Studio Executive to Director of Stick: “You’ll have to re-shoot some scenes.”
Director to Executive: “I don’t have to re-shoot any thing. I’m Burt Reynolds.”
Executive to Director: “You used to be Burt Reynolds.”
It was just a wink. But it defined the rest of his career.
“They told me I couldn’t do it,” he says. “It would break down the wall between the actor and his audience. But the movie was just a cartoon. Smokey and the Bandit. Cotton Candy. I just wanted to say to the audience, I hope you’re having as much fun as I am. So I looked in the camera, and winked.”
Audiences loved it. That conspiratorial wink united them with the actor in his inside joke. This movie was just a lark. He didn’t take it seriously. He wasn’t really acting. He was just partying with friends in front of a camera, and he invited the audience to join in. His fans were so grateful they made his movie one of the biggest grossers of the year, 1977, and they made him a Number One Box Office Attraction. A Star. But more than that. Their favorite actor. The actor they liked the most. Which was his problem.
“I thought acting was synonymous with being liked,” he says. “I courted my fans. I passionately wanted them to like me. I thought being liked meant I was a good actor.”
The critics weren’t so accepting as his fans. That wink didn’t play well with them. They read into it, not the actor’s good-spirits toward his fans, but his contempt for them, and his craft. It wasn’t an actor’s role to be liked by his fans. It was to entertain them. Just because he was having fun with his friends—Jackie Gleason, Dom DeLuise, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, etc.—in a host of Sophomoric movies (Smokey and the Bandit, I & II; Cannonball Run, I & II) that actually did seem to be filmed parties of actors acting silly, that didn’t mean his audiences were having fun. They would have fun only as long as that wink deceived them into believing they were inside those parties. That they were getting drunk, cracking inside jokes, oogling beautiful girls, and crashing expensive cars with the actor and his friends. But the truth was, they weren’t and never would be. They were irrelevant to those parties, except that they made them possible by the vast sums of money they paid to see them on screen. When, and if, they woke to the deceit of that wink, how it made the actor rich at their expense, they’d stop paying to see such movies. Which they did. But not until after they made him a Number One Box Office Attraction for five consecutive years.
The critics smartened up before the fans did. They saw how he used his amiable, self-deprecating charm and dark, good looks to ingratiate himself with his fans, rather than act for them. They knew he was abusing his gifts which were not substantial to begin with. He had been a TV actor first, with bit roles in the series Riverboat and Gunsmoke, and later, his own series, Hawk and Dan August. On TV, he exhibited a dark, smoldering charm that bore a faint resemblance to the young Marlon Brando’s (in those days every dark brooding young actor was compared to Brando) and a stronger resemblance to character-actor John Saxon. But he was no Brando, even he knew that. He had the modest talent to become a good, workmanlike, serious actor as evidenced by his work in the film Deliverance (1972). He also had a self-deprecating comic style as evidenced in his two hit movies, The Longest Yard and Semi-Tough and on his numerous TV appearances on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. He could have become a sort of blue-collar Cary Grant. Everyman’s self-mockingly-humorous, leading man. The kind of role James Garner perfected in his TV series, The Rockford Files, and Tom Selleck, to a lesser degree, in his TV series, Magnum PI. Leading men who were vulnerable, who, despite their good-looks, never believed for a moment that they would end up with the pretty girl. And when they didn’t, they laughed at themselves in a way every man watching could identify with. But he wouldn’t let himself be that vulnerable. (Of Dennis Quaid, he says, “He tries to master everything on screen. He’s in for a lot of heartbreak. He’s too vulnerable. It’ll kill him. To survive you have to refuse to open yourself up.”)
Oh, he opened himself up enough to be foolish on screen, but never without that wink that let the audience know he really wasn’t that foolish, that it was all a joke. If he didn’t get the girl on screen the audience knew he always got the girl in real life because he was Burt Reynolds. In this way, he got it both ways. If his films failed he could claim he wasn’t really trying. And if they succeeded he could claim he did it effortlessly. The Burt Reynolds School of Acting. The critics hated it. They were so savage in their condemnation of him that he was stunned.
“I never thought I was a brilliant actor” he says. “I thought I’d be a good, working actor. It was the press and my fans who anointed me after Deliverance.”
“I’d go out drinking with these writers,” he says, “and they’d really like me. Then they’d kick my ass [in print]. All their stories seemed to begin, ‘Burt Reynolds adjusts his toupee.’”
What he did not understand was that critics were furious with his shoddy work precisely because they did like him in person. They expected so much more from him than he was willing to deliver. When he belittled their expectations, and his own gifts, they felt doubly betrayed. He thinks their expectations of him were too great. “I never thought I was a brilliant actor” he says. “I thought I’d be a good, working actor. It was the press and my fans who anointed me after Deliverance. Malcom Muggeridge, the critic, told me I should win an Academy Award and Lee Marvin told me I was gonna be a Star. Then the nude centerfold in Cosmo came out about the same time Deliverance did. I did it because I thought it would be a send-up of Playboy centerfolds. I thought it wouldn’t hurt. But it did hurt. A lot. People in the business no longer took me seriously. They forgot Deliverance. They thought of me as a freak. Then, after that wink, I made some bad choices. I turned down Terms of Endearment to make Stroker Ace. I made some comedies maybe I shouldn’t have. But I’d always thought comedy was fun, not work. I wanted to make it look effortless. When I was 22, Spencer Tracy, my idol, asked me if I was an actor. I told him the jury was still out. He said, ‘Well, if you are kid, don’t ever let ’em catch you at it.’”
He never did. He never worked hard enough to make his roles look effortless in the way Cary Grant did. He thought, mistakenly, that acting without effort was the same as having it look effortless. (He once tried to interest Richard Pryor in co-starring with him in a movie. When Pryor asked to see the script, he told Pryor there was no script. “We’ll make it up as we go along,” he said. Pryor fled.) What shone through his performances in the late seventies and eighties was an actor refusing to act. His fans (“I thought I’d never lose my fans,” he says) began to fall away. He made one box-office bomb after another and even on those rare occasions when he tried to act again he was so burdened by the Burt Reynolds Persona he had created that fans and critics refused to accept him on screen. Finally, one night in 1986, he was watching television with Lonnie Anderson, now his wife, when the movie critics Siskel and Ebert appeared on screen. They devoted their program to the demise of Burt Reynolds’ career. At the time he hadn’t worked in two years.
“It was a great motivation for me,” he says. “I grew up. I knew it was time I stopped courting the audience. I wanted to work my way back to before that wink. I had forgot what I could do well. I knew I’d never be No 1 again, but I could still do some good work. I mean, don’t I get credit for the work I’m doing now?”
“Mind if I show you something stupid?” he says. “I mean, they’re only clips. I’m not supposed to show them.” He slips a tape of scenes from his new television series, B.L. Stryker, into the VCR in the small-but-opulent dressing room of his location bus parked at the West Palm Beach, Florida Marina, where his is presently filming. In the series, which will revolve around two other movies starring Peter Falk and Lou Gosset, Jr., on ABC-TV, he plays a burnt-out, New Orleans cop haunted by his violent reactions to a series of sex crimes. He leaves the force and returns to his roots in Florida, where, incidentally, the actor grew up in Riviera Beach and where he presently lives with his wife and adopted son, Quinton, on a ranch in Jupiter. The ex-cop takes up residence on a dilapidated houseboat in West Palm (“It’s just a shell,” he says of the boat. “No heart, no guts, like Hollywood.”) with his sidekick Ossie Davis and starts to get fat. Another series of sex crimes in Palm Beach lures him back to investigating again, which is the premise of the series.
He is still a charming man but not in that self-consciously, calculating way he was years ago when his charm seemed more an actor’s shtick for talk shows.
Burt Reynolds stands nervously in his cramped dressing room and waits for the images to flicker on the television screen. He is 52 years old now, and he resembles The Burt Reynolds only in the face. Dark; handsome, slashing cheekbones. (He is rumored to have had a face-lift). And of course he toupee which is still the same. He is easier about that toupee now. He jokes about in a way he never could when he was a prematurely balding young actor who used to shade in his bald spots with an eyebrow pencil. He no longer wears lifts in his shoes, either, and probably never needed them, except in his mind’s eye. He is a shade under six-feet tall, with a noticeable paunch now, that doesn’t seem to bother him. He walks stiffly, slightly hunched in the shoulders, like a man who has fallen off one-too-many horses. (He used to do all his own stunts because he thought actors were “sissies.” He wanted to show his audience at least he was man enough as an actor to take physical chances even if he didn’t take acting ones.)
He is still a charming man but not in that self-consciously, calculating way he was years ago when his charm seemed more an actor’s shtick for talk shows. (He once charmed a female reporter for hours and then told her to put her pen down. “Off the record,” he said, his smile breaking. “You’re a cunt.”) He is also still refreshingly honest, to a degree, and quick to take the blame for his bad career choices although it is rumored his agent David Gershenson and his long-time, personal secretary, Elaine Hall, share some of that blame. He shows touches of that self-deprecating humor once his trademark, but it seems only a reflex action now, he doesn’t feel. He is not so funny, so light-hearted, and there is a touch of sadness about him as he plods through his scenes for B.L. Stryker. He talks a lot about the set being a happy set, with everyone having fun while working, but it is not the kind of raucous fun he once had with his friends on Smokey and the Bandit and Cannonball sets. Those days are gone forever, although his friends from those days still remain. He still has Charles Nelson Riley and Dom DeLuise up to his Jupiter Dinner Theater to perform now and then. He is still close to DeLuise, and worries about his compulsive eating. He once made DeLuise eat a light supper only to discover an hour later that when DeLuise went to his hotel room he ordered 15 cheeseburgers and six pieces of chocolate cake from room service.
Loyalty is important to Reynolds. He likes to point out that many members of his entourage have been with him for over thirty years. Most of his friends are of the kind for whom the moon rises over Burt Reynolds’ star. Uncritical, says a former friend form the early eighties. “I broke with Burt,” he says, “when I questioned the motives of one of his sycophant friends. Maybe he saw that as a sign of my disloyalty. He fired me through a letter from his lawyer. I was told not to have any contact with Burt because it was all too painful for him. I haven’t spoken to him since. That was a bad time for Burt. His star was falling and he was going through these mood swings. He was irrational to work for. He would just stab at these different choices—“Do this! No, do that! No, I told you to do this!”—without wanting to know the ramifications of them. He was very insecure. He was just a redneck sheriff’s kid who couldn’t handle stardom. He made his employees sign waivers that they wouldn’t write stories about him.”
Reynolds seems less insecure these days now that he has little to protect in the way of career. Still, his relations with the press are marked by what another friend calls, “Paranoia.” Which is why, to be safe, he sold the exclusive rights to his wedding to Lonnie Anderson to People magazine.
The clips are good. In one scene, he gives an emotional explanation of his violent reactions to sex criminals. In another, he trades humorous banter (without his past heavy-handedness) with Ossie Davis. “I hate exercise!” he tells Davis in a boxers’ gym. This is meant to play off the audiences’ knowledge of his real life. He was an All-State football player in high school. His college career at Florida State was cut short by a car accident in his freshman year. (“I’d give all my acting up,” he says, “if I could have won the Heisman Trophy.”) And in a final scene, he trades quips with Rita Moreno, who plays his ex-wife in the series.
While the clips are playing, Reynolds maintains a steady, nervous patter explaining each scene. “Isn’t she great?” he says of Moreno. “She’s 57, you know. What a body! She’s buffed.”
“As an actor, I always thought I was best as a counter-puncher. My favorite acting is to react off of another actor.”
When the clips are finished he looks sheepishly at his guests. He seems genuinely surprised and pleased when they say they really liked them. “You did!” he says. “Well, thank you.” Unlike the Burt Reynolds of old, he seems less interested in being liked than in having his work liked. He talks a lot about his work now. The work he’s doing. What he’s striving for.
“It’s the kinda thing Garner and Selleck did so well in their TV series,” he says. Ironically, or maybe deliberately, Selleck is the producer for Stryker and its co-executive producer, a man named Charles Floyd Johnson, worked on both The Rockford Files and Magnum.
“They surrounded themselves with good actors and played off them,” he goes on. “As an actor, I always thought I was best as a counter-puncher. My favorite acting is to react off of another actor.” Which may explain why he has surrounded himself on the set of Stryker with such established actors as Davis and Moreno. He figures that reacting off of their superior work will enhance his own work. Will force him to stretch himself in a way he never did when he was The Burt Reynolds. In those days, he was the star around whom all his friends reacted. And those friends—DeLuise, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr.—were never, in the furthest reaches of a film buff’s imagination actors. He sank to their level because he didn’t have the will, or courage, to fulfill his own talent. He may never be a star but he wasn’t a Star-Actor. He was, as his ex-friend said, just a redneck sheriff’s kid who blundered into it all and didn’t know how to sustain it. Now, as part of a cast of far-superior actors, he seems more comfortable. A better actor. Nor does he seem to mind that Davis and Moreno steal the scenes he is in with them. He is like that middle-aged, lothario in T.S. Eliot’s poem, The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock, who, finally admits to himself:
“No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two…”