The Ups and Downs of Burt Reynolds

October 6, 2018
All movie stars have ups and downs – Reynolds, for whatever reason, seemed to have more than most.

First up – Riverboat

Reynolds would later joke it took him forever to make it as a star, but he actually had quite a quick rise to the top. He caught the acting bug at college in the mid 1950s, and soon found jobs in summer stock, the New York stage, and TV guest shots. In 1959, he was cast as the second male lead in Riverboat (1959-61), a sort of Wagon Train on water with Darren McGavin. Many articles noted Reynolds’ physical resemblance to Marlon Brando. (This was ‘50s Brando and ‘50s Reynolds, it should be noted, i.e. pre ice cream binges for Brando and moustache for Reynolds).

First down – quitting Riverboat

Reynolds was unhappy on Riverboat, disliking McGavin, the series producer and his role. Unlike colleague Clint Eastwood who was happy to guts-out Rawhide (1959-66) for eight seasons, Reynolds complained and eventually threw one of the show’s directors in a lagoon and quit the show – a remarkable action for a young actor just starting out. He spent the next few years playing guest roles on TV and had a short stint on Broadway, but it seemed his career might’ve been wrecked for good.

Second up – Gunsmoke

In 1962, Reynolds was cast in a support part in Gunsmoke (1955-75), then one of the most popular shows in the country. He played a ‘half-breed’ – the actor had some native American ancestry. He received good reviews and was a hit with the audience.

Second down – quitting Gunsmoke

Reynolds quit the show in 1965, again unhappy with being second lead. He was now established in Hollywood and was offered a series of lead roles, but for one reason or another they all had little impact: Operation CIA (1965), an early look at the Vietnam War; Navajo Joe (1966), a spaghetti Western where Reynolds played a Native American; Hawk (1966-67), a short lived TV series where he played a Native American detective in New York; Shark! (1968), a Sam Fuller adventure movie best remembered for Fuller taking his name off the credits, and a stuntman actually being killed by a shark during filming; Fade In (1968), a drama which was not released for a number of years and whose director, Judd Taylor, also took his name off the credits; Impasse (1969), a forgettable war film shot in the Philippines; Sam Whiskey (1969), a fun comic Western which flopped; 100 Rifles (1969), playing a Native American in support of Jim Brown and Raquel Welch. He turned down the Tom Skerritt role in MASH (1970) to play the lead in Skullduggery (1970) alongside Chips Rafferty, a film where the director was replaced in the first week of shooting.

So, Reynolds went back to TV with Dan August (1970-71) but that was not a ratings success either. After half a decade of flops Reynolds was, in his own words, “the best known unknown in Hollywood”.

Third up – talk shows, Dinah, Deliverance, the centrefold

Then it all turned around in the early ‘70s. Reynolds established himself as a superb talk show guest – funny, charming, self-deprecating – often making fun of his own films. He was frequently invited back on shows, and even guest hosted. One such appearance led to John Boorman casting him in Deliverance (1972), Reynolds’ first truly great movie, and a big commercial success. He was also in the public eye through two other things – a well publicised romance with the older Dinah Shore, and posing nude in Cosmopolitan. He was now a star.

Third down – accused of murder

Reynolds was cast in the male lead of The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing (1973) alongside Sarah Miles, then married to writer Robert Bolt. Miles was having an affair with her assistant David Whiting, who was jealous of Miles’ relationship with Reynolds during the film. One night after celebrating Reynolds’ birthday, Whiting assaulted Miles and she hid in Reynolds’ room; the next day Whiting was found dead, with drugs in his system and a head injury. Rumours spread like wildfire and both Miles and Reynolds were suspected of murder. In the end, an inquest found Whiting died of a self-administered drug overdose. But the scandal could have wrecked Reynolds’ career.

Fourth up – White Lightning

Reynolds’ fortunes were quickly resolved by the release of a film he made immediately prior to Cat Dancing – the car chase film White Lightning (1973), from the makers of Sam Whiskey which at one stage was going to be directed by Steven Spielberg. Spielberg dropped out and Joseph Sergeant took over, but the result was enormously popular and, even more than Deliverance, established Reynolds as a genuine box office draw. For the next decade, Reynolds playing a good ole boy behind the wheels of a car was as close a thing there was to a guaranteed box office success in Hollywood.

Fourth down – At Long Last Love and Lucky Lady

Reynolds did not want to be typecast, so he tried two films set in the ‘30s: a musical, Peter Bogdanovich’s At Long Last Love (1975), and old time comedy-drama, Lucky Lady (1975) from Stanley Donen, based on a script by Gloria Katz and Williar Hyuck which had sold for record amounts. Both of them were expensive box office fiascos which lost millions. He then made another big flop with Bogdanovich, Nickelodeon (1976).

Fifth up – good ole boy

Reynolds’ box office standing was rescued by a series of good ole boy car films: The Longest Yard (1974), WW and the Dixie Dancekings (1975), Gator (1976) which he also directed, and most of all Smokey and the Bandit (1977), directed by Hal Needham, which proved to be a box office phenomenon. Reynolds was voted the biggest star of 1977 and would stay there for the next five years.

It was the golden era of Burt Reynolds. He made all sorts of movies – sports comedies (Semi-Tough (1977)), black comedies about dying (The End (1978) which he also directed), romantic comedies (Starting Over (1979), Paternity (1981), Best Friends (1982)), tough actioners (Sharky’s Machine (1981)), heist films (Rough Cut (1981)), musicals (The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982)) – and they all made money. But underpinning them were the good ole boy car films – Hooper (1978), Smokey II (1980), The Cannonball Run (1981). These were the huge hits. Around this time Larry Gelbart said, “all you’ve got to do with a Burt Reynolds picture is keep it in focus and it’s bound to make you $50 million.”

Fifth down – the public gets sick of the good ole boy

Then in 1983 it all changed, and Reynolds went on a cold streak, the like of which few stars had encountered.  He made two good ole boy car films with Needham which underperformed: Stroker Ace (1983) and Cannonball Run II (1984). A Blake Edwards romantic comedy, The Man Who Loved Women (1983), flopped. So too did a series of tough action films: Stick (1985), Heat (1986), Malone (1987), Rent-a-Cop (1988). He directed Stick, which was slammed in public by writer Elmore Leonard and Universal forced him to reshoot the second half. Teaming with Clint Eastwood in City Heat (1984) resulted in a critical and commercial disappointment. On that film he’s injured, leading to him losing a lot of weight and rumours starting that he has AIDS. He punches out Dick Richards, (one of the) directors of Heat, and is sued. He turned down the role in Terms of Endearment (1983) that won Jack Nicholson the Oscar. He receives excellent reviews for Switching Channels (1988) and Breaking In (1989) but no one goes to see them.

Sixth up – TV comeback

So, Reynolds decides to return to TV. The mystery series BL Stryker (1989-90) only runs one season but then he does a sitcom, Evening Shade (1990-94) which is a solid success, earning Reynolds an Emmy. He’s back!

Sixth down – Unable to consolidate

But Reynolds is unable to consolidate his new status. He fights with director Henry Winkler on Cop and a Half (1993). He gives some good performances in interesting films – Citizen Ruth (1996) and Striptease (1996) – but doesn’t get the critical respect he deserves. He’s hampered by financial and publicity problems, in part stemming from a nasty divorce with Loni Anderson and a series of poor financial decisions that leads him to declare bankruptcy in 1996.

Seventh up – Boogie Nights

Reynolds gets the role of a lifetime as the director in Boogie Nights (1997). He gets unanimous critical acclaim and an Oscar nomination. He’s famously grumpy when he loses on the night to Robin Williams.

Seventh down – Again, unable to consolidate

But Reynolds again seems unable to cash in. He turns down a role in Magnolia (1999) because he doesn’t like Paul Thomas Anderson. He gets support roles in some studio films which are not hits, like Mystery Alaska (1999) and Driven (2001). More often than not he is in direct to video action films like Hard Time (1999). He tries directing again with The Last Producer (2000) but no one seems to care. Roles like The Dukes of Hazzard (2005) and the Adam Sandler remake of The Longest Yard (2005) bring some publicity but don’t seem to make much difference. He works constantly, still occasionally playing leads, but little of it seems to have impact.

Eighth up – the final years

Reynolds did end his last years on something of a career upswing. He starred in The Last Movie Star (2017), a quasi tribute to the actor. He was cast in a role in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2018) and was only a few weeks away from filming when he died.

Considering Reynolds’ career maybe he didn’t go at a bad time – he had a part in one of the biggest movies of the year on the horizon. He would’ve been hopeful of yet another Reynolds comeback. And considering his career, that would’ve been entirely possible.

RIP Burt.

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