Not only was Burt Reynolds the quintessential 1970s and 1980s movie star, he was also the definitive macho stud of the era, when that kind of thing was in fashion. Rocking a legendary mustache and unrivaled swagger, Reynolds shot to fame in the Me Decade after a stint on the TV western Gunsmoke and a role in the harrowing survival drama Deliverance. Burt Reynolds truly found his calling when he starred as a cocky, smirking protagonists in down-and-dirty comedy-laced action movies such as Gator, The Cannonball Run, Stroker Ace, White Lightning, and most notably, the Smokey and the Bandit series.
Those kinds of movies went out of the style around the mid-’80s, forcing Reynolds into a steady stream of B-movies, including City Heat, Rent-a-Cop, and Breaking In, though he eventually found redemption and long-sought accolades for his work as a small-town football coach on CBS’ Evening Shade and as an adult film producer in Boogie Nights.
Reynolds died on Sept. 6, 2018 at the age of 82 after a long battle with heart problems. Here’s a look back on his almost unbelievable life and career.
He was the biggest star in the world for decades
Most (if not all) of Burt Reynolds’ signature and most famous movies might seem a little dated to sophisticated movie viewers of 2018 — car chase and cliché-heavy films like Smokey and the Bandit and Stroker Ace are now the kind of under-the-radar B-movies that light up late night cable TV and Redbox kiosks, but these were not second-rate, forgettable movies to audiences in the 1970s and 1980s. Those Reynolds guilty pleasures were massively successful at the box office.
While few of his movies were runaway blockbusters (with the exception of the first Smokey and the Bandit, the No. 3 box office hit of 1978), Reynolds made so many flicks that performed so consistently well that, according to CBS News, he was Hollywood’s top grossing actor from 1978 to 1982. That’s a remarkable achievement that ranks Reynolds in a movie star pantheon with Harrison Ford, Will Smith, and Tom Cruise.
Critics, however, never did much care for those distinctively Reynolds movies. Both Stroker Ace and The Cannonball Run sit at just 20 percent on Rotten Tomatoes; Sharky’s Machine and Smokey and the Bandit fared better, with rankings of 94 percent and 79 percent, respectively.
Let Burt Reynolds entertain you
Lots of actors come up in the theater, and, once they establish themselves in film and television, they return to the relatively low-paying world of stage acting. Burt Reynolds also spent a lot of time in the footlights, although it was as the owner and frequent director at the Burt Reynolds Dinner Theatre in Jupiter, Fla. — one of the most successful and prestigious theaters outside of the dramatic arts hotbeds of New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles.
"I want a theater for people who haven’t seen live theater, at prices they can pay," Reynolds said in 1978, shortly after the $2 million project broke ground. "I also want to have a place where actors, friends of mine who most producers don’t have access to, can work."
Reynolds attracted many luminaries to Florida over the years, including Carol Burnett, Farrah Fawcett, Ned Beatty, Kirstie Alley, and Robert Urich. Liza Minnelli and Martin Sheen taught acting classes there, and while Reynolds only appeared in three plays during the theater’s ten-year, 116-production lifespan, he directed seven shows. In 1989, Reynolds shut down his endeavor, intending to donate the building to Palm Beach Community College for use as a performing arts center, but his plans were blocked by the Florida government due to the theater’s many debts.
He never got over Sally Field
Burt Reynolds was married twice. In the mid-1960s, he was married to English comedian Judy Carne, best known for her stint on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, and in the late ’80s and early ’90s, he was wed to WKRP in Cincinnati star Loni Anderson. His most famous romance, however, was his five-year relationship with fellow big time movie star Sally Field.
The two appeared in Smokey and the Bandit, Hooper, Smokey and the Bandit II, and The End before it all fell apart. "I think we would have been very happy," Reynolds told Closer. "If anybody asks about that period of my life, it was a wonderful time."
In a 2016 interview with the the Daily Mail, Reynolds was asked about the "biggest disappointment" in his life. "Sally Field," he said. "She was the love of my life, and I screwed the relationship up." He added, "That sense of loss never goes away. I have no idea what Sally thinks about it. She could pick up the phone and speak to me, but she never does. I spoke to her son recently. He said that his mum talks about me all the time."
What did he have against Marc Summers?
Burt Reynolds could come off a little cranky — like during an October 1994 taping of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. According to Double Dare host Marc Summers (he’s important, keep reading), Leno cracked a joke about Reynolds’ messy divorce from Loni Anderson the night before his show with Reynolds, so that might explain the movie star’s salty mood the following day.
During his appearance, Reynolds calls Leno’s aforementioned joke "cutting" and pledges to "even the score," pulling out a pair of scissors and cutting off Leno’s tie. Tensions remain high as the second guest arrives: Summers. Discussing how he balances being a "neatness fanatic" with his work hosting ultra-messy children’s television, Summers mentions some stunts, to which Reynolds sarcastically quips, "Gee, I wish I’d seen that."
When Summers apparently doesn’t acknowledge Reynolds properly, the bandit interjects, "Your back is to me and I was just talking to a back." Reynolds then asks who told the game show host he’s a "neatness fantastic." The Double Dare star says his wife did, jokingly adding, "I’m still married, matter of fact."
That sets off Reynolds, who throws his mug of water at Summers, which causes Summers to spill his own water on himself. A stagehand tosses a towel to Summers, who then throws what’s left of the water at Reynolds, but it’s the Bandit who gets the last word. "I did it to you, I deserved it. As I was saying to your wife the other night…"
The whole mess concludes with a pie fight. Really.
He squealed over a Deliverance publicity stunt gone awry
Probably the first thing that shot actor Burt Reynolds into the fame stratosphere — and solidified the ’70s as the Burt Reynolds Decade — is his infamous nude centerfold in a 1972 issue of Cosmopolitan. As Reynolds told TV host Piers Morgan (via Mental Floss), the whole thing was the idea of legendary Cosmo editor Helen Gurley Brown, who asked him to do the photo shoot when they met while appearing on The Tonight Show.
"I thought it would be a kick," Reynolds said. Hitting newsstands just before the release of Deliverance, Reynolds’ first big movie, all 1.6 million printed copies quickly sold out. Keep in mind: nudity, and in particular male nudity, was an extreme novelty in the early 1970s.
Over time, Reynolds came to regret posing on a bearskin rug wearing only a smile (and a strategically-placed hand) because he thought it took away from the seriousness — and awards potential — of the movie he was trying to promote. "I think it cost some actors in Deliverance an Academy Award," Reynolds told Morgan. "I think it cost Jon [Voight]. I think it cost Ned Beatty, who certainly deserved an Oscar nomination. I think it hurt me, too."
He could have been in every major movie ever made
As the top box office draw for a long period of time, bookended by years when he was certainly almost as popular, it’s no surprise that Burt Reynolds was routinely offered some of the most sought-after movie roles of all time. In fact, he was seemingly offered every legendary part of all time — something he more or less confirmed to Andy Cohen on a March 2018 episode of Watch What Happens Live (via The Hollywood Reporter).
As he’d previously mentioned in his memoir, Reynolds turned down the role of conflicted son Michael Corleone in The Godfather, the 1972 crime family epic that is regarded as one the finest American films ever made. Why did Reynolds decline an offer he couldn’t refuse? Because Marlon Brando, portraying Don Corleone, threatened to quit if Reynolds was cast. "I was flattered that he was upset," Reynolds graciously demurred.
Reynolds also skipped the chance to play James Bond, thinking that the role should be reserved for British actors. He told Cohen he regretted that decision. When Cohen asked why he also passed on the role Richard Gere would play in Pretty Woman, Reynolds bluntly replied, "Because I’m an idiot." Reynolds also passed on One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Terms of Endearment – both roles went to Jack Nicholson … who won Oscars both times.
Reynolds also could have played the most Burt Reynolds-esque character in screen history: Han Solo. He passed on the Star Wars hero because he didn’t want to do a science-fiction movie.
Lots of actors give music a shot. Donald Glover’s career as Childish Gambino is as remarkable as his work on Atlanta, and Bruce Willis had that period in the ’80s when he desperately wanted everyone to think he was a blues singer. Burt Reynolds’ brief foray into the musical arts probably veers more toward the latter camp. Reynolds rarely showed off his pipes, and when he did, it didn’t go all that well.
In 1982, he starred with Dolly Parton in the film version of the musical The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, and about a decade later, he released his only album, a collection of country music tunes called Ask Me What I Am. The project was co-produced by soft rock star Bobby Goldsboro and featured easy-going takes on songs with titles such as "Slow John Fairburn," "She’s Taken a Gentle Lover," and "I Didn’t Shake the World Today." Reynolds never released a single from this obscurity, but he did score a minor hit with another country song in 1980: "Let’s Do Something Cheap and Superficial," off the Smokey and the Bandit II soundtrack. That’s the long and short of Reynolds’ music career.
Burt and money don’t mix
As one of the best-paid movie stars during his peak years of stardom, Burt Reynolds brought in around $10 million a year … and he spent almost all of it on stuff like an estate in Florida called "Valhalla," a 153-acre ranch, mansions in both Malibu and Beverly Hills, a private jet, a helicopter, 150 horses, $100,000 worth of toupees, a failed comfort food chain called Po’ Folks, and a ton of sports cars of which the Bandit would certainly approve.
Reynolds’ 1993 divorce settlement with Loni Anderson was a near-death blow to the bank of Burt. He was on the hook for nearly $250,000 a month in payments to his former wife, and his legal fees drove his net worth down to around $5 million. His movies weren’t the hits they once were and the taint of the divorce lost him his endorsements with Quaker State and the Florida Citrus Commission. At least he still had Evening Shade … until CBS canceled it in 1994.
"I’ve lost more money than is possible because I just haven’t watched it," Reynolds told Vanity Fair in 2015, not long after he sold off a number of his personal effects at an auction, including the jacket he wore in Smokey and the Bandit, his 1991 Emmy Award for Evening Shade, and the Golden Globe he won for Boogie Nights.
He almost died of a drug overdose
One of the last big rough-and-tumble Burt Reynolds movies was the 1984 crime dramedy City Heat. That’s to be expected, considering the star endured a serious accident and injured his jaw while filming. According to the Orlando Sentinel, the pain was so intense that Reynolds began taking the then-popular sleep aid Halcion. He got addicted to the medicine and grappled with that dependency for years, downing as many as 50 pills a day. At one point he tried to quit cold turkey, but his body couldn’t handle the shock, and he fell into a coma.
Reynolds told TV Guide (via the Orlando Sentinel) that he had an "out-of-body experience," heard a doctor say "we’re losing him," and remembers then-wife Loni Anderson being brought in to say her final farewell, but Reynolds pulled through, regained his health, and squelched rumors that his addiction-related weight loss was due to AIDS.
He had a potential comeback in the works
Burt Reynolds worked almost right up until the end of his long life. He’d acted in a whopping 22 projects since 2010, an impressive agenda for any actor, let alone a guy in his seventies and eighties. In addition to roles on TV shows such as American Dad! and Burn Notice, he voiced "Mayor Burt Reynolds" in an entry in the Saints Row video game franchise and appeared in a bunch of low-key, video-and-cable-friendly movies, including Hamlet & Hutch, Miami Love Affair, Shadow Fighter, and Elbow Grease. Most affectingly, Reynolds starred in 2017’s The Last Movie Star, a film about an aging movie star facing reality.
Reynolds had one more production on the way at the time of his unexpected death in September 2018. He’d signed on for a supporting role in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Quentin Tarantino’s keenly awaited take on the Charles Manson murders of the 1960s. Reynolds’ role: George Spahn, the guy who rents his Los Angeles-area ranch for the Manson "family" to live on before its spree of terror.