Macho Star Burt Reynolds Dies at 82
By Laurence Arnold
Burt Reynolds, who flaunted his macho, hirsute good looks in a steamy Cosmopolitan centerfold, high-profile romances and a string of hit movies that showcased his flirtatious charms, has died. He was 82.
The Associated Press reported his death, citing his agent. No details were provided.
Few actors rivaled Reynolds’ box-office appeal during a prolific run, starting in the 1970s, when he starred in “Deliverance,” “The Longest Yard,” “Smokey and the Bandit,” and “Starting Over.” The films established Reynolds as a likable, adventurous rogue with an easy laugh and a twinkle in his eye.
On television, he starred in the CBS series “Evening Shade” from 1990 to 1994, winning an Emmy Award in 1991 for outstanding lead actor in a comedy.
A series of flop movies dimmed Reynolds’ Hollywood star before his performance as a pornographic-film producer in “Boogie Nights” (1997) earned him an Academy Award nomination as best supporting actor.
His most famous appearance may have been in the centerfold of the April 1972 issue of Cosmopolitan magazine, in which he was photographed reclining nude on a bearskin rug, his private attributes covered only by his left arm.
The photo shoot stemmed from an impromptu showdown of the sexes between Reynolds and editor Helen Gurley Brown when both were on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson. Brown challenged Reynolds to pose, centerfold-style, in her magazine.
“I thought it would be a kick,” Reynolds told the New York Times in 1972. “I have a strange sense of humor.”
Intended as a satire of Playboy, the centerfold became a popular poster, a symbol of the sexual revolution of the 1970s and, according to Reynolds, an obstacle to being treated seriously as an actor. “Deliverance,” his breakout movie, hit theaters while the centerfold was still big news.
“The truth is that it hurt my career much more than it helped,” Reynolds wrote in “My Life,” his 1994 autobiography. “Despite all the worldwide publicity, I’ve always regretted” posing. He was still regretting it in 2016 when he told an audience, “I don’t know what I was thinking.”
Reynolds was married twice, to actors Judy Carne and Loni Anderson. He was reported to have had romantic relationships with celebrities including Lorna Luft, Tammy Wynette, Sally Field, Dinah Shore, Adrienne Barbeau and Chris Evert. He told Vanity Fair in 2015 that Field was the “love of my life” and he regretted their 1980s breakup.
His longtime assistant, Elaine Blake Hall, said in a 1994 memoir that his appearance was so important to him that he bought a $1,500 hairpiece every week.
His lavish spending, failed investment in a Florida restaurant chain and pricey 1994 divorce from Anderson led Reynolds to file for bankruptcy protection in 1996, claiming $10 million in debt. He emerged from bankruptcy in 1998 still owning his multimillion-dollar Florida estate, a fact that U.S. senators cited in 2001 when they sought to tighten limits on the home equity that can be shielded from creditors.
In his autobiography, Reynolds called himself “a lower-middle-class Southern boy at heart who’s been fortunate beyond his wildest dreams.”
Burton Leon Reynolds Jr. was born on Feb. 11, 1936, and raised in Lansing, Michigan. His father, Burt Sr., served in the U.S. Army and was part of the D-Day invasions of Europe during World War II. After the war, he and his wife, Fern, a nurse, moved their two children, Burt and older sister Nancy Ann, to Riviera Beach, Florida, where he became chief of police.
Known as Buddy, Reynolds played football at Florida State University until he was injured in a car accident during his sophomore year. At Palm Beach Junior College, he tried his hand at acting. His performance in “Outward Bound” won him a state drama award and a summer scholarship at Hyde Park Playhouse in New York. He then moved to New York City, where he tried his hand at television roles and stunt work and shared an apartment with another aspiring actor, Rip Torn.
Reynolds made his New York stage debut in 1957 in “Mister Roberts.” He signed a seven-year contract with Universal Studios in Hollywood in 1958 and, from 1962 to 1965, played a half-Indian blacksmith in the TV series “Gunsmoke.”
Funny and self-deprecating, he became a popular guest on TV talk shows hosted by Shore, Merv Griffin and others. Filling in one night for Carson on “The Tonight Show,” he delighted the audience by having ex-wife Carne as his guest. The next day, according to Reynolds, he got a call from director John Boorman asking him to try out for “Deliverance” (1972).
His performance in the critically acclaimed film alongside Jon Voight, Ronny Cox and Ned Beatty made him a star. He played the leader among four suburbanite friends who battle natural and human foes on a weekend canoeing trip gone wrong.
The six weeks of rehearsals and 14 weeks of filming on the Chattooga River in Georgia were “emotionally and physically grueling,” Reynolds recalled. “Like the characters we played, we had the sense of surviving something hellish, something extraordinary, something we might not ever repeat in our lives.”
The hubbub over his centerfold in Cosmopolitan wasn’t the only lament Reynolds had upon the release of “Deliverance.” He also said that his best scene, a soliloquy running almost four pages, was left on the cutting-room floor.
In “The Longest Yard” (1974), Reynolds played a wayward former star quarterback who organizes fellow prisoners into a football team to challenge the guards.
“Smokey and the Bandit” (1977), starring Reynolds as a good-old-boy beer smuggler outrunning and outwitting law enforcement, was a huge hit, second only to “Star Wars” at the box office that year. It also ignited romance between Reynolds and Field, his co-star.
Reynolds said the two proposed to each other on multiple occasions, but they never married. Reynolds used some of his $5 million payday to start construction on the Burt Reynolds Dinner Theater in Jupiter, Florida. It opened in 1979 and closed in 1989 amid Reynolds’ financial struggles. It is now the Maltz Jupiter Theater.
Time magazine featured Reynolds and his friend Clint Eastwood on its January 1978 cover as “Hollywood’s Honchos.” Reynolds, outlining the plan for his acting career, told the magazine, “My strategy is to become so bankable that they can’t ignore me.”
The remarkable five-year run that began with the 1977 releases of “Semi-Tough” and “Smokey and the Bandit” continued with “Hooper” (1978) and “Starting Over” (1979). Reynolds said he pocketed $5 million for five weeks of work on “The Cannonball Run” (1981), in which he played a former race-car driver participating in an outlaw coast-to-coast road race.
A string of box-office bombs followed, including “Stick” (1985), “Heat” (1986) and “Malone” (1987). Making matters worse, Reynolds said he turned down a role in “Terms of Endearment” (1983) because it overlapped with filming for “Stroker Ace.” The “Terms of Endearment” role went to Jack Nicholson, who went on to win the Academy Award for best supporting actor, one of the film’s five Oscars.
The 1988 marriage of Reynolds and Anderson, who had starred in CBS’s “WKRP in Cincinnati,” was banner entertainment news. People magazine reported: “After six years as Hollywood’s most monogamous unmarrieds, after repeated reports that this time they were really en route to the altar, Burt and Loni at last found a way to turn beefcake and cheesecake into wedding cake.”
The couple adopted a son, Quinton, before Reynolds filed for divorce in 1993, kicking off a bitter legal battle.