Reynolds died of cardiac arrest. His niece, Nancy Lee Hess, said that the actor “has had health issues, however, this was totally unexpected.”
She continued, “My uncle was not just a movie icon; he was a generous, passionate and sensitive man who was dedicated to his family, friends, fans and acting students… Anyone who breaks their tailbone on a river and finishes the movie is tough. And that’s who he was. My uncle was looking forward to working with Quentin Tarantino [in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood] and the amazing cast that was assembled.”
Dolly Parton, who was Reynolds’ co-star in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, shared a statement saying, “Oh how sad I am today along with Burt’s millions of fans around the world as we mourn one of our favorite leading men. I know we will always remember his funny laugh, that mischievous sparkle in his eyes, and his quirky sense of humor. You will always be my favorite sheriff, rest in peace my little buddy and I will always love you.”
Reynolds got his start on the Sixties television show Gunsmoke, but it was a run of films in the Seventies and Eighties that transformed him into one of the biggest stars in the world. His breakout film was the critically acclaimed Southern gothic thriller, Deliverance, but Reynolds quickly became best known for blockbuster action flicks and comedies like Smokey and the Bandit, The Longest Yard and The Cannonball Run.
Every year between 1978 and 1982, Reynolds was the top-grossing star in Hollywood, a four-year feat that only Bing Crosby had previously achieved. While Reynolds was unable to maintain that level of success during the Eighties and Nineties, he experienced a revival of sorts after Paul Thomas Anderson cast him as a porn director in 1997’s Boogie Nights. While Reynolds was initially so unhappy with the picture that he fired his agent, the role earned him an Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe award.
“I didn’t get to spend a lot of time with Burt, but the time we did spend together was some of the most rewarding of my career,” Reynolds’ Boogie Nights co-star Don Cheadle said in a statement. “Paul made a little, dysfunctional family on that crazy, great movie and Burt was our surrogate pop. I had no idea how good he was until I saw his work in Boogie Nights. He and Paul got the best out of each other for sure. RIP, Jack Horner.”
Reynolds was born in Lansing, Michigan in 1936, but moved around frequently as a child due to his father’s service in the Army. In high school, Reynolds was an all-state fullback and earned a football scholarship to Florida State University. While he hoped to play in the NFL, a series of injuries ended his athletic career – but they also led Reynolds to Palm Beach Junior College, where he met his acting mentor, Watson B. Duncan III.
Reynolds’ first roles as a professional actor were in theater and included several Broadway plays like Look, We’ve Come Through and Mister Roberts. A few scattered television and movie roles followed, though Reynolds continued to hold odd jobs as a dishwasher, delivery boy, bartender and even a dockworker.
After moving to Hollywood, Reynolds joined the cast of the longstanding TV Western Gunsmoke, though his other projects during the late Sixties and early Seventies failed to become major hits. Nevertheless, Reynolds’ profile grew, thanks in part to a budding friendship with Johnny Carson and regular appearances on The Tonight Show. In 1972, Reynolds even became the first non-comedian to fill in for Carson.
That year was Reynolds’ breakout. While Deliverance made him a movie star, he solidified his status as a sex symbol when he posed naked on a bearskin rug for the April 1972 issue of Cosmopolitan. A slew of leading roles followed, including White Lightning, Lucky Lady, Smokey and the Bandit. During this run, Reynolds even tried to launch a music career with a solo album, Ask Me What I Am, while in 1976 he directed his first film, Gator. In 1978, at the peak of his powers, Reynolds had four movies playing in theaters at the same time.
Action movies comprised the bulk of Reynolds’ work – he often did his own stunts – but he also starred in an array of romantic comedies alongside superstar actresses like Candice Bergen (Starting Over), Goldie Hawn (Best Friends) and Dolly Parton (The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas). But perhaps one of the strangest hallmarks of Reynolds’ career is the roles he didn’t take: Reynolds famously turned down opportunities to play James Bond and Han Solo, while he also forfeited the role in James L. Brooks’ Terms of Endearment that won Jack Nicholson an Oscar.
Reynolds’ star fizzled in the Eighties with flops like Stroker Ace and Rent-a-Cop, and by the Nineties he’d run into financial trouble and was forced to declare bankruptcy. But Reynolds never stopped working and the acclaim he garnered with Boogie Nights seemed prime him for a classic Hollywood comeback. But Reynolds was neither happy with the film, nor his experience working with Paul Thomas Anderson. He turned down the director’s next movie, Magnolia, and continued to pick the roles he wanted: Action movies, comedies and thrillers.
A career retrospective in Rolling Stone noted how Reynolds’ action movie heroics and schlock-filled resume often obscured his genuine skill as an actor (late in life, Reynolds even shared his knowledge and love of the craft as an acting teacher in Florida). But in 2017, Reynolds again reminded moviegoers and critics what he was capable of when he starred in Adam Rifkin’s The Last Movie Star. Reynolds essentially played himself in the film – a washed-up box office hero with an IMDB page filled with bad decisions and a body ravaged by too many stunts.
In an interview with The New York Times about the film, Reynolds noted that the role had required a certain amount of gravity, but also a sense of humor. “I think you have to be a little bit of a rascal, because people would be disappointed if I didn’t do that,” he said. “We’re only here for a little while, and you’ve got to have some fun, right? I don’t take myself seriously, and I think the ones that do, there’s some sickness with people like that. That’s why I live in Florida.”