Burt Reynolds – the archetype action hero of the 1970s and the man around whom the Smokey and the Bandit and Cannonball Run franchises were built – has passed away at the age of 82 and with him a certain era of Hollywood machismo also vanishes…
In a career that spanned over 90 films Reynolds was famous for rarely taking himself too seriously, tilting towards roles that were played for laughs as much as action and drama. Many of his roles were fast-talking, womanising characters – able to flash a seductive smile that led to complications on and off screen and which gained him a reputation he enjoyed living up and down to. He sent up that persona and reputation with appearances on hundreds of television shows, including the likes of The Golden Girls, The Larry Sanders Show, Cybill, Beverly Hills 90210, Archer and even The X-Files and headlined shows such as B L Stryker and Evening Shade. However he proved his more serious acting ability in films such as the survivalist classic Deliverance (1972), Sharky’s Machine (1981) and received an Oscar nomination for his role of porn producer Jack Horner in 1997’s Boogie Nights.
He had begun his career with smaller roles and quickly recurred on 1950s’ westerns series such as Gunsmoke and big-screen frontier outings such as Navajo Joe (1966) and 100 Rifles (1969). Deliverance, the story of a group of men being ruthlessly hunted by locals through the Florida Everglades, was the film that launched him into another bracket and he followed up that success with regular diverse work. His old friend and stuntman Hal Needham then showed him a script which would become the basis for 1977’s Smokey and the Bandit and its two sequels. After 1981’s violent cop drama Sharky’s Machine (which he also directed), he appeared opposite Dolly Parton in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982) and opposite Clint Eastwood in City Heat (1984).
He famously was considered for several roles that ultimately went to others – including Han Solo in Star Wars (Harrison Ford took the role) and John McClaine in Die Hard (which rocketed Bruce Willis to stardom). Jack Nicholson took award-winning roles in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and Terms of Endearment (1983) that Reynolds had been linked to. He pulled out of Zardoz (1974) due to ill health and that part went to Sean Connery – and there had once been talk of Reynolds auditioning for James Bond though that ultimately doesn’t seem a good fit.
From 1978 to 1982 he was each year’s top-grossing actor and though he regretted missing out on some more ‘serious’ roles, he had undeniably established an unique niche. However, the industry tilted towards more overt action heroes in the 1980s and Reynolds didn’t demand the size of box-office he once had, the roles starting to dry up or not be the smashes expected – but he pragmatically returned to television and worked steadily. Unfortunately the divorce from second wife, Loni Anderson was emotionally and financially messy for everyone concerned and he made some unwise business choices which also depleted his fortune.
In the last decade, ill-health had reduced his frame to a mere shell of the man he’d seemed before and he looked very frail compared to his heyday, but he maintained his good humour and work ethic. At the time of his death, reported to be from cardiopulmonary arrest, he was about to start filming with Quentin Tarantino on the upcoming Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.