Burt Reynolds wrote me a fan letter 37 years ago. Today, I’m returning the favor.
I have just read “But Enough About Me,” the most entertaining celebrity memoir in recent memory. He and collaborator Jon Winokur frame the book as a series of reminiscences about people, films and experiences that shaped the Florida actor, who’ll turn 80 on Feb. 11.
We read about his father (impossible to please or placate), his loves for Sally Field and Dinah Shore, his happy relationship with ego-free director Hal Needham on many projects, his unhappy relationship with egomaniac author James Dickey on “Deliverance,” and his marriages: a brief youthful one to Judy Carne, a later and longer one to Loni Anderson, both still a puzzlement to the groom. (He seems to have been semi-hypnotized through his courtship and wedlock to Anderson.)
Reynolds tells stories with the genial aplomb of a guy who doesn’t worry any more what people think of him. It’s not arrogance; it’s the knowledge that he has ridden out the punches and jokes and critical comments and stands tall. (Well, as tall as his countless injuries allow in old age.) He seems in print exactly like the guy I spent half an hour with 33 years ago in a trailer off Independence Boulevard.
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I met him outside the Charlotte Coliseum (now Bojangles’ Coliseum), where “Stroker Ace” was shooting in the parking lot. Reynolds was riding a five-year streak as the top movie box-office draw in America, a feat only one other actor in history – Bing Crosby, from 1944 through 1948 – had accomplished before him. (None has done it since.)
“Stroker Ace” would end that streak. Reynolds played a NASCAR driver with a gleeful sidekick (Jim Nabors), a buxom girlfriend (Anderson) and a ranting boss (Ned Beatty), who ran a chain of fried chicken restaurants and made Stroker dress up in a chicken suit. The tagline for the Australian ad campaign says it all: “Burt’s back! With car crashin’ & party crashin’ as the hassled hunk who drives his car upside down & his women round the bend!”
Reynolds had no reason to take a break for an interview with the movie writer for The Charlotte News, a much smaller paper than The Observer. Yet he talked about his ambitions, the public’s expectations for him and the films he was making and hoped to make. Then I mentioned the letter.
He’d written it after the 1978 comedy “The End.” I was reviewing movies for The Press in Atlantic City, N.J., and my review said how gratified I was to find a leading man breaking out of the traditional mold.
Reynolds directed and played a man with a terminal illness who tried to find someone to help him commit suicide. It was a comedy, but a dark one for a Hollywood star. It came on the heels of a lame adaptation of “Semi-Tough,” a book I admired, and I was glad to see him change courses.
But the movie tanked with critics and, more painfully, with audiences who didn’t want to see a beloved actor take chances. In his letter, Reynolds thanked me for having an open mind (and apologized for “Semi-Tough”).
“Yeah, I remember those letters,” he said with a laugh. “I didn’t have to write many of them.”
I asked him when he might veer again so far from the image he had built up in “Smokey and the Bandit,” “Cannonball Run” and other movies where he played cops or renegades in jacked-up cars.
“I don’t know,” he said. “You have to feel financially secure to make far-out kinds of movies.” Financially secure? This from the hottest actor in Hollywood five years in a row?
That said a lot about stars’ anxieties, the instability of the business and Reynolds’ feelings: You could tell it would be a long while before he walked out on that kind of limb again. He did so in a string of movies in 1996-’97, capped by his Oscar-nominated turn as a porn producer in “Boogie Nights.” By then, nobody had high box-office expectations for him.
Reynolds has often been underrated: He should have been Oscar-nominated as the fearless woodsman in “Deliverance” and the divorced guy setting his life in order in “Starting Over.” (Both Candice Bergen and Jill Clayburgh got nominations as his past and future partners.)
He’s in frail health now, and I doubt the Academy will take him seriously enough to give him an honorary prize before he dies. If they don’t, “But Enough About Me” will be a worthy memorial.