“I’d love to slug ya but there are ladies present.” That’s how Burt Reynolds greeted me the first time I met him, while covering the Western-themed Golden Boot Awards for Entertainment Tonight in the early 1980s. Determined to keep my cool, I told him, “I have never said an unkind word about you… about some of your films, yes, but never about you.” “Oh,” he said mockingly, “So then it wasn’t personal.” (No, it wasn’t.)
At that point my cameraman was ready to go and Reynolds gave me a wonderful interview about the legacy of the Western, as his then-wife Loni Anderson looked on approvingly. Somehow, the actor had been led to believe that I was gunning for him and had gone on at least two national television shows calling me names. He said things like, “When he came out of the womb I bet his parents rated him zero,” echoing the number-rating system I used for movie reviews on ET. Yet when our brief interview was over, he said, “I like the pieces you do about Old Hollywood. We ought to get together and talk.”
Little did I dream that this glimpse of his temper and quirky personality was an indication of deeper issues that dogged him, and the women he was with, for many years. Regular readers of this column know that I don’t traffic in gossip; I’m just reporting my own experiences. He was openly and gleefully hostile toward critics; his wisecracks got a guaranteed round of applause from studio audiences on The Tonight Show and other outlets.
But one day I overheard my office-mate Jeanne Wolf talking to someone about his upcoming Bill Forsyth film Breaking In, which had been selected to play the New York Film Festival. I gathered that he wasn’t doing any publicity to support the picture. When Jeanne hung up the phone she told me I had intuited the situation correctly. “Hold on,” I said. “You mean he’s finally going to get critical acclaim for playing a character role in a movie that’s been selected for a major film festival and this one he’s not going to promote?” Jeanne picked up the phone and followed up with his rep. The same thing happened when Boogie Nights opened. He reluctantly attended the premiere of Paul Thomas Anderson’s knockout of a movie and didn’t linger, annoyed that the director hadn’t used what he considered his best takes. In spite of this, he earned his first and only Academy Award nomination for the picture.
Burt was a good actor and a dazzling personality, especially on talk shows. He displayed a rare sense of humor about himself that won him even more fans. In the 1970s, when he was America’s number-one box-office star, he boasted that he was following a game plan: he’d make one film for the critics, then one for the mass audience. Alternating The End and Starting Over with Smokey and the Bandit II and The Cannonball Run made it seem like he had a sure-fire formula for enduring success. But he made some notoriously bad choices and wore out his welcome in the process. He retreated to series television, where he remained a star.
I wish he had derived more satisfaction from his work. He was justly proud of Deliverance and participated in a fortieth anniversary promotion with his talented costars. But from all evidence he became his own worst enemy, drowning in debt and no longer able to play the lighthearted lothario as he neared the 80-year mark. He deserved better. One thing he never lacked was talent. Even in the recent release The Last Movie Star he delivered a solid, knowing performance.
I was a Burt Reynolds fan, in spite of our many odd encounters over the years. Like Charlie Chaplin and the drunken millionaire in City Lights, I never knew which Burt I would be talking to. My daughter Jessie went to school with his son Quinton, and whenever we’d see Burt he seemed pleased that she asked after him. It offered us a glimpse of his softer side. He was a man of many parts, full of contradictions…but I do know this: he was the very essence of a Movie Star, and no one can ever take that away from him.