Burt Reynolds, rugged leading man of 'Smokey and the Bandit,' 'Boogie Nights' fame, dead at 82

Joal Ryan
Contributor

Burt Reynolds, the mustached sex symbol of the 1970s and 1980s, who ruled the box office with good-ol’-boy movies like Smokey and the Bandit and earned the critical praise he so badly desired in Starting Over and Boogie Nights, died Thursday in Florida of cardiac arrest, his agent confirmed to Yahoo Entertainment. He was 82.

Reynolds’s niece, Nancy Lee Hess, released a statement calling his passing “totally unexpected.”

“It is with a broken heart that I said goodbye to my uncle today. My uncle was not just a movie icon; he was a generous, passionate and sensitive man, who was dedicated to his family, friends, fans and acting students,” she said. “He has had health issues, however, this was totally unexpected. He was tough. Anyone who breaks their tail bone on a river and finishes the movie is tough. And that’s who he was.

“So many people have already contacted me, to tell me how they benefitted professionally and personally from my uncles kindness.

Hess concluded, “I want to thank all of his amazing fans who have always supported and cheered him on, through all of the hills and valleys of his life and career. My family and I appreciate the outpouring of love for my uncle, and I ask that everyone please respect our family’s privacy at this very difficult time.”

As much as Reynolds represented an era, he also stood as a timeless cautionary tale. After a five-year run as Hollywood’s No. 1 male movie star, from 1978 to 1982, Reynolds fell into a funk of flops and personal problems, including unfounded health rumors and a nasty tabloid divorce from TV star Loni Anderson, from which his career never recovered.

Looking back once, Reynolds said he had something no one could take from him: He was “part of film history.”

“You die with that,” Reynolds said. “They can say his career went downhill after that; he made bad films.’ It doesn’t matter.”

(Photo: Getty Images)

Born Feb. 11, 1936, in Michigan, Reynolds was a Florida State University football player who broke into Hollywood in his early 20s. The early going was rough. He was fired from a studio on either the same day or in the same year, he would alternately recount, as Clint Eastwood: Eastwood was told his Adam’s apple was too big; Reynolds was told he couldn’t act.

His first steady gig, on the TV Western Riverboat, ended when he quit because, he said, “I wasn’t getting along with the star … and I had a stupid part.”

Although he became a regular on the long-running hit show Gunsmoke, Reynolds would chase breakout fame into his mid-30s. The actor credited guest-hosting stints for Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show with leading him to two career-changing job offers: a role in Deliverance and a chance to pose for Cosmopolitan magazine.

Published in April 1972, the Cosmo centerfold spread placed a naked but strategically covered Reynolds on a bear rug and put the actor on the map as a sex symbol.

“I can’t believe the chicks are turned on by it,” Reynolds told the Associated Press at the time.

A few months after the magazine hit the stands, Reynolds starred alongside Jon Voight, Ned Beatty, and Ronny Cox in the Deliverance. The 1972 canoe-trip-from-hell drama was a popular and critical hit, scoring three Oscar nominations, including Best Picture.

Around the time Reynolds’s star was ascending, his upper lip was evolving. Clean-shaven during the 1960s, Reynolds began sporting a mustache, off and on, in the early 1970s. (It’s off in Deliverance; it’s on in Cosmo.) By the late 1970s, the mustache was a fixture as much as Reynolds was atop the box-office standings. Hits from the decade included the pro-football comedy Semi-Tough, the prison-football football comedy The Longest Yard, the stuntman adventure Hooper, and the first Smokey and the Bandit crash-’em up, which co-starred Reynolds’s then girlfriend (and the woman he later called the love of his life), Sally Field.

For a time, Field was part of a Reynolds movie posse that included Dom DeLuise, Jim Nabors, Jerry Reed, director Hal Needham, and stock cars.

Sally Field and Burt Reynolds in a photo dated Nov. 5, 1977. (Photo: Ron Galella/WireImage)

Reynolds went clean-shaven for the 1979 comedy-drama Starting Over. For the first time, Reynolds received serious Oscar buzz; he did not, however, receive a nomination. When Reynolds didn’t accompany Field to the 1980 ceremony, where Field would win Best Actress for Norma Rae, his absence was chalked up to jealousy. Reynolds and Fields subsequently broke up, although the duo was seen onscreen together one last time in the 1980 hit sequel Smokey and the Bandit II.

After the hits The Cannonball Run and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, Reynolds’s box-office luck ran out in 1983 when he released back-to-back-to-back bombs: Stroker Ace, Smokey and the Bandit III, and The Man Who Loved Women. “It turned bad with Stroker Ace,” he would say about one his misfires that year. “We went to the well too many times with the race cars and the cast.”

The same year, 1983, Jack Nicholson revitalized his own then-sagging career in Terms of Endearment, playing an Oscar-winning role that Reynolds turned down; Reynolds chose to make Cannonball Run II, yet another commercial and critical flop, instead.

In the mid-1980s, in the wake of the death of movie idol Rock Hudson, and sparked by weight loss Reynolds attributed to jaw problems, the actor was dogged by false rumors that he’d fallen ill with AIDS.

Burt Reynolds at the Wizard World Chicago Comic-Con in August 2015. (Photo: Barry Brecheisen/Invision/AP)

Things looked up for Reynolds in the 1990s, when he won an Emmy for the sitcom Evening Shade. But the 1993 meltdown of his marriage to second-wife Anderson was a publicity nightmare, with Reynolds accusing Anderson of cheating on him, and requesting that she submit to a truth-serum test. In 1994, Evening Shade was canceled.

Reynolds was in need of another comeback when writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson cast him as patriarchal porn director Jack Horner in 1997’s Boogie Nights. Reynolds won raves, along with the New York and Los Angeles critics’ awards and the Golden Globe. His path to the Oscar seemed certain.

But at the Screen Actors Guild Awards and the Academy Awards, Good Will Hunting‘s Robin Williams took the Best Supporting Actor trophies. Conventional wisdom said Reynolds lost support either for his history of taking shots at other actors or for trashing his own comeback vehicle. (As Mark Walberg explained to Yahoo in the clip below, Reynolds hated Boogie Nights and didn’t understand why critics loved it so much. Reynolds reportedly fired his agent after watching the movie.)

Afterward Reynolds did multiple TV guest shots, starred as Boss Hogg in the big-screen version of The Dukes of Hazzard, and had a role in the Adam Sandler remake of The Longest Yard. While doing publicity for the latter film, Reynolds created a stir when he slapped a TV producer who’d admitted to not having seen the original 1974 film; Reynolds’s camp insisted the actor was joking.

Reynolds was married and divorced twice, first to actress Judy Carne, then to Anderson, with whom he adopted his only child, a son, Quinton, named after his character on Gunsmoke. In addition to Field, whom he would later describe as the love of his life, he was romantically linked to entertainer Dinah Shore.

Singer Dinah Shore and Burt Reynolds appear together in Los Angeles in 1971. (Photo: AP Photo/Harold Filan)

In recent years, Reynolds endured a series of health and apparent financial troubles. He had heart surgery in 2010, and then in 2014, he auctioned off memorabilia, including a Smokey and the Bandit-era Trans Am and his Golden Globe for Boogie Nights. Reynolds, who also put his Florida mansion on the block, flatly insisted he was “not broke.”

Reynolds explained his downsizing to Yahoo as an act of humility: “Quite frankly, I am sick of so many pictures of myself in my own home.”

In May 2015, a frail-looking Reynolds, cane in hand, made a rare public appearance at a pop-culture convention in Philadelphia. He told the Philadelphia Inquirer his absence from public life was due to his work on his tell-all memoir, But Enough About Me.

“When you write a book like this, you have to tell the whole thing, and there are days when everything isn’t wonderful and there were people who I thought were asses,” Reynolds said.

While he appeared in a string of forgettable TV and film projects over the past decade, he was recently cast in Quentin Tarantino’s upcoming Charles Manson project, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. The film, now shooting, stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, and Al Pacino. Reynolds was tapped to play George Spahn, the owner of the Los Angeles-area ranch where Manson and his followers lived during 1969, the year of their murder spree. However, Reynolds had not started working on the film before his death.

“My uncle was looking forward to working with Quentin Tarantino, and the amazing cast that was assembled,” Hess said in her statement.

— Additional reporting by Taryn Ryder

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