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Reynolds, Burt (1936—)

Reynolds, Burt (1936—)

A motion picture superstar of the late 1970s and early 1980s—thanks largely to his roles in the Smokey and the Bandit and Cannonball Run movies—the affable and charming Burt Reynolds was voted the Most Popular Box Office Attraction five years in a row during this period and received nine People's Choice Awards for favorite motion picture actor and favorite all-around male entertainer. Reynolds also enjoyed a prosperous television career in series including the western Gunsmoke, the detective show Dan August, and the sitcom Evening Shade. Despite a much-publicized divorce from actress Loni Anderson that left him bankrupt, Reynolds bounced back in the late 1990s with an Oscar-nominated role in Boogie Nights.

With his dreams of a career in sports ended by a car accident, Reynolds headed to New York to break into acting and worked on Broadway. He soon landed a role on the TV series Riverboat (1959-1960), which led to a popular three-year stint on Gunsmoke (1962-1965), where he played the half-breed blacksmith Quint Asper. His husky good looks and muscular physique increased the number of female viewers and, in turn, caused the writers to contrive more opportunities for Quint to take off his shirt. Reynolds' popularity eventually led to his own short-lived detective show, Dan August (1970-1971).

Though he had been making a series of forgettable motion pictures since 1961—which Reynolds once explained "were the kind they show in prisons and airplanes, because nobody can leave"—his big movie break came in the widely praised Deliverance in 1972. The story of a group of men on a river trip who run afoul of murderous backwoods yokels, Reynolds shined as the macho leader of the group who is seriously wounded early on and must bow to the ministrations of his insecure peers.

1972 was also the year in which Reynolds agreed to appear nude in Cosmopolitan magazine, causing sales to soar. Simultaneously his private life also became increasingly public due to his involvement with a succession of women that included Kim Basinger, Candice Bergen, Catherine Deneuve, Farrah Fawcett, Sally Field, Sarah Miles, Cybill Shepherd, Dinah Shore, and Tammy Wynette. Reynolds' increasing popularity paved the way for his late-1970s fame in a series of films designed to showcase his image as a cocky, carefree, and smooth-talking charmer who wooed women and bucked authority in such films as Smokey and the Bandit (1977), Cannonball Run (1981), and Stroker Ace (1983).

Though Reynolds occasionally attempted to branch out of this mold, the success of these "lame-brained action comedies directed by and co-starring his pals"—as critic Roger Ebert characterized them—thwarted his efforts. (Intriguingly, Orson Welles once quipped that "Success is Burt Reynolds' only handicap.") Reynolds turned to directing with The End in 1978, a well-received black comedy about a man who learns he has a short time to live and determines to end his life. This was followed by the highly praised cop thriller Sharky's Machine (1981), and the comedy Paternity (1981), about a man who hires a woman to have his child.

Reynolds returned to television with the series B.L. Stryker in 1989, and on the sitcom Evening Shade from 1990 to 1994. His role as a small-town basketball coach won him both a Golden Globe and Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a comedy in 1991. Reynolds also created and toured in the one-man stage shows An Evening with Burt Reynolds in 1991 and My Life in 1992.

Despite the break-up of his second marriage to Loni Anderson (his first was to actress Judy Carne, the "sock-it-to-me" girl from TV's Laugh-In), and his subsequent declaration of bankruptcy in 1996, Reynolds returned to the big screen with his performance in Boogie Nights in 1997 as a veteran porn film director serving as a father figure to new discovery Dirk Diggler (Marky Mark). Despite losing the Best Supporting Actor Oscar to Robin Williams, Reynolds won the Golden Globe, the New York Film Critic's Circle Award, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award, and the National Society of Film Critics Award for what many critics described as an "outstanding" performance. This in turn led to further offers, including a three-picture production deal from Turner Network Television. No longer a muscled hunk, Reynolds survived in the late 1990s thanks to a quality that doesn't fade with age: good acting.

—Rick Moody

Further Reading:

Resnick, Sylvia Safran. Burt Reynolds: An Unauthorized Biography. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1983.

Reynolds, Burt. My Life. New York, Hyperion, 1994.

Smith, Lisa. Burt Reynolds. Palm Beach, Florida, Magic Light Productions, 1994.

Streebeck, Nancy. The Films of Burt Reynolds. Secaucus, New Jersey, Citadel Press, 1982.

Whitley, Dianna. Burt Reynolds: Portrait of a Superstar. New York, Grosset & Dunlap, 1979.

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