Burt Reynolds: A Requiem of Cool
by Lou Hare, Guilty Pleasures Host
About 6 months ago, I went down a “Tonight Show” rabbit hole and stumbled upon an old gem. It was one of Carson’s famous anniversary shows and the line-up had everyone you’d expect from the era: Dean Martin, Buddy Hackett and, perhaps the biggest “get” of the night, Burt Reynolds. As I watched his easy swagger and effortless banter with Carson, I realized this fundamental truth: no matter how cool you think you are, you'll never be Burt Reynolds on "The Tonight Show" cool.
Seriously, look at this guy
Reynolds died Thursday at the age of 82. With his signature mustache, sardonic grin and instantly identifiable cackle, Burt Reynolds was the type of movie star that defined an era and, in many ways, was ultimately trapped by it.
Born in 1936, Reynolds began his acting career in television, with his first of many big breaks coming in 1959’s Riverboat.
After numerous guest appearances, he became a regular on the Western drama Gunsmoke. It’s somehow fitting that Reynolds would make his name in a genre defined by rugged masculinity. Soon enough, he would define it himself. Toward the end of the 60s, Reynolds began testing the waters of a film career. While almost the opposite is true today, in 1969, television was treated as a lesser artistic medium and as such its stars were relegated to its confines. But, as would prove to be his signature move, Reynolds disregarded public opinion and did whatever the hell he wanted. 1972’s Deliverance turned Reynolds from TV Actor to bonafide movie star. After its release and subsequent success, Reynolds not only became Hollywood’s next big thing, he became the poster child for rugged masculinity. This persona served him well for the rest of the decade, in such films as White Lightning, Gator and The Longest Yard. In 1977, it culminated in his arguably most iconic film, Smokey & the Bandit. To watch Smokey & the Bandit is to watch a movie star at the true height of his powers. It maximizes all the traits of Reynolds without overselling them (it’s also the basis of Norm McDonald’s flawless impression of him). With an almost ludicrously thin plot, it’s the kind of film that only survives if its lead has undeniable charm and charisma. And in 1977, no one had that like Burt Reynolds.
Reynolds in Smokey & The Bandit
As is wont to happen to most movie stars, Reynolds’ star fades a bit as the 70’s turn into the 80’s. While finding successes in films such as The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, Stroker Ace and The Cannonball Run series (seriously, this guy loved car movies), America’s taste for leading men shifted. Audiences gravitated away from the slick cowboy charm of Reynolds and more into the muscle-bound Alpha Males. Still, Reynolds’ influence is felt. One can see Reynolds’ impact in the works of a young Eddie Murphy in films such as 48 Hrs. and Beverly Hills Cop. This is little comfort for Reynolds as by the mid-80s, Reynolds would no longer be called upon as a leading man. For the rest of the decade, Reynolds could most easily be found on the front page of your favorite tabloid thanks to a high-profile marriage to Actress Loni Anderson, herself a sex symbol whose time in the spotlight had seemed to pass as well. They would famously divorce in 1993.
Reynolds and then wife Loni Anderson.
His Movie Star days behind him, Reynolds went back to television in 1990 for the sitcom Evening Shade. While a solid hit, consistently ranking in the Nielsen Top 20, the show would only last 4 seasons. High production costs were publicly cited for the reason, but Reynolds’ high profile divorce and its impact on his work would become a popular theory. It’s at this point where it should be acknowledged that no retrospective on Reynolds’ carrer would be complete without mentioning Reynolds’ notorious backstage reputation. Stories of Reynolds’ on-set behavior are the stuff of Hollywood lore and were confirmed to a certain degree by Kathleen Turner’s recent interview with Vulture, where she stated, “Working with Burt Reynolds was terrible…The first day Burt came in he made me cry. He said something about not taking second place to a woman. His behavior was shocking.” While Reynolds’ fade from the spotlight could be partly attributed to changing times, it’s hard not to chalk some of it up to self-destruction.
Reynolds in Boogie Nights
In 1997, Reynolds retuned to the decade that brought him glory and found glory waiting for him. As Jack Horner in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1970’s drama Boogie Nights, Reynolds was universally praised, winning the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor and being nominated for an Academy Award. While hailed as a comeback performance (and Reynolds is great in the film), it turns out to be the last time Reynolds would be treated as the movie star he once was. Reynolds would spend the rest of his career as a character actor in mostly direct-to-DVD movies or movies that harkened back to his hey-day (The Dukes of Hazzard and the remake of his own The Longest Yard, this time with Reynolds as the coach). One of his final performances came in last year’s The Last Movie Star, as an aging Hollywood icon coming to terms with his fading glory. It’s a fitting capstone for a man who seemed to struggle a lot in his role in post-70’s Hollywood.
Reynolds’ legacy as a Pop Culture Icon is as complicated as it is undeniable. Ask anyone to make a highlight reel of the 70’s and Burt Reynolds is in the first and last cut. If you know anyone in their 50s or 60s with a mustache, you can probably credit Reynolds or Tom Selleck (although in terms of mustaches, I am firmly Team Reynolds. Fight me.) To a younger generation, he might be more of a cautionary tale or punchline. His legacy becomes increasingly more complicated in the modern context, where the off-screen behaviors of actors are as well-known as their on-screen personas. But as on-screen personas go, you would be hard pressed to find a better one in his era or any other. While we attempt to define masculinity in 2018, there’s no doubt how it was defined (for better or worse) in the 70s: Burt Reynolds.