When I get asked about the difference between a film actor and a movie star, I usually bring up Burt Reynolds, who was the latter. By his own choice.
As he demonstrated in 1972’s Deliverance, in which he gave the performance of his career as macho outdoorsman Lewis, Reynolds could have been a major actor. Instead, he steered in a more commercial direction, preferring to make movies – and money – doing Cannonball Runs (I, II and III), a few Smokey and the Bandits and the occasional Hooper.
But if movie stars are measured in box office instead of awards and critical acclaim, Reynolds was a great star. From 1978 through 1982, he was the highest-grossing performer in Hollywood. His fans liked him as the swaggering, smirking, good ol’ boy, and that is what he gave them, time and again.
Reynolds died today at the age of 82, in his adopted hometown of Jupiter, where he once had a renowned dinner theater and a ranch-residence, complete with film and television production facilities.
Although he was born in Lansing, Mich. (or Waycross, Ga., depending on whom you believe), he has long been thought of as a favorite son of Palm Beach County.
His family moved here in the early ’50s, where his father became the police chief of Riviera Beach. Buddy Reynolds excelled at football at Palm Beach High School, earning a sports scholarship to Florida State. But his dream of playing pro ball was quashed by a knee injury in his first game. His affection for football would later be captured in The Longest Yard and Semi-Tough.
Returning home, he caught the acting bug in the classroom and on the stage of Palm Beach Junior College (now State College). Cast in the play Outward Bound, he won the Florida State Drama Award in 1956 and his career path was decided. Following continuing roles on TV’s Riverboat and Gunsmoke, John Boorman cast Reynolds in Deliverance (after Marlon Brando turned the role down.)
He all but put Jupiter on the map by founding his eponymous dinner theater there, which became a magnet for tour buses and his Hollywood pals, who yearned to flex their stage acting muscles far from media scrutiny. Breaking with the usual chow-and-show fare, Reynolds once mounted Arthur Miller’s classic Death of a Salesman there, with a cast headed by Vincent Gardenia and Julie Harris, staged by his favorite director, Charles Nelson Reilly. Very classy.
At the dinner theater, he gave internships to promising young actors and writers, which grew into the Burt Reynolds Institute for Theatre Training (BRITT). When I first moved down to South Florida in the early ’90s, it was hard to take seriously a conservatory with Reynolds’s name on it, but I soon became a believer. Often when he was in town, he would call over to the institute and arrange for a midnight acting class that he would teach. It may not have been compatible with his laid-back star persona, but I observed what a knowledgeable and sensitive instructor and acting coach Reynolds could be.
I also learned firsthand how fiercely loyal he could be to his friends who would fly in to the area to help out his institute. When the mayor of West Palm Beach lobbied Reynolds to move BRITT to her town, he called on his longtime friend Ann-Margret to appear at the new theater’s opening with him in the two-character play, Love Letters.
Alas, she had never been in a live stage play before and that mean Palm Beach Post theater critic – OK, yes, me – gave her some career counseling in print. The day after the review ran, Reynolds called me at home, redressed me for my uncharitable words and implored me to return to the theater that night to see it again and change my opinion.
Reynolds eventually earned an Oscar nomination playing porn director Jack Horner in 1997’s Boogie Nights. Had he not turned down other iconic roles, there is no telling how crowded his mantelpiece would be. He passed on playing Star Wars’ Han Solo (which of course went to a young Harrison Ford), astronaut Garrett Breedlove in Terms of Endearment (Jack Nicholson), cop John McClain in Die Hard (Bruce Willis), Randall P. McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Nicholson again) and wealthy Edward Lewis in Pretty Woman (Richard Gere).
Such missed opportunities to show his acting mettle were acknowledged by Reynolds in his autobiography, But Enough About Me. He conceded that he didn’t open himself to “risky parts because I wasn’t interested in challenging myself as an actor. I was interested in having a good time.”
That he apparently had, and he certainly also gave a good time to his moviegoing fans.