Em­pire’s Fea­tures Ed­i­tor Nick De Semlyen re­flects on the pass­ing of a Hol­ly­wood icon

Empire (UK) - - PRE.VIEW -

I’LL NEVER FORGET the time I couldn’t es­cape Burt Reynolds’ man­sion. It was a hu­mid Satur­day in late Oc­to­ber 2015, and I’d just spent one of the most sur­real morn­ings of my life as guest of the movie leg­end. Af­ter a lengthy in­ter­view in his man-cave (com­plete with ten-foot-tall Ko­diak bear) and tour of his 20-seat pri­vate movie the­atre (com­plete with prints of Dirty Harry and Blade Run­ner), I was bid good­bye and traipsed down the drive­way, which seemed to never end. Af­ter at least a mile, or so it felt, I reached the set of tow­er­ing en­trance gates, with my taxi wait­ing on the other side. Then I re­alised the gates were locked. And I had no phone re­cep­tion. So back I went, re­turn­ing all the way to Reynolds’ Mont­gomery Burns-scale abode, peek­ing through win­dows into dark­ened rooms in the hope of find­ing the star or his man­ager, the only two peo­ple who seemed to be present on the sprawl­ing es­tate. It was an un­usual mo­ment. But then, it had been an un­usual week­end.

Stars didn’t come any big­ger than Burt Reynolds. His smirk­ing, South­ern­fried, good ol’ boy per­sona, honed over a suc­ces­sion of ram­shackle movies from Smokey And The Ban­dit to The Can­non­ball Run, was com­pletely unique. His love life, with mul­ti­ple mar­riages and di­vorces, plus flings with ev­ery­one from Far­rah Fawcett to ten­nis star Chris Evert, was one of the most ac­tion-packed and tur­bu­lent in Hol­ly­wood his­tory. And the fame and for­tune he re­ceived once his ca­reer took off was of mind­bog­gling pro­por­tions.

Hence Val­halla, his home in Jupiter, Florida, and ex­actly the kind of house you ex­pect to find a Hol­ly­wood star liv­ing in. This was Reynolds’ Grace­land. His

Dol­ly­wood. A place that has seen in­de­scrib­able rev­el­ries take place, though not, it seemed, for sev­eral decades. An ul­ti­mate bach­e­lor pad, it had a heli-pad, boat dock, and in­side a sprawl­ing, ser­pen­tine model-rail­way track, which once saw trains whizzing from room to room but now sat dusty with dis­use. When I asked him why he had bought it, he shrugged and replied, “I’d just al­ways wanted one.”

Any­thing he cov­eted, it seemed, Burt Reynolds got. As a kid, he dubbed his po­lice-of­fi­cer fa­ther “Big Burt”, but he lived im­mea­sur­ably larger than his dad had, treat­ing him­self to such pos­ses­sions as a race-horse (which he named Cat Danc­ing), a writ­ing desk once owned by John Ford (“The great­est di­rec­tor there’s ever been — I don’t know how many times I’ve seen The Searchers,” he ex­plained) and even an ill-fated night­club, Burt’s Place.

There’s no doubt he was a larg­erthan-life fig­ure; pleas­ingly, even while kick­ing back at home, he was sport­ing ele­phant-skin shoes. But dur­ing my two days with him I found a much more com­plex per­son, ca­pa­ble of breezy charm but also racked with re­grets and seem­ingly gen­uinely hum­ble. His star had been on the wane for a long time, yet rather than sit­ting in his man­sion rag­ing at the light like Norma Des­mond in Sunset Boule­vard, he was giv­ing some­thing back, of­fer­ing act­ing lessons in his home town on Fri­day nights, for just $40 a class.

His pupils treated him with rev­er­ence bor­der­ing on wor­ship. “He’s a South­ern gen­tle­man all the way. He doesn’t have any airs about him,” one said. An­other ex­plained: “It’s spe­cial to us, be­cause we can touch him. I don’t like miss­ing class. I love it.”

And in re­turn, Reynolds seemed grate­ful just to have these dis­ci­ples turn up and listen to what he had to tell them from the stage. “They’ve been su­per-nice to me and I’m not sure why they are so nice,” he told me at one point, blink­ing back tears. “I’m not sure why they let me go up there.”

BURT REYNOLDS MADE few films that would bother the Cri­te­rion Col­lec­tion. The only ones that could be con­sid­ered clas­sics in the tra­di­tional sense are De­liv­er­ance (his 1972 break­through) and Boo­gie Nights (which he fa­mously dis­owned, say­ing he felt it glo­ri­fied pornog­ra­phy). But what his movies de­liv­ered in spades was fun. Whether out­run­ning the law with Sally Field in Smokey And The

Ban­dit, run­ning moon­shine in Gator or tak­ing on scowl­ing pri­son guards at foot­ball in The Long­est Yard, he be­came the ul­ti­mate movie-star rebel, cock­ing a snook at author­ity fig­ures and look­ing damn good while he did it.

He was a guy’s guy, a foot­ball cham­pion-turned-ac­tion star who ac­tu­ally did his own ac­tion. His machismo in­spired kids all over the world to im­i­tate his es­capades. It also of­ten landed him in trou­ble, such as when he cracked his tail­bone dur­ing a river stunt gone wrong on De­liv­er­ance,

or when a mist­imed chair thump on the Clint East­wood team-up City Heat,

his most se­ri­ous in­jury, forced him to stop work­ing for two years. But for Reynolds, dare-dev­ilry was as nat­u­ral as breath­ing. Many of his best friends were stunt-peo­ple, such as Hal Need­ham, with whom he made Hooper, an ex­cel­lent el­egy to those who make a liv­ing per­form­ing death-de­fy­ing feats. When I met him for the first time at the old the­atre where he held his act­ing classes, an at­tendee re­marked that he still did his own stunts. With­out miss­ing a beat, the then-79-year-old Reynolds glanced up­wards and quipped, “I’m go­ing to jump off that bal­cony.”

He was the big-screen per­son­i­fi­ca­tion of the ’70s, as much a part of the decade as Abba or macramé. But as the ’80s be­gan, things got harder for him. He al­ter­nated crime films with romantic come­dies, pro­duc­ing such stinkers as The Man Who Loved Women, Stick and Rent-a-cop and be­com­ing a fig­ure of fun. Co­me­dian Robert Wuhl quipped, “Burt Reynolds makes so many bad movies, when some­one else makes a bad movie Burt gets a roy­alty.” On Satur­day Night Live

‘Celebrity Jeop­ardy’ skits in the ’90s, Norm Mac­don­ald fa­mously spoofed him as an al­pha-male wise-ass with an enor­mous cow­boy hat, for­ever wind­ing up Will Fer­rell’s Alex Tre­bek.

Reynolds took all the rib­bing in good hu­mour, re­fus­ing to take him­self se­ri­ously. “My ca­reer is not like a reg­u­lar chart — mine looks like a heart at­tack,” he said in 2001. Never a Method ac­tor — “I told Mark Wahlberg off for it on Boo­gie Nights,” he told me in Val­halla — he acted be­cause it was fun. Yet he re­mains un­der­rated as a per­former, more in­ter­est­ing and ver­sa­tile than most give him credit for. He’s light as bub­bles in mu­si­cal com­edy The Best Lit­tle Whore­house In Texas, sen­sa­tional as a swag­ger­ing sur­vival­ist in De­liv­er­ance,

and elec­tric as a faded porn baron in Boo­gie Nights, the movie that earned him his sole Os­car nom­i­na­tion.

In 2015, Reynolds pointed out two other movies as ones of which he is es­pe­cially proud. “Start­ing Over is the clos­est to my real per­sona that I have ever played... Ev­ery­one in­volved in that got nom­i­nated. I wasn’t. Oh well. And Break­ing In was un­like any char­ac­ter I’d done: a thief who men­tors a young man to be a bet­ter thief. I like parts that sur­prise peo­ple.”

TRAG­I­CALLY, REYNOLDS’ FI­NAL role is one we’ll never see re­alised. When he died in Jupiter on 6 septem­ber, he was just weeks away from shoot­ing scenes for Quentin Tarantino’s

Once Upon A Time In Hol­ly­wood — he was set to play real-life ranch owner ge­orge spahn, who be­came en­tan­gled with mem­bers of Char­lie Man­son’s cult in the late 1960s. Pulp Fic­tion was an­other film the star had in his pri­vate col­lec­tion in Val­halla, and it’s very pos­si­ble that team­ing up with Tarantino could have given us one fi­nal great Burt Reynolds per­for­mance. In­stead, his swan­song proper has proven to be The Last Movie Star, a poignant drama about an el­derly ac­tor look­ing back at his glory days. It’s well worth track­ing down.

For a long time Reynolds was a man driven by im­pulse: wom­an­is­ing and rac­ing cars and buy­ing houses to his heart’s con­tent. But as he got older he be­came more re­flec­tive, writ­ing two bru­tally hon­est mem­oirs, My Life and

But Enough About Me, and be­com­ing can­did about his short­com­ings. To the end he pined for one-time lover sally Field, telling me, “I was so busy I re­ally didn’t take the time for my­self or oth­ers in my life... sure, the work­ing was fun, but I re­ally should’ve taken more time to be with sally. I regret that to this day.” And he of­ten thought about the films he turned down that could have trans­formed his ca­reer, from Die Hard to The God­fa­ther, but most no­tably, for him, Terms Of En­dear­ment. “Jim Brooks wrote the part of gar­rett Breedlove for me,” he said. “I made

Stro­ker Ace in­stead.”

But even with all the things that could have been but weren’t, Reynolds leaves be­hind an in­cred­i­ble legacy. There’s the slew of shaggy ac­tion flicks that will be in­spir­ing wannabe Ban­dits for gen­er­a­tions to come. There’s the im­pact he had on the movies, from mak­ing mous­taches cool again to redefin­ing what an ac­tion star should be. And then, of course, there’s Val­halla, with its end­less drive­way — the now-empty home of the kind of star they don’t make any­more.

Left: Burt Reynolds, pho­tographed ex­clu­sively for Em­pire at the Burt Reynolds In­sti­tute for Film & The­atre, Florida, on 2 Oc­to­ber 2015 by Steve Schofield.

Clock­wise from above:

Star man: As Ban­dit in 1977’s Smokey And The Ban­dit; Paul Crewe in The Long­est Yard (1974); Vic Ed­wards in last year’s The Last Movie Star; Lewis inDe­liv­er­ance (1972); Jack Horner in 1997’sBoo­gie Nights: some of Reynold’s most iconic roles.

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