Burt Reynolds, Swaggering Star Actor, Has Died At 82

Sep 6, 2018
Originally published on September 7, 2018 7:20 am

Actor Burt Reynolds, who played good ol' boys and rugged action heroes in an acting career that spanned seven decades, has died. Reynolds died Thursday morning at a Florida hospital following a heart attack. He was 82.

Reynolds came to stardom in Deliverance and Smokey and the Bandit in the 1970s and was still making movies more than 40 years later. In 1977's Smokey and the Bandit, Jackie Gleason was Smokey the sheriff, Burt Reynolds was Bandit, and the plot hinged on whether Bandit and a truck-driving pal could blow through Smokey's roadblocks and make the run in 28 hours. The smile, the mustache, the twinkle in his eye ... without them, would anyone have buckled up for that bootlegging run from Texarkana, Texas, to Atlanta?

Smokey and the Bandit opened the same year Star Wars hit theaters. Reynolds had been offered the part of Han Solo, actually, and turned it down, just as he turned down the role of James Bond and would later turn down Pretty Woman. No one ever accused him of being smart about choosing film roles.

But smart in the films? No question.

Deliverance was the one that made him famous. Years of bit parts on TV hadn't prepared audiences for his scarily ripped outdoorsman who led Jon Voight, Ronny Cox and Ned Beatty on what would end up being a harrowing canoe trip in the Georgia backwoods. There were dueling banjos, hillbilly rapists and Reynolds using a bow and arrow to spear fish and to meet nature on its own terms.

After Deliverance put him on the map, Reynolds more or less owned the rest of that decade. He played football players in The Longest Yard and Semi-Tough — not a huge stretch for him, since he had attended college on a football scholarship. And then there was the bootlegger thing: Before Smokey, there was White Lightning and Lucky Lady.

Off-screen, he cultivated an outlaw vibe — including posing nude on a bearskin rug for Cosmopolitan. Two marriages didn't last, nor did a relationship with sometime-co-star Sally Field, whom he later called the love of his life in a 2015 article.

His mistakes on-screen included singing in the musical comedy The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. "I can sing," he admitted to interviewers, "as well as Fred Astaire can act."

He had no quips to offer for his business acumen. Reynolds briefly owned a football team, a nightclub and a chain of restaurants before declaring bankruptcy. He also took 22 years to pay a divorce settlement to Loni Anderson.

And somehow, he kept coming back — most famously, perhaps, in 1997's Boogie Nights, in which he played a porn director who had dreams of making movies that were more than (just) porn. "This is the film I want them to remember me by," his character says. It was certainly his most-honored role: He garnered an Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe win for best supporting actor.

Almost 20 years (and 60 roles) later, he published a memoir called But Enough About Me — a jokey title for a bestseller that proved beyond a doubt that audiences still weren't tired of hearing about Burt Reynolds.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Burt Reynolds has died at the age of 82. He played a man on a hunting trip gone wrong in "Deliverance." He played an unstoppable beer smuggler in "Smokey And The Bandit." Bob Mondello offers an appreciation.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: The smile, the moustache, the twinkle in his eye - without them, would anyone have buckled up for that bootlegging run from Texarkana to Atlanta? Sheriff Jackie Gleason was Smokey; Burt Reynolds, the bandit. And the plot hinged on whether the Bandit and a truck-driving pal could blow through Smokey's roadblocks and make the run in 28 hours.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT")

JERRY REED: (As Cledus Snow) That ain't never been done, not in no rig.

BURT REYNOLDS: (As Bandit) That's 'cause you and I ain't never done it in no rig. You got to stop thinking so negative, son. Of course we can make it. We ain't never not made it yet, have we?

REED: (As Cledus) No.

REYNOLDS: (As Bandit) You see.

MONDELLO: Audiences enjoyed the ride so much that theater owners voted Burt Reynolds the top box-office attraction in the country in 1977, which was, let's note, the year "Star Wars" hit theaters. Reynolds had been offered the part of Han Solo, actually, and turned it down - just as he turned down the role of 007 the year it went to George Lazenby and as he would later turn down "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest," "Terms Of Endearment" and "Pretty Woman." No one ever accused him of being smart about choosing film roles. But smart in them? No question.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DELIVERANCE")

REYNOLDS: (As Lewis) You don't beat this river.

MONDELLO: "Deliverance" was the film that made him famous. Years of bit parts on TV hadn't prepared audiences for his scarily ripped outdoorsman who led Jon Voight, Ronny Cox and Ned Beatty on what would end up being a harrowing canoe trip in the Georgia backwoods. Dueling banjos, hillbilly rapists and Reynolds using a bow and arrow...

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER SPLASHING)

MONDELLO: ...To spear fish and to even the odds in what he saw, at the outset, as a chance to meet nature on its own terms.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DELIVERANCE")

REYNOLDS: (As Lewis) Machines are going to fail. And the system's going to fail.

JON VOIGHT: (As Ed) And then what?

REYNOLDS: (As Lewis) Then, survival - who has the ability to survive? That's the game.

MONDELLO: After "Deliverance" put him on the map, Reynolds more or less owned the rest of that decade. He played football players in "The Longest Yard" and "Semi-Tough." The bootleg thing kept coming back in "White Lightning" and "Lucky Lady."

Off-screen, he cultivated a less predictable vibe, whether posing nude on a bearskin rug for Cosmo or telling interviewers that Sally Field was the love of his life, even though he married two other women. His mistakes on screen included singing in "Best Little Whorehouse in Texas."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE BEST LITTLE WHOREHOUSE IN TEXAS (TELEVISION EDIT)")

REYNOLDS: (As Sheriff Ed Earl Dodd, singing) I'd go riding high like a knight in shining armor.

MONDELLO: I can sing, he admitted to interviewers, as well as Fred Astaire can act. He had no quips to offer for his business acumen. Reynolds briefly owned a football team, a nightclub, a dinner theater and a chain of restaurants before declaring bankruptcy. He also took 22 years to pay a divorce settlement to Loni Anderson. And somehow, he kept coming back - most famously perhaps in the 1997 award-winner "Boogie Nights," where he played a porn director who had dreams of making movies that were more than just porn.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BOOGIE NIGHTS")

REYNOLDS: (As Jack Horner) This is the best work we've ever done.

RICKY JAY: (As Kurt Longjohn) Well, it's a real film, Jack.

REYNOLDS: (As Jack Horner) It feels good.

JAY: (As Kurt Longjohn) You made it fly.

REYNOLDS: (As Jack Horner) You know, this is the film I want them to remember me by.

MONDELLO: And they did, with an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor and lots more work. Almost 20 years and 60 roles later, he published a memoir called "But Enough About Me," a jokey title for a best-seller that proved beyond doubt that audiences still weren't tired of hearing about Burt Reynolds.

I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.