Let’s face it: Burt Reynolds didn’t follow the advice “live fast, die young and leave a beautiful corpse.” At 81, the Florida football-player-turned-movie-star sits in a tiny room overlooking West Broadway at the “boutique” Smyth Hotel, his ringed hand fingering a cane both ornamental and essential. Aging’s a bitch, but it does bring wisdom if not peace as the inveterate storyteller rattles off 50-plus years of bold-faced names, from Marlon Brando to Robert De Niro.
In a rare interview, Reynolds is the first to admit he’s been an asshole over time—the curse of the young, cocky, beautiful and impatient. A running gag in Dog Years is his senior persona attempting to convince his younger movie selves—the trucker Bo “Bandit” Darville or Deliverance‘s macho muscled Lewis—to slow down and make good choices. As if!
Caution was never Reynolds’ thing—but what made him a major star in movies from The Longest Yard to Starting Over to Boogie Nights and the popular TV ensemble comedy Evening Shade was a cocktail of athleticism, comic timing and carnal charisma.
Observer: Initially, Adam Rifkin’s Dog Years seems like a documentary, although you’re playing a character, Vic Edwards. The aging movie star attends a Nashville Film Festival celebrating his movies, which happen to be your movies. Was that feeling of déjà vu intentional?
Burt Reynolds: Yes.
What about that scene where you’re talking to yourself from Smokey and the Bandit, sitting in the passenger seat as the Bandit speeds down the road? What would you say to your younger self?
There’s a lot of improvisation in that movie and, in particular, when I’m talking to me. I was doing what I would do if I got in a car and there was another me in there. That guy in Smokey and the Bandit was a little crazy and fun, but he was a totally different guy than I am now. And I would say to him, “For Christ’s sake, don’t make the mistakes I did. Try and have a good time, but don’t be stupid. And if you could find a film that’s really special, do it and don’t do anything else for a while.” None of which I did, but it was good just to get it off my chest.
I think you’re being tough on your past self.
I try to be. I’ve tried very hard to be thought of as a serious actor. Ta-da [he raises his hands and shrugs]. But it’s not that easy. You have to get the films. You have to have somebody believe in you. But it’s slowly changing the perception of that guy that does those car movies.
It’s no small thing that you could do funny and action—on wheels.
I’ve always thought that, but Clint [Eastwood] doesn’t agree with me.
What would Clint say?
He doesn’t say but about four words a year. We’ve been very close friends forever. We both got fired on the same day at Universal.
Just from being bad actors. And they were right. We were leaving the studio, walking towards his truck and I said, “you’re in a hell of a lot of trouble.” And he said, “Why?” And I said, “because I can learn to act. You, on the other hand, what are you going to do? You’re never going to learn to be funny or have a personality or speak.” And he said—it was so right on—”I’m just going to do what the public wants. I’m going to kill a lot of people [laugh] and beat up a lot of people.” I said, “yeah, you’re great at that.”
He made the right choice—what are the good and bad choices you’ve made?
Well, we don’t have time enough to tell you the bad. As for the good—
C’mon, you can tell me one or two.
I made some bad choices in terms of just doing whatever they offered me. You do that when you’ve been a contract player. You’re so pleased that somebody wants you to do something, so you do it. But it wasn’t a good idea. But I did do a couple of films that I was proud of. I thought Deliverance was a very good film. But it didn’t have the success financially that Smokey and the Bandit did, although that film made more money than Star Wars in the first week.
Star Wars and Smokey opened the same weekend in 1977, right?
Yes, and I was very mad at my agent that I didn’t have a chance to do Star Wars. I would have done Star Wars, but some young buck would come along and do Smokey and the Bandit and beat us out the first week. But we did—and then Star Wars did overcome that [laughs]—very well, as a matter of fact.
Were you offered the role of Han Solo?
I was offered a meeting and all that, whatever that means. But I don’t like science fiction. And I didn’t know the kind of impact that the film would have. Otherwise, I would have crawled there and said yes.
Regret’s a theme in Dog Years, particularly the humiliation of the accommodations after living the high life—it’s almost like hell is a little motel in Nashville overlooking the freeway.
That’s true. And I’ve been there. Not just Nashville, but lots of places that I went. And, in the movie, it sounded like it was going to be wonderful, you know. And we’ll fly you first class and we’ll be in a first class hotel. They don’t tell you that it’s the only hotel in town. But all in all, I’ve been really lucky and I know it. And I’ve always worked. I don’t know why, but I’ve always worked.
You do know why.
I don’t know why I’ve been so lucky.
But you know why you’ve worked.
I think so. I guess because I can do comedy and knock people over the table and all that.
You have the ability to make dark characters empathetic. Also, you began as a New York stage actor, studying with Wynn Handman who founded The American Place Theatre. I read that people said you were too much like Marlon Brando?
That’s true, yeah. I said, “Would you rather me be like Arnold Stang? What do you want? I picked out the greatest actor in the world to be like. It’s not my fault that I resemble him.” I knew his sister Jocelyn really well. And she said, “Marlon is so curious about you. He asked everything about you.” And I said, “I wonder why.” And she said, “Because you really look like him.” I said, “No, I don’t. He’s fat.” I did everything I could to make Jocelyn get mad and have fun with me. We had fun, but she didn’t get mad. She said, “People say things about him because they’re jealous.” And I said, “You’re right, I am jealous. He’s the best actor there is.”
You had the physique that he lacked.
Well, he had a good physique. It just was a little porky. I was working out all the time. He looked fantastic in Streetcar. Jocelyn told me that he scared everybody to death because he did things that were just not done like turning over tables and leaving, saying I don’t want to talk to you anymore, that kind of stuff. Well, that’s who he was in Streetcar. You didn’t know what he was going to do. It was stunning. All those scenes where he was sitting at the table where you didn’t know what he was going to do, whether he was going to eat or throw it back at her. Watching Brando as Stanley Kowalski was one of the greatest evenings I’ve ever had in the theater.
You might not be Brando, but you’ve outlasted him—and generations later, people are still watching and dreading Deliverance.
It was a disturbing movie, and it was meant to be. John Boorman was the best director I’ve ever had. We would do the script and then he would say, what else do you want to do, and we’d do something else. And you had no idea what he was going to use. And he cut and spliced, and he’d use a little bit of that and a little bit of this. But, God, he was so good.
That same year 1972, you posed nude for Cosmopolitan. Contemporary readers might not realize that centerfold’s impact.
It was shocking at the time. It was meant to be, but I didn’t know that it was going to cause a furor, and it did. It was also stupid. If I had to do it over, I wouldn’t pose. It doesn’t get you work for Christ’s sake. And it makes a lot of men mad.
Did it sink any hopes for an Oscar nomination?
That was a given that I wasn’t going to get no Oscar. You can’t pose nude and get an Oscar.
Speaking of Oscar-winners, you and De Niro both studied under Wynn Hammond, and he attended your Tribeca premiere.
It was wonderful of Bobby De Niro to come to my premiere. I don’t think he goes to every picture. It’s hard to get the films that Bobby De Niro was offered because I don’t have enough New York in me and I don’t have what he has. He’s very special. And he’s a very kind man. I was surprised how nice he was. He has a sense of humor, which most people don’t think. I was kidding him and, unfortunately, went over the line as I’ve always done. I said, “Will you stop giving Joe Pesci advice?” I thought he would laugh, and he just looked at me and said, “I don’t give him advice.” I went, “Oh, excuse me. I thought you would think that was funny.” He said, “It’s not funny, and I don’t give him advice.”
That sounds awkward. Did you turn the conversation around?
I was just taking a beating for a while, and then I finally, finally made him smile. He’s a tough audience, you know.
Did you discuss your mutual acting teacher, Wynn Handman?
Handman was the first guy I ever studied with here. And he really is responsible for me being an actor ‘cause he was so kind to me. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. He would give me these assignments, which I had no business going and doing, but that’s what makes you a better actor.
Well, me doing Shakespeare. Me doing something that I would never be cast in. And also, he would pick out the women I’d be working with; they’d be tough ladies who were used to having the ball come back faster than they hit it over the net. I tried and eventually that’s what makes you a better actor. It’s what makes you a better piano player, is you play with somebody better than you. You act with somebody better. That’s what he did. He would never put me with somebody that I could run over. There were a lot of people in that class that were able to run over me, but he didn’t go to them until a couple of times I got up and then he went, “You’re going to get the shit beat out of you this time.” And I did.
Was being a football player getting tackled regularly good training?
You know what, I’m so glad you said that because it is. People don’t understand the analogy of football and acting, but there’s a great deal of it that’s the same. You get dressed in the room and you think you’ve got it all prepared and later on in the game you wish you had put on more pads ‘cause they’re just kicking the hell out of you. God almighty, I’ve been beat up by the best.
Judith Crist. Boy, it really hurt at the time. She said something like this young actor who looks like Marlon Brando and thinks he is Marlon Brando is never going to be Marlon Brando and he’s never going to be near that kind of scale as an actor. And then I did a couple of plays. I did a play called Look, We’ve Come Through. I had a great part. I played this guy who was a sailor who goes to this party, and there’s a gay guy there who makes a pass at him. And he takes him into the room—it’s a very brave scene when you think about it—and unzips his trousers and says, “Come on. I know you want to.” It was a kind of scene that made people in the audience uncomfortable, which was the idea. Well, the reviews came out. I think it was Richard Watts who said, “I just hope these actors don’t go to Hollywood because they’re very special.”
I left that day for Hollywood.