Burt Reynolds Hustles for TV, But Needs Broadway Workout: ‘I Think I Could

Wednesday, Oct. 22

On Thursday, Oct. 16, Burt Reynolds was in New York to see his longtime friend and Deliverance co-star Ned Beatty perform in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at the Music Box Theatre. “He was wonderful,” said Mr. Reynolds.

But the Bandit didn’t hit Manhattan just for Tennessee Williams and dinner at Sardi’s-he was also plotting his own return to Broadway after a 42-year absence.

“At this point, it’s a question of finding exactly the right time and when I’d have to go in rehearsals,” he told The Observer by phone from his home in Jupiter, Fla., the next day. “I’ve found a play I really like, and it’s a question of finding somebody else that will work with it.”

Mr. Reynolds met with the producer of a two-person comedic drama called Pitch , about a couple of television producers trying to shill a TV show. Mr. Reynolds would play an older, ethically challenged producer against an as-yet-uncast younger, more idealistic one. He said he needs another big name to play opposite him to take a little of the marquee heat off. After all, he’s 66.

“If I could find some people who would take a little pressure off and still have the words,” he said, “I think I could kick ass.”

Jeffrey Richards, the producer, said the writer and director were enthusiastic. “We think it would be wonderful if he would return to the New York stage,” he said.

The last time Mr. Reynolds was on Broadway was 1961, when he performed in a short-lived Hugh Wheeler play called Look, We’ve Come Through at the Hudson Theatre, which now resides in the Broadway Millennium Hotel on West 44th Street. His first was a production of Mister Roberts in 1956, which starred Charlton Heston, at the New York City Center.

Last year, he said, he almost took the part of Foxwell J. Sly in the Larry Gelbart play Sly Fox , which will open at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in April 2004. But he said a combination of back problems and management difficulties prevented him from committing to it. Instead, Richard Dreyfuss took the part.

“It’s haunted me a little bit, and now I’m physically in great shape,” he said, adding that should he sign on for Pitch , the show would open in the fall of 2004.

More immediately, you can see Mr. Reynolds on television-where he once played Dan August- first on Sunday, Oct. 26, when he begins hosting the new season of the ESPN Classic film series, Reel Classics , and then on Nov. 19, on the NBC sitcom Ed , where he will play the father of Josh Randall’s character.

For Reel Classics , Mr. Reynolds returns to his back-in-black mustache, discoursing on movie trivia between commercial breaks and doing little interviews with actors and football players from his kitschy, memorabilia-filled den in Jupiter, Fla., and from the Burt Reynolds and Friends Museum, which houses national treasures like the original boots and jacket from Smokey and the Bandit and the canoe from Deliverance . Each time, he’ll be accompanied by his German shepherd, Kong.

The series starts off with 1974’s male-bonding blowout, The Longest Yard , in which Mr. Reynolds played a washed-up pro-football quarterback in prison who turns a motley group of thugs, including Richard (“Jaws”) Kiel, into a winning team. The opening scene was Burt Classic: After rebuffing the advances of the horny Anitra Ford, a former Price Is Right model, Mr. Reynolds steals Ms. Ford’s Citroën, downs a highball, cranks up the Lynyrd Skynyrd and outruns the police. It recalled a certain Rat Pack patina.

“It was very much Dean Martin,” said Mr. Reynolds. “I loved him. He was amazing; he was the real deal. As long as he was around, it was fun and happening and over the top. He was like this guy, hopefully, in The Longest Yard -it was forgivable, for whatever sins that he was doing, because he was just so damn funny and likable .”

Mr. Reynolds recalled an early movie he did with Martin.

“I went to Vegas, I was standing backstage and he was about to walk onstage-and it was the early, early Vegas days-and he had a glass of bourbon, and the guy said, ‘You can’t go onstage with that.’ And he said”-and here, Mr. Reynolds went into a boozy, spot-on Dino-“‘Well, I ain’t goin’ out there alone .’ That was a perfect answer. It is that whole persona.”

And that persona defined Mr. Reynolds’ career, too, as a goofy sexpot in stuff like Semi-Tough (also on Reel Classics , on Nov. 9) and Cannonball Run (why not , ESPN? It’s car racing!). Nowadays, Classic Burt resides mostly in his museum, as Mr. Reynolds no longer exudes quite the same badass bonhomie. If someone were to remake Smokey and the Bandit , he said, George Clooney would do nicely in his old role. It’s a younger man’s game.

Mr. Reynolds’ acting career has been pretty quiet as of late. The last picture he did that really made it over the pop-cultural transom was 1999’s Mystery, Alaska , which didn’t really fly with the critics. Since then he’s done a number of small independent films and a couple of TV movies, including Hard Ground , a Western that ran on the Hallmark Channel in July. Mr. Reynolds played a gunfighter with that wizened Kenny Rogers “Gray Fox” look.

Not since his Oscar-nominated role as a porn director in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1997 breakout film, Boogie Nights , has he really popped back into the public consciousness the way, say, Clint Eastwood and Bill Murray recently have, re-inventing themselves as director and dramatic actor, respectively. One theory goes that Mr. Reynolds’ best movies were the ones where he shaved off his mustache, like Deliverance , and in 1981’s Sharky’s Machine , which went over big with Janet Maslin. But those films are few and long ago-and he’s still sporting the caterpillar today. (Note: He gets it shaved off in the first 10 minutes of The Longest Yard .)

At this point, Mr. Reynolds said he’s haunted by the missed opportunities in his career, especially the ones that could have cemented his reputation as a dramatic actor. Most famously, he could have had the role that earned Jack Nicholson an Oscar in 1983’s Terms of Endearment , but he turned it down. But now, he said, he’s ready for a Reynolds renaissance.

“If you’ve as many films as I have, and missed as many opportunities as I have to do good work and been pissed off about it, you say, ‘Well, now you’ve got to start getting it right,'” he said. “If you get a chance, you really want to cook. And the tragedy is, when you finally feel that way about yourself, about your work, nobody wants you to give you a chance. And that happens to a lot of actors. But I’m feeling very wanted these days, so there must be something in the air.”

He confessed he needed to push a little bit by getting out to Los Angeles more frequently to show his face.

“John Boorman says, ‘Hey, you want to do another picture, you know, you have to go back and wake everybody up and [have them] say, “Holy shit, he’s still alive-and he looks pretty good!”‘ This is when you know you’re old, when the first thing out of people’s mouths is, ‘God, you look good!’ I’ve been getting that a lot lately.”

When Mr. Reynolds spoke with The Observer , he was about to fly to New Zealand to begin filming Without a Paddle , a comedic spoof on Deliverance that doesn’t sound a bit like Oscar material, but who knows? He also said he’ll soon shoot another comedy called Fish in a Bowl and “a couple of independent films.”

All in all, it may not signal a revelatory new Burt.

But Broadway has done wonders for people like Melanie Griffith and Tom Wopat. While he was in New York, Mr. Reynolds said, he was approached by people on the streets asking him if he was in town to do a show. That surprised him.

“I’ve always been kind of blue-collar, certainly never white-collar,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve ever played, except maybe twice in my career, a college graduate. But to walk around the streets and have the people on the street just say, ‘Hey! You coming back? Hey man, you coming back?’ And I thought, ‘How do they know? Why do they think I’m up here to do that? I could just be here going to F.A.O. Schwarz or something.’ But they immediately-the cops and the other people … it was a really warm feeling, one that I’d never felt before. It made me feel-and this is for me, not for you-‘I’m going to get a helluva lot more out of this than anybody else.'”

Tonight, it’s a rare Burt-less night in the cable wasteland, but any night is a good night to rent Sharky’s Machine , which was actually good .

Thursday, Oct. 23

o Take the afternoon off today and catch Mr. Reynolds in the underrated comedy Breaking In , a buddy flick from 1989. The screenplay was written by none other than director John Sayles. [Showtime, 48, 2:15 p.m.]

Friday, Oct. 24

$ Today, NYTV turns the mike over to Access Hollywood ‘s Pat O’Brien, who will discuss the pressing issues affecting his native land of South Dakota, where Mr. O’Brien would like to run for governor, possibly as soon as 2006.

“The family farm is just dying there, especially farms with cows,” he said on Monday, Oct. 20, after wrapping up a show on important swing-state issues like Joe Millionaire and Britney’s wax figure at Madame Tussaud’s. “In agriculture these days, it’s so regulated by the federal government, it’s killing these farms. Ten years ago, South Dakota had four times more farms with cows than it does today.”

This sounds pretty serious. Now that she’s living on a farm for Fox’s reality show The Simple Life , maybe we can get Paris Hilton on the case.

“The other problem is getting medical care to the rural areas. Nobody wants to live in these little towns. It’s a real issue. I used to travel the state in a rock ‘n’ roll band, and these little towns like Lane and Woonsocket, they’d get a thousand kids from all over. They are literally ghost towns now.”

Wait a minute, a rock ‘n’ roll band?

“Dale Gregory and the Shouters. I played the keyboards.”

Better pay off the former groupies before the Los Angeles Times gets a hold of ‘em. But back to South Dakota.

“The walleyes just disappeared and now they’re back, but they’re smaller than they used to be,” continued Mr. O’Brien. “I’m a fisherman, so I’m happy to see the walleye back.”

The walleye is also the state fish, y’know. What’s South Dakota’s state tree?

“There’s lots of maple, so probably the maple or elm.”

Actually, it’s the Black Hills spruce. How about the state bird?

“I hope it’s the crane, because in my administration we’re going to be building a lot.”

It’s the Chinese ring-necked pheasant-but who but a school marm would know this stuff anyway? But maybe you should bone up on your civics, Pat.

“Don’t be mean to me about the state tree,” said Mr. O’Brien. “If I were writing this, I’d probably lead with this.” [WNBC, 4, 7:30 p.m.]

Saturday, Oct. 25

y “A life so unbelievable, it had to be animated,” reads the promo copy for Kid Notorious , Robert Evans’ new cartoon on Comedy Central. We thought it already was! [Comedy Central, 45, 10:30 p.m.]

Sunday, Oct. 26

) ^ Ben Silverman, the Universal TV producer who was assigned to turn the British import Coupling into an American show for NBC, may have the toughest job in TV right now: He has to turn the other BBC America hit, The Office , into a successful American show for NBC. As NYTV sees it, Mr. Silverman has one great big challenge: finding an American Ricky Gervais, the driving force behind the British version, who writes and directs the show and plays the central character, David Brent. You need a Christopher Guest or a Eugene Levy-someone with an edge, who can be funny and mean, and who can improvise. So who does Mr. Silverman have in mind for the gig?

“Philip Seymour Hoffman or Paul Giamatti,” he said. “They’re not really so famous they’d get stopped in the supermarket. Robin Williams, you couldn’t do. That whole Paul Thomas Anderson school of actors-John C. Reilly. A huge American comic would throw off the chemistry.”

Sounds interesting-if they’d actually do it.

“I think it would be fantastic,” he said. “Absolutely three actors that we love who we think could do it. They’re funny and sympathetic and can also be kind of obnoxious. This character, he’s kind of like Archie Bunker, which was a British adaptation also.”

It’s a tough call. What do you think? Send your ideas to jhagan@observer.com and let’s see what the people say. Tonight, study up. [BBC America, 106, 9 p.m.]

Monday, Oct. 27

6@ Last week, NYTV reported that former Vice President Al Gore might be naming his theoretical cable channel VTV. (His business partner bought the Web address V.tv.) Since then, we’ve learned that a number of VTV’s already exist-Vietnam TV, Vancouver TV and Varsity TV, to name a few. A publicist for Varsity Television, the “world’s first and only network exclusively dedicated to teens,” insists it “is pretty much doing a lot of what Al Gore wants to do.” So how about a merger? If Mr. Gore buys Newsworld International from Vivendi the tagline can be: “All the Teenage Asian-Canadian News That’s Fit to Broadcast.”

Meanwhile, the K Street plot is starting to feel like David Lynch has taken over, it’s so convoluted. Maybe next episode, Senator Orrin Hatch can meet with Al and pitch The Orrin Hatch Goodtime Hour for prime-time VTV. [HBO2, 202, 9 p.m.]