Always having to work around the fact that people felt he looked like Marlon Brando (a fact that prevented him from appearing in the Brando film Sayonara), he kicked around in many odd jobs and as a stuntman before landing roles in late 50s TV. His stint on the show Riverboat was marked by great animosity between the star Darren McGavin and him. His three-year stay on Gunsmoke as the town blacksmith was more amiable. He toiled away in TV roles, low-budget flicks and spaghetti westerns until making a major splash in 1972 with Deliverance.
Deliverance is legendary for its "Dueling Banjos" theme music and the brutal scene of sexual assault upon Ned Beatty by two savage hillbillies. However, it’s more famous in Poseidon’s Underworld for the vision of Mr. Burt Reynolds in a zip-up, sleeveless wetsuit vest! He is, here, the epitome of masculine virility. Eventually, he is as undone by the environment as much as his friends are, but for a while there, he is the man.
Simultaneously helping to make his career as well as handcuff it was the photo spread he did in Cosmopolitan magazine. Right on the heels of his Deliverance success came a “nude” centerfold picture, meant as a takeoff on the famed Playboy centerfold, but which took off like lightning and left many viewers (and critics) unable to take him completely seriously as an actor. The result was immense popularity, but frequent critical disdain. It’s been suggested that his (by today’s standards, very innocent) centerfold spread cost him an Oscar nomination.
Game show appearances (in which he was always hilarious) and talk show appearances (ditto) did little to alter his lightweight perception, but, perhaps, by then he’d learned to just embrace his image and cash the checks that came along with being a number one box office attraction. He still, occasionally, attempted to make darker and/or more meaningful fare, but his typical films were southern-friend action flicks with plenty of car chases and brawling. Always, he could poke fun at himself as in Silent Movie where his house is a shrine to himself and his morning shower is invaded by three fellows looking to get him to star in their next film!
There was a speed bump in 1973 when a mysterious death occurred during the filming of The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing and fingers were briefly pointed his way due to some personal conflict he had had with the man, though he was eventually cleared of any involvement.
Things really hit the skids for Burt when he injured his jaw badly during the making of City Heat in 1984. His career already in some degree of trouble due to numbing formula and substandard content, it went completely south when he began to look terrible following this condition. Unable to chew without excruciating pain, he began to look hollow and unbecomingly thin. The AIDS epidemic was in full swing then and, to many folks recalling Rock Hudson’s decaying features, gaunt looks equaled infection. Unfounded rumors began spreading about his health.
Though he worked steadily, his films did terribly at the box office and several went straight-to-video, which, back then, was considered almost as low as a person could get. It took a lot of endurance, patience, resilience and effort, but Reynolds eventually bounced back with the successful TV series Evening Shade, followed by some very choice supporting roles in feature films, the pinnacle being Boogie Nights, for which he finally received the elusive Oscar nomination.
Amongst all of his career highs and lows were some heavily publicized and equally rollercoaster-like romances. His two-year marriage to Judy Carne was marked by her assertions of physical and verbal abuse. A relationship with Dinah Shore (20 years his senior) was good for both of them while it lasted, but it eventually petered out. Sally Field spent several years as his girlfriend, but it didn’t seem to make it past her Oscar for Norma Rae and all the attention that provided. He seemed to have made a good match with Loni Anderson, even marrying her and adopting a son, but it ended quite messily and was a notable media frenzy at the time.
Despite his difficult and questionable love life, Burt made some extremely loyal, long-term friends and he loved to populate his films and the TV series with them whenever possible. Charles Durning, Ossie Davis, Jim Nabors, Jerry Reed and Dom DeLuise are only a few. He also included many of these people in his productions at The Burt Reynolds Dinner Theatre in Jupiter, Florida. Unknown to many folks is the fact that Reynolds maintained a deep appreciation for theatre and legitimate acting. He was also a heavy-duty fan of classic films (his childhood idol was Errol Flynn), even hosting a short-lived TV show that featured round table discussions with surviving greats and near-greats.
Burt was immortalized in a classic episode of The Golden Girls in which the ladies had intended to meet him at the premiere of his latest film, but were arrested for soliciting instead. As a tag, he appeared as himself to take Sophia to lunch (who went to the premiere when the other three were in jail) and when he asked her which one of her roommates was “the slut,” all three raised their hand and exclaimed, “I am!” This was during his rough period, physically, and he is very slender in the episode, but does manage to chomp gum throughout his appearance! His dinner theatre would be mentioned many times on the series with gag combinations such as “Mister Jamie Farr in The Caine Mutiny Court Martial” and so forth.
Mr. Reynolds continues to work very frequently and yet recently entered himself into rehab for alcohol abuse, so the highs and lows continue. It’s a shame that he felt the need to have his face augmented the way he has rather than age more along the lines of another idol of his, Cary Grant (though who else ever aged THAT well?!), but every time you think he’s through, he emerges looking better than you expected him to and doing more than you thought he could. In any case, he’s left the world not only indelible images of hot, hairy manliness, but also a resume of surprisingly varied performances if one is willing to scratch beneath the surface.