BURT REYNOLDS 1936-2018
Empire’s Features Editor Nick De Semlyen reflects on the passing of a Hollywood icon
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.