smokey and the Bandit” is the film he will always be remembered for, but his polar opposite transformation in “Boogie Nights” shows his true range, to the point that it earned him an Academy Award nomination. 

ALL PURE BURTNESS: There’s a powerful scene in “Boogie Nights” where Reynolds as Jack Horner is with Mark Wahlberg’s Dirk Diggler in a diner talking about the porn industry. He talks about making porn films with substance. He wants to make films that will grip the audience and keep them engaged until the end. He talks about how he’s done comedies in his past. He says, “… my dream is to make a film that’s true and right and dramatic.”

As he talks about his dream, his fellow cast members Wahlberg, Julianne Moore, and Heather Graham all stare at him, hanging on and absorbing every word. They understand what the audience understands… at this moment, Burt Reynolds is speaking through his character. In the end, both the character and the actor achieved their dream, and I will always love how real this moment felt.  

On PAGE TWO, Guest Contributor David Wilson weighs in on “Hooper,” and a story about Producer Robert L. Levy of “Smokey and the Bandit.”

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