Burt Reynolds: Florida running back turned Hollywood actor

After Reynolds's death last week he was honoured by his old college football team

American actor Burt Reynolds holds a helmet while standing in a ‘Mean Machine’ football jersey in a still from the film, The Longest Yard, directed by Robert Aldrich, 1974. Photo: Paramount Pictures/Courtesy of Getty Images

American actor Burt Reynolds holds a helmet while standing in a ‘Mean Machine’ football jersey in a still from the film, The Longest Yard, directed by Robert Aldrich, 1974. Photo: Paramount Pictures/Courtesy of Getty Images

 

Burt Reynolds loved to tell a story about the making of Semi-Tough, the 1977 movie in which he played the fictional NFL quarterback Billy Clyde Puckett. At the start of rehearsals, as the cast were putting on pads and helmets to work out realistic on-field action scenes opposite a galaxy of grid-iron greats, Reynolds gave his co-star Kris Kristofferson sage advice. Whatever else, he was never to tell the professional athletes that he played in college and had once shown genuine potential. This was Reynolds’ second football film and he knew nothing annoyed them more.

Moments later, Hollywood Henderson and Too Tall Jones, the most feared Dallas Cowboys’ linebackers, approached the actors and Kristofferson immediately began to talk about how he had been a promising defensive end at Pomona College, one who might indeed have made it to the pros if his sporting ambitions weren’t derailed by a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford University. Reynolds winced. He knew what was coming next. In the very first play, the Cowboys’ terrifying tandem went off-script and converged on Kristofferson, crumpling him in a heap and causing him to be carried from the field.

The irony of the incident is that Reynolds had a genuine athletic pedigree himself. As a highly-touted teen running back out of Palm Beach High School, he was recruited by the Florida State University Seminoles, where an impressive debut season was cut short by the kind of knee injury that in the mid-fifties spelled the premature end of too many careers. His comeback culminated in an embarrassing performance against North Carolina State after which he told his room-mates his future lay elsewhere.

“I said, ‘I think I’m leaving because I’m not the ballplayer I was and I hate to see the hole open and I’m a step slower,’” said Reynolds. “I said to them, ‘I’m going to go off to Hollywood and become a movie star.’ And instead of them laughing hysterically as they should have done ... they said, ‘Well, call us when you do.’”

Burt Reynolds waves to the crowd upon his arrival with his wife Loni Anderson at the 44th Annual Emmy Awards in Pasadena in 1992. Photo: Vince Bucci/Getty Images
Burt Reynolds waves to the crowd upon his arrival with his wife Loni Anderson at the 44th Annual Emmy Awards in Pasadena in 1992. Photo: Vince Bucci/Getty Images

He stayed in contact with some of them for the next 60 years and remained so committed to the college cause that his helicopter would, up to quite recently, land on the team’s training fields so he could watch the current crop working out.

At the height of his cinematic success in the late 1970s, the demands of being the world’s biggest grossing star for four consecutive years, meant it was often difficult to get to games. Watching the team on television, he reckoned the Seminoles’ uniforms were too drab so he asked a Hollywood costume designer to rethink the colour scheme. They tinkered with the jersey and added all gold pants. Flashy. As might have been expected. “If you like ‘em, wear ‘em,” read the note Reynolds attached to a crate of entirely new gear that he had shipped to campus. They did.

Not long after that, he became a minority owner of the Tampa Bay Bandits in the United States Football League, the short-lived, upstart competitor to the NFL. Having paid nothing for his share, Reynolds lent the full weight of his celebrity to the club, arriving to one game in a stage coach, regularly bringing a raft of famous actors and actresses with him to matches, and gifting the players gold belt buckles and team jackets that had “With Love, Burt Reynolds” stitched inside. When the USFL eventually folded, Reynolds had been hands-on enough to know who to blame.

“In my opinion, it was Donald Trump’s fault that the USFL didn’t survive,” wrote Reynolds in his 2015 autobiography, But Enough About Me. “Now, don’t get me wrong. I like Donald. I hold on to my wallet when we shake hands but I like him. I just think his personal ambition sank the USFL. He was interested in only two things, money and publicity… I pray he never gets the chance to do the USA what he did to the USFL.”

While most obituaries have concentrated on his body of work, bizarre career decisions like turning down the parts of Han Solo and Michael Corleone, and later bankruptcies, sport coursed through Reynolds’ life on and off the screen. As you might expect from somebody one critic dubbed “a charmingly preposterous icon of American masculinity”. Aside from his star turn as jailed quarterback Paul Crewe in The Longest Yard, he dabbled in boxing. He headed up a consortium, also including Lee Majors, that bankrolled a struggling black middleweight named Andy “The Hawk” Price, and was involved in the campaign to exonerate Rubin “Hurricane” Carter.

There was a flirtation with NASCAR too. In partnership with legendary stuntman Hal Needham and Paul Newman, he owned a team that they called, of course, Skoal-Bandit. The passion for cars also spawned another movie, a rather forgettable comedy about a racecar driver named “Stroker Ace” who, the poster claimed, was “Hot on the track and off!”

A Florida State Seminoles Helmet with the decal ‘BAN ONE’ honoring alumnus actor Burt Reynolds. Photo: Don Juan Moore/Getty Images
A Florida State Seminoles Helmet with the decal ‘BAN ONE’ honoring alumnus actor Burt Reynolds. Photo: Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

Forty-eight hours after the most famous former Seminole of all died at the age of 82 last week, Florida State took the field with a decal on every helmet of the “BAN ONE” licence plate from the Pontiac Trans Am driven by The Bandit as he tormented Sheriff Buford T. Justice all the way from Texarkana to Atlanta. On Monday afternoon, JJ Yeley had his vehicle painted black and decked out in Bandit livery for NASCAR’s Brickyard 400.

Most fitting epitaphs for a good ole boy.

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