Burt Reynolds $5 million cannonball runAs a youth, Reynolds attended Palm Beach High School. He was a keen student and graduated from high school in 1954. He was a good high school student, and an outstanding athlete; he particularly excelled at football, and won a football scholarship to Florida State University. He went on to become an All Star Southern Conference halfback, and could well have taken up a career as a professional sportsman.
Indeed, he had already attracted the attention of the Baltimore Colts, who’d reserved a place for him in their training programme, when the double blow of a serious car accident and knee injury sadly put paid to his sporting hopes. Reynolds studied drama at high school, and won a scholarship to a summer school acting programme in Hyde Park, New York. At this stage, he didn’t have any serious idea of becoming an actor - but whilst in New York, he’d had the good fortune to meet Joanne Woodward, who suggested that he should get an agent. After college, he returned to New York, to pursue his newfound acting ambitions in earnest.
When he was starting out in New York, Reynolds followed the traditional aspiring actor’s path of working in restaurants and bars in order to earn a living, whilst he scored the occasional small TV or theatre role. Eventually, things began to improve when he was spotted in a New York production of 'Mister Roberts', and was offered a TV contract. He began to appear on TV quite regularly, mostly in Western series such as 'Gun Smoke' (1955) and 'Riverboat' (1959). Eventually, he landed his first feature role in a movie called 'Angel Baby', in 1961.
It wasn’t until the 1970s that Burt Reynolds really became a big-time star, when he played the role of Lewis Medlock in the backwoods horror film, 'Deliverance' in 1972. The film tells the story of a trip up country that goes terribly, terribly wrong; interestingly, Reynolds only got the part because several other actors, including Marlon Brando and Henry Fonda, had turned it down after they’d been briefed on the risks of the Chatooga River, where much of the movie was filmed!
Deliverance was a huge box-office hit, and firmly established Reynolds as a leading Hollywood actor. From then on, he was offered bigger and better film roles, and the fees he was able to command began to soar. Among the hit movies he made during the 1970s were the Woody Allen comedy, 'Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sex, But Were Afraid To Ask' (1972) and 'Shamus' (1973), where he played a down-to-earth private investigator. Reynolds began to establish something of a reputation for playing “southern boys” who outwit the police, becoming highly popular for films such as 'White Lightning' (1973) and 'The Longest Yard' (1974).
Reynolds’ most successful film ever was 'Smokey and the Bandit', which was made in 1977. This film was directed by Hal Needham, and co-starred Sally Field, Reynolds’ longtime girlfriend, and actor Jerry Reed. The movie netted over $100 million at the box office, and was swiftly followed up by two sequels, made in 1980 and 1983 respectively. Smokey And The Bandit marked the beginning of Burt Reynolds’ most successful period of film-making. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, Reynolds was reported to be highest paid actor in Hollywood for five years running, a record which has to this day only been surpassed by Tom Cruise.
The early 1980s were marked by a string of hit movies for Burt Reynolds, including 'Sharky’s Machine' (1981), 'The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas' (1982), where he co-starred with Dolly Parton, followed by 'City Heat' in 1984, co-starring Clint Eastwood, and 'Cannonball Run' (1981), for which his salary cheque was a staggering $5 million! From this point onwards, however, Reynolds' popularity began to wane, and the films that he was now making, such as 'Stick and Stroker Ace', failed to achieve the box office success that he’d achieved in the 1970s with such movies as Deliverance and Smokey And The Bandit. At one point, he attempted to make a comeback with a film called 'Heat' (1986), directed by the renowned Robert Altman. But sadly, Altman fell out with the movie’s producer, Eliott Kastner, left the project, and the film fared poorly at the box office.
Undaunted, Reynolds turned his attention back to the small screen, and appeared in two very popular TV shows in the late 1980s, namely 'B L Stryker' and 'Evening Shade' (1990), which earned him a highly-coveted Emmy award. Reynolds kept on working and by 1996, his performances once again attracted favourable reviews from the critics. He was highly acclaimed for his portrayal of a drunken and corrupt politician in 'Striptease' (1996), which was swiftly followed by his appearance as porn movie director in 'Boogie Nights' (1997). Although Reynolds didn’t like the finished film, it earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
Once again he was back in the public spotlight and discovered that he’d acquired a whole new circle of movie fans, just like his glory days in the 1970s when he’d been something of a sex symbol. His films continued to be popular throughout the late 1990s and after 2000. His most popular recent movies include 'Mystery Alaska' (1999), 'Pups' (1999), 'Driven' (2001) and 'Time of The Wolff' (2002).
One of more unusual aspects of Burt Reynolds’ film career is the fact that he is almost as famous for the roles that he has either lost or turned down during the course of his 40-odd years as an actor. Back in 1968, he auditioned for a role in Roman Polanski’s horror film, 'Rosemary’s Baby', but lost the part to John Cassavetes. During the 1970s, he was reportedly Milos Forman’s first choice for the lead role in 'One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest', which was made in 1975, but the film’s production company, United Artists, believed that Reynolds’ popularity might cause the film to be taken less seriously. The role was eventually given to Jack Nicholson, who went on to win an Oscar for Best Actor for the film. Next, he turned down the role of Han Solo in 'Star Wars' in 1977. During the 1970s, he also turned down the part of James Bond on more than one occasion. He is on record as saying to producer Cubby Broccoli: “An American can’t play James Bond, it just can’t be done!”
Reynolds lost out to Jack Nicholson once again in 1983 when he turned down the part of Garrett Breedlove, the amorous astronaut in James L. Brook’s movie, 'Terms of Endearment'. Reynolds was the director’s first choice for the role but the part went to Jack Nicholson again, who won a second Oscar for his performance in the movie, this time for Best Supporting Actor. Reynolds is on record as saying that he regards this refusal as one of the most terrible mistakes he has ever made in his career. In 1988, he turned down the role of John McClane in 'Die Hard', which cleared the way for Bruce Willis, who has since achieved major critical success with the role.
Reynolds' personal life has suffered as many ups and down as his career. He was famously involved with actress Dinah Shore for several years, who was 20 years his senior. He was then married to actress Judy Carne from 1963 until 1965, before it ended in a very bitter and acrimonious divorce. A long-term relationship with fellow actress Sally Field followed and the couple were involved for many years but eventually broke up because Field kept refusing his proposals of marriage. He subsequently married Loni Anderson in 1988, and the couple adopted a son called Quinton. After the marriage floundered in 1993, Reynolds was quoted as saying, “I’m paying the third highest alimony in the world, and the only two people ahead of me are sheikhs!” In 1998, he became engaged to former waitress Pam Seals.
If there’s one thing that Burt Reynolds 40-year career has categorically proved, it’s that persistence and staying power are every bit as important as natural skill and acting talent! So there’s surely little doubt that we’ll be enjoying Reynolds’ performances for many years to come…