Burt Reynolds

Burt Reynolds
Burt Reynolds

The Guardian obituary.

In 1972, the year of his breakthrough in Deliverance, widely regarded as his best work, he became America’s first male centrefold, appearing nude in Cosmopolitan. The magazine sold 1.5m copies and this photograph was discussed more than his performance as the belligerent adventurer Lewis. The publicity upset conservative Hollywood and possibly cost him abest actor Oscar nomination; in a 2015 interview he said that he regretted having done the shoot.

Further notoriety came from his marriages, the first to the comedian Judy Carne, the second to the actor Loni Anderson. Both ended in divorce, the latter acrimoniously in 1995, after an 18-month dispute over his wealth and the custody of a son, Quinton. Long and widely publicised affairs with other actors, including Sally Field and Dyan Cannon, and with the singer Dinah Shore, who was many years his senior, also fuelled the publicity machine. Reynolds said that Shore taught him about the finer things in life and Field was the person he had loved the most.

He was a very physical actor who often did his own stunts, and had initially hoped to become a professional football player. Throughout his career, which effectively began in 1959 with the TV series Riverboat, he claimed to have one of the three quickest tempers in Hollywood, alongside those of Gene Hackman and Clint Eastwood. This caused fights, and during the filming of Heat (1986) he hit and severely injured the film’s director, Dick Richards, who sued him for assault. 

The altercation came during a dismal period in Reynolds’s life, when an addiction to the painkiller triazolam and severe weight loss had led to widespread rumours that he had been diagnosed with Aids. In fact, his debilitating illness had been caused by a fight scene that went disastrously wrong during the shooting of City Heat (1984), in which he co-starred with Eastwood. Reynolds was hit with a real bar stool rather than a fake one, and suffered a broken jaw, leading to year-long complications with his teeth, jaw and inner ear. 

Yetin 1981 he had been voted the world’s top box office attraction for the fifth consecutive year, and his film The Cannonball Run had been one of the year’s highest earners. That film was one of many, beginning with White Lightning (1973), that contributed to Reynolds’s good ole boy image, aimed at the drive-in audience and blue-collar workers. Others in that frantic, car-oriented and stunt-dominated style included the Smokey and the Bandit films.

Born in Lansing, Michigan, Burt was the son of Burton Reynolds, who had been in the military and later became a police chief, and his wife, Fern (nee Miller). After the family moved to Florida, Burt attended Palm Beach high school and won a sports scholarship to Florida State University. When ashattered knee and damaged spleen put paid to his plans to become a footballer, he headed for New York, hoping to become an actor.

There he took various menial jobs while he sought work in the theatre. A small role in a production of Mr Roberts starring Charlton Heston, while sharing a flat with the volatile actor Rip Torn, kept him afloat financially until he offered to do a dangerous stunt in a television show. Other parts followed, leading to a contract with Universal and a two-year stint as Ben Frazer in Riverboat. 

Reynolds stayed faithful to the small screen and enjoyed success in many series including Gunsmoke (1964-65), Hawk (1966), Dan August (1970-71), BL Stryker (1989-90) and the intelligent Evening Shade (1990-94), which won him an Emmy. He also directed for television and appeared in dozens of miniseries and movies. He was a regular guest on chat shows and entertainment specials,and repeatedly featured on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson; during the latter’s absences, Reynolds enjoyed huge success deputising for him and especially relished a lively encounter interviewing Carne.

His big-screen appearancesbegan modestly in 1961. He was frequently cast as an American Indian, thanks to claimed Cherokee blood on his father’s side. Sam Fuller’s ill-fated Sharkand a thriller, Impasse (both 1969), were followed by a role as Detective Steve Carella in the Ed McBain-inspired film Fuzz (1972).

John Boorman’s Deliverance propelled him into another league. A riveting outdoor adventure, based on a bestseller, it told of four men who challenge nature and themselves on a weekend trip shooting the rapids down a river high in the Appalachians. This nightmare journey and its vision of a society despoiling the land became a huge critical and commercial success. Between 1972 and his accident on City Heat, Reynolds starred in 30 movies, and survived potentially damaging publicity in 1973 when he became involved in the mysterious death of the writer David Whiting during the filming of The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing. A verdict of accidental death was eventually recorded.

Reynolds directed his first feature, Gator, in 1976; then The End (1978) and Sharky’s Machine (1981). His commercial acclaim rested on his energetic characterisations including Gator, the Bandit in the Smokey and the Bandit movies, JJ McClure in the Cannonball Run successes, and numerous cop and adventure films – many directed by his former stuntman and friend Hal Needham. A commitment to one of these, Stroker Ace (1983), caused him to turn down the role in Terms of Endearment that subsequently went to Jack Nicholson, who won an Oscar. This was a bad career move comparable to his decision not to play James Bond when Sean Connery left the franchise. 

Nevertheless he maintained an opulent lifestyle, and at various times owned six substantial homes, a fleet of cars, a helicopter and a jet with two pilots on standby.

He interspersed the action flicks with better movies, which included two for Robert Aldrich. He was a football-playing convict in The Longest Yard (1974) and a cop seduced by Catherine Deneuve in the stylish Hustle (1975). Aldrich said of him: “Behind that false humour and false modesty is a bright man who paid his dues. His charm is only part of the man – he’s a strong-willed, self-centred businessman who does what serves Burt. And so he should.”

Silent Movie (1976), the satiric Semi-Tough (1977), Starting Over (1979) and Best Friends (1982) earned him kudos, as did founding a community project near one of his homes in Jupiter, Florida. The Burt Reynolds Theater allowed him to return to the stage and attracted friends and fellow actors to work in modern classics. Among regulars there were Martin SheenCharles DurningJulie Harris and Field.

After the commercial failure of City Heat and his illness, Reynolds initially worked little. The nadir of his career came when a chain of restaurants he had financed closed with debts of $15m. He refused to file for bankruptcy and accepted whatever work was offered. He took the Cary Grant role in a feeble revamp of His Girl Friday, updated from journalism to television and entitled Switching Channels (1988). There were voiceovers, including one for All Dogs Go to Heaven (1989), and appearances as himself in documentaries, as well as in Robert Altman’s The Player (1992).

In 1989 he had enjoyed a minor comeback in the amiable comedy Breaking In, but it was swamped by such failures as Rent-a-Cop (1987), the psycho-horror film The Maddening (1995) and the Canadian-made Frankenstein and Me (1996). The dire TV spin-off Bean (1997), in which he took fifth billing, proved popular and he followed that with a return to real form.

Boogie Nights was an ensemble piece, brilliantly directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. As a porn movie director Reynolds gave a charismatic and assured performance that gained him critical kudos and a new lease of life. He notched up an incredible two dozen screen and television appearances over the next few years. He starred in three TV movies as Detective McQueen, returned to directing with The Last Producer (2000) and co-starred with actors as diverse as Sylvester Stallone in Driven (2001) and Julie Christie in Snapshots (2002). He was among an all-star line up in the prestigious television miniseries Johnson County War (2002).

For whatever reason – money or confirmation of his existence in a changed Hollywood – Reynolds worked relentlessly. His credits exceeded in quantity, if not quality, those of the previous decade. Performing voiceovers for video games including Legend of Frosty the Snowman (2005) was a low point. Other work included full-length TV movies and straight-to-video features such as End Game (2006) and Randy and the Mob (2007), in which he remained uncredited. 

Better material showed he still retained screen presence. He was the “me” to Mary Tyler Moore in the feelgood TV movie Miss Lettie and Me (2002) and met his acting match with Bruce Dern in the violent western Hard Ground (2003), where as aggressive partners they hunted a sadistic killer.

In 2005, The Longest Yard was revamped in comedy mode. Thirty years earlier Reynolds had played the lead brilliantly in Aldrich’s tough version of the same story (titled The Mean Machine in the UK) about prisoners and their warders on opposing football teams. Here he was effective as Coach Scarborough in a massive hit which earned double its $80m budget on first release.

Another commercial success followed with a spin-off from the TV series The Dukes of Hazzard, returning Reynolds to the car-crashing territory of earlier years. Then he was in the aptly named Forget About It (2006) – among many movies – until the amiable A Bunch of Amateurs (2008), in which, as a fading star, he goes to Britain to play King Lear at Stratford, only to find that it is a local company, not the RSC. Its success relied on him, Imelda Staunton and Derek Jacobi. The irony of the casting was unmistakable, as were the jokes about Deliverance in Without a Paddle (2004) or the title of Not Another Not Another Movie (2011) about a studio willing to produce rubbish for cash.Advertisement

A hectic life, multiple health problems (including a back operation in 2009 and heart bypass surgery the following year) and financial concerns behind him, Reynolds settled for a marginally less arduous work schedule, maintaining a home in Florida while working steadily in television and cinema.

He made guest appearances in several well-regarded TV series including Ed (2003), Archer (2012) and Burn Notice (2010), observing that he had notched up 300 credits in the medium. He could also be seen or heard in video productions and voiceovers in films, plus leading roles in features, although one at least had a total budget of less than his personal fee for acting in Smokey and the Bandit.

These included a disaster movie, Category 5 (2014), Elbow Grease and the horror film Hollow Creek (both 2016). He kept on working even after his sardonic portrayal of a veteran performer, The Last Movie Star (2017), and appears in a comedy to be released in December, Defining Moments. 

In 2015 Reynolds published a follow-up to his 1994 autobiography My Life, which had been dedicated to Quinton. The new book, co-written with Jon Winokur, was called But Enough About Me and was intended, he said, “to set the record straight”. It covered his personal and working relationships during a six-decade career with the great and good of Hollywood. He ruefully noted that his choices – professionally as well as romantically – had not always been wise. In addition to James Bond, he had turned down Die Hard which confirmed the superstar status of Bruce Willis.

But while the search for cinematic respectability and an Oscar continued to elude him, he could take satisfaction in numerous other accolades and in holding the record as the only star to have been the US’s top box office attraction for five consecutive years.

He is survived by Quinton.

• Burt Reynolds (Burton Leon Reynolds), actor, born 11 February 1936; died 6 September 2018

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