The first time we lay eyes on Burt Reynolds’ truck-driving legend Bo “Bandit” Darville in 1977’s Smokey and the Bandit, he’s sprawled out in a zebra-striped hammock, lazily napping when he should be hustling to make a buck by posing for pictures for a discounted 75 cents.
“Looks like a legend and an out-of-work bum look a lot alike, Daddy,” quips Paul Williams’ Little Enos Burdette to his father, Big Enos Burdette, who’s dressed in the same outlandish suit, ascot and cowboy hat as his diminutive offspring. Reynolds, owning the moment, looks up from his slumber and offers that laugh. You know the one — the “I’m a confident S.O.B.” cackle that helped establish him as a hero to aspiring wiseasses everywhere. “Oh, I love your suits,” Bandit replies, relishing one of a number of politically incorrect zingers he lets fly in the film. “It must be a bitch getting a Size 68 extra fat, and a 12 dwarf.”
Reynolds died Thursday at age 82, leaving behind a series of indelible performances, from the heroic Lewis in Deliverance to the Oscar-nominated turn as porn director Jack Horner in Boogie Nights. But it’s his scenery-chewing escapades in Smokey and the Bandit that made pre-teen boys in the Seventies and, via premium cable, the Eighties want to snub authority, drive fast and get the girl. Directed by stuntman Hal Needham, whose 2011 memoir Stuntman! offers some glorious tales from the set, Smokey and the Bandit is the ultimate Reynolds charm vehicle. He swaggers, winks, lets his (chest) hair down and looks directly into the camera to flash the most shit-eating of grins.
But Reynolds’ Bandit wasn’t just a one-dimensional “smart aleck,” as Jackie Gleason’s Sheriff Justice derided him in Smokey. Even when he was comparing Sally Field’s legs to a carrier pigeon’s — “Last time I saw legs like that they had a message tied to them” — or crowing about his own good looks — “We both like half of my face” — the actor allowed glimmers of Bandit’s humanity to seep through. Yes, he was a Pontiac-driving prima donna, but also a wandering soul whose search to fill the void ate up miles and miles of open road. Why else would one accept a bet to bootleg cases of Coors from Texas to Georgia?
An underrated actor who would be denied the Oscar in 1998, Reynolds sold Bandit’s emptiness too, whether he was goading old pal Cletus Snow (the fast-talking Jerry Reed) — Bandit’s longest relationship — into joining him on his boozy hero’s journey, trying to coyly woo Field’s Frog during a woodsy pit-stop, or pausing to pay Justice a compliment for the doggedness of his interstate “high speed pursuit.” “I’ve been chased by the best of them,” says Bandit, “and son, you make ’em look like they’re all runnin’ in slow motion.”
By movie’s end, Reynolds’ beloved and beguiling performance made it clear: it wasn’t Big Enos’ money that Bandit needed, but the thrill of the chase.