Burt Reynolds Was My Friend

With the passing of Burt Reynolds another age of Hollywood comes to an end. I had the chance to see Reynolds in person earlier this year, at the Egyptian Theater during a double feature of his masterpieces Smokey and the Bandit and Hooper, and at 82 he had the same kind of charm and warmth that made him such a great movie star.

But there was something else to Reynolds that separated him from other stars of his period, and other stars that came before him. You see, Burt Reynolds was my friend. No, I never met him. I never exchanged messages or phone calls with him. I’m not even sure I ever attended the same event that he did, at least until that night at the Egyptian. But he was my friend nonetheless, and that was the quality that made him so endearing to a whole generation.

I’m not sure any other movie star before or since understood how to play to the camera the way Reynolds did at his prime, for about five to seven years in the late 70s (the years he was with Sally Field, the prime years of his life). There was an intimacy between Reynolds and the camera, and sometimes in his movies that intimacy would become explicit as he would look right into the lens and smile and wink at us.

As far as I know the first time he did that in film was in 1977’s Smokey and the Bandit (his infamous Cosmopolitan spread from 1972 proves he was already making that connection through the still camera). As he told it at the Egyptian, director and stunt legend Hal Needham didn’t want him to do it, but Burt did it anyway. The second it happened – the second he gave that Bugs Bunny “Ain’t I a stinker?” look into the camera, it was clear that it was the right decision. It was the only decision.

Sitting at home as a kid, watching these movies on TV and on VHS these moments were like secret messages directly to me. I was being acknowledged; suddenly the screen was a two-way device. For a generation that has come up with social media this might not be so revelatory, but in the old days we simply didn’t interact with the famous people who entertained us. We got glimpses of them on Carson (where Reynolds was an absolute natural), but they were distant figures, living mythical lives in Hollywood. By looking at the camera and winking, or as he did at the end of Hooper smiling and giving a big “OK” sign, Reynolds demolished that distance.

I remember rewinding the bloopers in the credits for Cannonball Run again and again, marveling at the behind-the-scenes camaraderie and joy. This was fun, and I was included. I remember being invested in the friendship of Reynolds and Dom DeLuise, and as a fat kid I loved that he loved this fat man. Burt Reynolds, sex symbol and movie star, hung around with this silly fat guy and cracked wise back and forth with him. Reynold’s sense of humor was influential on me, and the pitch-dark tone of his suicide comedy The End spoke to me as a kid (I haven’t revisited that one in a long, long time, so I make no promises as to how it holds up, but I found it both moving and hilarious back in the day).

But it wasn’t just when Reynolds broke the fourth wall that he connected with us; he always had an easygoing vibe where he was kind of playing Burt Reynolds, but Burt Reynolds as moonshine runner or Burt Reynolds as stunt man or Burt Reynolds as Goldie Hawn’s best friend or whatever. This isn’t to say he wasn’t a good actor – watch Deliverance and see one of the great performances of the 70s – but to say that he understood how a movie star moves through  the culture. Each of those roles – The Bandit, Hooper, Stroker Ace, JJ McClure – are different guys, but each has the charm and swagger of Burt Reynolds running through them.

Reynolds was also sensitive and vulnerable at a time when that maybe wasn’t too cool. His characters could be silly and be upstaged, could get beat up, could be made fools of, especially by the feisty women in their lives. His characters were romantics all, and his best movies found Reynolds conflicted between a life of juvenile freedom and the love of a good woman.

The good woman was often Sally Field. That romantic quality that Reynolds brought to these good-natured tough guys was drawn from his real life. In his final years Reynolds had been quite open about the fact that Field was the love of his life, and the one who got away. He talked about the regret he felt that he had squandered that relationship, and the sadness and loss he expressed made him so much more human – especially after a couple of decades where he had seemed to disappear into self-parody. The famous late-period Reynolds story is that he fired his agent after Boogie Nights, thinking the film was an abomination. Anyone who has seen that movie knows that Reynolds never lost his ability to play to the camera, it was only that he could no longer see how well it worked. With Boogie Nights he transitioned from friend to father figure, a role I wish he had been able to exploit more in bigger films than he ended up making.

When I saw Burt Reynolds earlier this year he talked about how all his friends had died, how he was one of the last of the gang left. He was clearly ready to take his next steps in the universe, and now he has. But I do hope that he understood that his friends hadn’t all died. I hope he understood that there was a whole generation of people who watched his movies and connected with him and felt, through the screen and across distance and time, that he was their friend.