Burt Reynolds obituary: Self-mocking Hollywood heartthrob famed for car chase movies

Successful actor most respected for role in ‘Deliverance’

Burt Reynolds polishes his star in the Hollywood Walk of Fame: best-known for roles in “Deliverance”, “Boogie Nights” and  “Smokey and the Bandit” Photograph: AP Photo

Burt Reynolds polishes his star in the Hollywood Walk of Fame: best-known for roles in “Deliverance”, “Boogie Nights” and “Smokey and the Bandit” Photograph: AP Photo

 

Burt Reynolds, the wryly appealing Hollywood heartthrob who carried on a long love affair with moviegoers even though his performances were often more memorable than the films that contained them, died on Thursday in Jupiter, Florida. He was 82.

A self-mocking charmer with laugh-crinkled dark eyes, a rakish moustache and a hairy chest that he often bared onscreen, Reynolds did not always win the respect of critics. But for many years he was ranked among the top 10 movie draws worldwide, and from 1978 to 1982 he ruled the box office as few, if any, stars had done before.

From car-crash comedies like Smokey and the Bandit to romances like Starting Over to the hit television series Evening Shade, Reynolds delighted audiences for four decades, most often playing a good-hearted good ol’ boy seemingly not that different from his offscreen self.

Throughout an often-turbulent career that spanned some 100 films and countless television appearances, he had close brushes with death, some resulting from his insistence on doing many of his own dangerous stunts. He braved the raging rapids of the Chattooga river between Georgia and South Carolina for a favourite role, as one of four suburbanite buddies who undertake a journey into America’s heart of darkness, in Deliverance (1972).

A decade later, he battled an addiction to prescription medication after his jaw was shattered in a fight scene, an accident that left him wizened and led to false whispers that he was dying of Aids.

Volatile temperament

Fellow actors praised Reynolds as an exacting artist who worked hard at his craft and fought to overcome many demons, including a volatile temperament. But he himself projected an air of insouciance and professed not to take his career too seriously. He told the New York Times in 1978, “I think I’m the only movie star who’s a movie star in spite of his pictures, not because of them; I’ve had some real turkeys.”

To many in Hollywood, Reynolds was an enigma. Tormented by self-doubt – he particularly disliked hearing how much he resembled the young Marlon Brando – he was also strong-willed, clashing often with directors and producers. For much of his career he accepted roles, he admitted, “that would be the most fun, not the most challenging”, while turning down more substantive parts, like the one in Terms of Endearment that led to an Academy Award for Jack Nicholson.

Reynolds never won an Oscar, although he was nominated for best supporting actor (and won a Golden Globe) for his performance as a paternalistic director of pornographic movies in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1997 Boogie Nights.

“I once said I’d rather have a Heisman Trophy than an Oscar,” Reynolds, who played football in college, later wrote. “I lied.”

Burton Leon Reynolds jnr, originally called Buddy to distinguish him from his father, was born in Lansing, Michigan, on February 11th, 1936, and grew up in Riviera Beach, Florida, where his father was police chief. Many biographical sources say Reynolds was born in Waycross, Georgia, but in his 2015 memoir, But Enough About Me (written with Jon Winokur), he said he had told that to interviewers to distance himself from his northern roots. “I grew up a southern boy who didn’t want to be a Yankee,” he wrote.

Universal Studios

Reynolds signed a seven-year contract with Universal Studios in 1958 and was cast in a new NBC series, Riverboat, starring Darren McGavin. He returned to New York in 1961 for what turned out to be a brief run on Broadway in the play Look, We’ve Come Through and then went back to Hollywood to play a half-Indian blacksmith on the long-running CBS western Gunsmoke.

Burt Reynolds and ex-wife Loni Anderson: Reynolds made enough money to buy a Hollywood mansion, a private aircraft and a dinner theatre. Photograph: Anne Ryan/South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Burt Reynolds and ex-wife Loni Anderson: Reynolds made enough money to buy a Hollywood mansion, a private aircraft and a dinner theatre. Photograph: Anne Ryan/South Florida Sun-Sentinel

His career did not take off until he became a regular on the talk-show circuit in the early 1970s, drawing laughs as the guest of Johnny Carson, Merv Griffin and others by self-effacingly presenting himself as, in his words, “the most well-known unknown”.

His appearance in Deliverance in 1972 – his first substantial role in a major movie – was a turning point in his career. Almost simultaneously he became something of a pop-culture punchline.

His star turn in the film was critically praised and prompted talk of a possible Oscar nomination. That he did not get one was attributed by some, including Reynolds himself, to his decision to pose artfully nude as a centrefold in an issue of Cosmopolitan magazine that was published at roughly the same time the movie was released. The photo was a sensation, but the image it projected made it harder for Hollywood to take him seriously as an actor.

“It was really stupid. I don’t know what I was thinking,” Reynolds said in 2016. “I really wish I hadn’t done that.”

He nonetheless worked steadily for the next decade; he made more than 20 movies between 1973 and 1982, most of them hits. By the end of the decade, Reynolds had made enough money to buy a Hollywood mansion, a private aircraft and a dinner theatre in Jupiter, Florida.

‘Smokey and the Bandit’

Reynolds took on one of his defining roles in 1977, when he played a daredevil driver who leads the law on a madcap chase from Texas to Georgia in Smokey and the Bandit, a box-office smash that spawned two sequels (although Reynolds made only a cameo appearance in the third Smokey film) and ignited a romance between Reynolds and his co-star, Sally Field.

“One of the things people say about Smokey is that you watch two people fall in love on the screen,” Reynolds wrote in But Enough About Me, “and it’s true”.

Although he once called Field “the love of my life”, their relationship ended after a few years.

By the time he returned to the cars-as-stars genre as a stock-car racer in Stroker Ace (1983), another Hal Needham film, his career had peaked. Vincent Canby of the Times called it “the must-miss movie of the summer” and this time audiences agreed.

Reynolds and his Stroker Ace co-star, Loni Anderson, began living together in 1984 and wed in 1988. The marriage ended in 1993, in acrimony unusual even by Hollywood standards. Two decades later, the acrimony remained. “The truth is,” Reynolds wrote in 2015, “I never did like her.”

Survivors include their son, Quinton.