While looking for the appropriate Burt Reynolds clip to lead off a tribute to the iconic 1970s movie star, who died today at 82, my first impulse was… Well, if I’m being honest, my first impulse wasn’t technically a Reynolds clip at all, but an SNL sketch featuring Norm MacDonald as Reynolds as Turd Ferguson. My first serious impulse was from that time Johnny Carson smeared whipped cream on Reynolds’ groin:
And my second real thought was the blooper reel that ran at the end of The Cannonball Run:
Why did my mind instantly turn not to moments’ from Reynolds’ storied career — whether his star-making Gunsmoke turn as “halfbreed” blacksmith Quint Asper, Seventies movie classics like Deliverance, The Longest Yard and Hooper, or his comeback role as a porn auteur in Boogie Nights — but to him screwing around with his famous pals? (Or to MacDonald’s pitch-perfect recreation of that?) It’s not a knock on Reynolds the actor, who was limited in some ways, but also possessed of such undeniable charisma that the James Bond producers tried to hire him to replace Sean Connery, despite him being as American as a pickup truck with a gun rack. (Reynolds passed, and later admitted what a big mistake that was.) He had raw talent to spare, which he discovered, in perfect Reynolds fashion, practically by accident: After the premature end of his football career at Florida State, he found himself taking junior college English classes and his teacher insisted on putting him on stage.
I thought of the Tonight Show clip — one of many appearances where he and Carson couldn’t stop laughing in the other’s presence — and the blooper reel because they do a better job of capturing exactly why Reynolds was as big a star he was, for as long as he was. He only starred in a handful of movies that were genuinely great (and only some of them even aspired to be, as opposed to the stuntman dramedy Hooper, which was a simple idea executed with enormous affection for the subject). He picked a lot of bad projects even at his peak, and no star of his stature in the last 50 years more obviously betrayed his discomfort or boredom when he didn’t like the movie he was in. (Or, at times, the scene he was in during a movie he otherwise seemed to enjoy.)
But that transparency was of a piece with his talk show appearances, with that blooper reel, his classic naked centerfold in a 1972 issue of Cosmopolitan, and the rest of the Burt Reynolds package. We loved him because he commanded the screen, but also because he never tried to hide when he just didn’t care, nor when the only thing that mattered to him — which was often — was goofing off.
No one’s trying very hard in Cannonball Run (even if it’s Dunkirk compared to Cannonball Run II), yet that blooper reel felt worth the price of admission. Reynolds’ inability to control himself is infectious (it’s a wonder poor Dom DeLuise was able to speak again after that), and the joy of it recasts the entire film as exactly what it was: an excuse for the biggest movie star in the world to relax, hang out with as many equally famous pals (including Roger Moore, who wasn’t dumb enough to turn down 007), and enjoy themselves doing it.
When Reynolds’ movie career was really coming into shape in the early Seventies, he still had that halfback’s physique revealing nearly as much of him onscreen — Gunsmoke had made sure to show off his arms whenever possible, and he spends most of Deliverance in a half-unzipped wetsuit — as that Cosmopolitan spread. And what he lacked in finesse, he made up for in the kind of brute force that made him the latest guy to be labeled the Next Brando. (It was his turn before it was Sylvester Stallone’s.) He could have leaned into those expectations, but he had no interest in it. (Even years later, when Paul Thomas Anderson tried to turn him back into a serious actor with Boogie Nights, Reynolds seemed unimpressed, even though his performance in the movie’s terrific — a rare time his disdain was kept under wraps.)
Reynolds just wanted to have a good time — and, in the process, to give the audience one. Early in The Longest Yard, where he plays disgraced ex-quarterback Paul Crewe, Reynolds sported a shaggy hairstyle and a floppy mustache, uncharacteristic for him back then, but meant to symbolize how Crewe had turned into a caricature of himself. Within a few years, this was Reynolds’ trademark look, worn most famously as the eponymous smuggler in the Smokey and the Bandit films. It became sexy because it was Burt Reynolds sporting it, but there was also the sense of him leaning into his own ridiculousness.
He liked to be comfortable, which did the same for his fans. He worked with the same actors (DeLuise, Sally Field, Charles Durning) as often as he could. He agreed to do the first Smokey on the condition that his former stunt double and close friend Hal Needham make his directorial debut with it; Needham would direct six different Reynolds films, through the end of both their career peaks. When Reynolds returned to TV as a small-town football coach in the ’90s CBS sitcom Evening Shade, the cast was loaded with former co-stars like Charles Durning and Marilu Henner.
Reynolds didn’t invent the idea of famous people having a laugh on a movie studio’s dime — the Cannonball Run films brought in Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and (very briefly) Frank Sinatra, whose Rat Pack gave the world the original Ocean’s 11 — but he built more of his career and his whole star persona around it than anyone else. The old line about how men want to be him and women want to be with him rarely applied as universally as it did to him, as much for when he and Carson would act tipsy on The Tonight Show as for all those hit movies.
He was a movie star who loved being one and never felt the need to apologize for it. Rest in peace, Bandit. We’ll try to have a laugh for you.