This year's screening list for the San Diego International Film Festival arrived, and it was my task to choose an interview subject. I dreamed big. Remember, this is the same organization that in the past delivered on Alan Arkin and Susan Sarandon.
I found a winner in the cast of Dog Years. “Burt Reynolds?” came the publicist’s reply. “Really?” Even she was impressed by my taste. Okay, hot shot. Here is your chance to shine. I’ll hang up and wait for my rejection slip.
A 7 p.m. spin of the dial that night stopped on Antenna TV where Reynolds was seen sandwiched between an egg-hurling Dom DeLuise and a pantsless, half-snockered Art Carney. That night’s rerun of The Tonight Show was a good sign.
A week later comes a succinct voicemail from festival publicist Susan Clausen. “Scott… It’s going to happen.”
There was one more obstacle in the path to confirmation. Reynolds resides in South Florida, where Hurricane Irma left him without power for days. At first a bit distant and frail-sounding, the 82-year-old actor’s voice grew stronger as the conversation progressed. He shrugged off any talk of hurricanes with, “They don’t bother me too much. The shakiest I think was when I was about 16. My dad was the chief of police. The eye of the hurricane came right over where we lived. I was out riding my bicycle having the best time and all of a sudden his police car pulled up and my dad yelled, ‘Get in the car and stop gawking!’
"That was the closest I’d come to actually being in one. If I’d have gone any further on my bicycle, I wouldn’t have gotten back.”
For years Reynolds was a top box-office attraction The second act of his life is best chalked up to bad career choices. Talk of a third-act revival surrounding his Oscar-nominated performance in Boogie Nights (1997) never materialized. IMDB credits the actor with consistent work, but it has been ages since last we saw the actor’s face splashed across a San Diego movie screen. Try The Dukes of Hazzard over a decade ago.
His was the first generation of movie stars to grow up on Hollywood movies. Reynolds arrived on the scene at the dawn of Hollywood’s nostalgic period. His reverence for the Golden Age of the studio system permeated the work. The whipped-cream schtick that he and Johnny Carson famously engaged in was 100 percent Laurel and Hardy. Check out his introductory shot in Fuzz, a relatively minor cop picture and his last stop before superstardom. Seated opposite a jail cell, the camera turns to reveal Reynolds, his hat brim flipped up and screaming John Wayne in Rio Bravo.
A recent article in the New York Post claims that millennials have turned their back on classic Hollywood. The news doesn’t please Reynolds, who replies, “That’s too bad. There’s a bunch of actors now that really don’t give a shit about old films and old actors… of which I am one. Once in awhile you’ll get a kid who loves film, who knows your movies and wants to talk about them. But not nearly as much as it used to be.”
Reynolds landed the part in Deliverance after director John Boorman saw him fill in for Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show. When people ask who the best director he ever worked with is, Reynolds always answers, “Johnny Carson. This is generally followed by a long pause like they’re trying to figure out how the hell this makes sense. I wouldn’t have had the career that I did were it not for Johnny Carson. I learned so much working with him.”
My personal Reynolds bandwagon began construction somewhere around the time of his long-forgotten 1966 TV series, Hawk. I remember theatrical visits to 100 Rifles (more for Raquel Welch than for Reynolds) and Sam Whiskey when they opened, but not Shark. This is as obscure as it gets, but I could not pass up the opportunity to ask Reynolds about his time spent in the presence of auteurial angel, Sam Fuller. Actors who worked with Fuller describe him as a character, a Hollywood maverick and one of the most experimental directors ever to find regular work in the studio system.
“You know, he didn’t say, ‘Action!’” Reynolds says before pausing to laugh. “He shot a gun. It’s a love scene and I’m holding the girl about to say something really romantic and BANG! I said, ‘I know you do that, Sam, and everybody likes it, but I don’t. Would you mind not doing it with me?’ And he said, ‘I would. Yeah.’ He didn’t stop. I never saw him without a cigar in his mouth. And he loved talking about the Army. He always talked about the Army. My dad was quite a hero in the Army, too. We would talk about that more than anything. He was crazy. I think he had done some really wonderful work. The picture we did together wasn’t.”
Were it not for Burt Reynolds, there might never have been a Playgirl magazine. Reynolds’s infamous centerfold in a 1974 issue of Cosmopolitan is briefly mentioned in the upcoming Battle of the Sexes in which Steve Carrell impersonates Bobby Riggs’s vamp on Reynolds naked gatefold.
“Did you ever think this stuff would have survived almost 50 years, you ask?” he says with a chuckle. “Hell, I didn’t think I would survive for 50 years. That was a daring thing to do at the time. I still don’t know what the hell it was about. I was scared to death. An hour before, I went to a bar next door to where we were shooting and got loaded on booze. It was a place that had become famous, the Peppermint Lounge, where they invented the Twist [dance] and all that crap.”
Reynolds had the good fortune to work with directors including Robert Aldrich, Blake Edwards, Don Siegel, Stanley Donen, and Peter Bogdanovich. What’s the best piece of advice a director ever imparted and what was the worst?