Burt Reynolds — The Death of the Last Movie Star

It’s weird how as I was in my car today, the phone rang with a radio station wanting me to come on and talk about how the Academy was going to drop the category of “best popular movie” that was going to debut at the Oscars this year. At the very moment that call came in, a news report on KOGO 600 was telling me that Burt Reynolds had died. If ever there was a category Reynolds’ movies would’ve gotten nominations for, it would’ve been that.

The San Diego International Film Festival always brings interesting films and celebrities to town. One of the things I really love is also meeting filmmakers that aren’t as well know. One of those was writer/director Adam Rifkin. He was there with his movie Dog Days (renamed The Last Movie Star). He got Burt Reynolds out of retirement to do the movie, and it’s an autobiographical picture about Reynolds life. It’s rather moving.

Rifkin and I ended up talking a great deal the next day at the awards ceremony. Sure, stars like Patrick Stewart were at the Festival in person, but I wanted the scoop on working with Reynolds. He was that big a movie star for people of my generation.

There was a time in the ‘70s where, for a five year period, he was the biggest movie star on the planet. Sure, that meant we had to deal with a lot of throw-away films like Smokey and the Bandit and Cannonball Run. But if you look at his body of work, he’s done some great stuff. In the early days, we got the powerful Deliverance. It’s a shame that that title (and the sound of banjos), usually just brings jokes from people. It’s really an incredible piece of work.

The Longest Yard was a great football/prison film. Since Reynolds had been a football star in high school and at Florida State (before an injury ended his career), he probably loved putting the pads on again for that.

I remember as a kid my family took a trip to Universal Studios. The tour bus drove by the set of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (a movie that showed Reynolds wasn’t…the best singer around). The tour guide on the bus told a story about how Burt Reynolds and Clint Eastwood were stuntmen in Hollywood and after refusing to be pushed off this ledge into a cold lake, after having it shot 8 times already and them getting tired of doing it over and over, they were fired. The director yelled, “You guys will never work in Hollywood again!”

I was such a fan of Reynolds, as a kid, I sent him a fan letter. I only sent two fan letters to actors. One was Bruce Dern (what can I say…I was a weird kid with an obsession over certain movie stars), the other was to Burt Reynolds. I didn’t realize that if you had an autograph request, you should send a self-addressed stamped envelope. I also didn’t realize you shouldn’t ask for certain things. I asked if when he sent his autograph, he could put it on a picture from one of the three movies that were my favorite, not him sitting in a Trans-Am in Smokey and the Bandit. A month letter I got the huge envelope, with a personalized, signed photo from The Longest Yard.

I remember thinking he should’ve gotten an Oscar nomination for Starting Over and how he probably didn’t get that because the Academy felt he was a cheesy, popular actor, not someone that did serious work. But hey….take a movie like Sharky’s Machine. It’s one of these movies with shootings and drug dealers, but was actually really good.

It’s a shame he turned down some big roles over the years — the lead role in Die Hard. Playing James Bond; and one that got Jack Nicholson an Oscar and would’ve gotten him one — playing the astronaut in Terms of Endearment (he didn’t take that role because they wanted him to lose the hairpiece).

The Academy did show their appreciation when he got a nomination in the ‘90s for a comeback role in Boogie Nights — one of the best movies of all-time. I don’t think he got robbed of the Oscar that year. He was up against Anthony Hopkins, Greg Kinnear, Robert Forster for his comeback role in the terrific Jackie Brown, and Robin Williams who won for Good Will Hunting.

Reynolds was visibly angry that he lost. He also sounded angry in interviews talking about the various women he loved. In some interviews, he claimed it was Dinah Shore that was his true love. The last 20 years, he’s said it’s Sally Field. It was Loni Anderson that he married, and their divorce after five years became one of the nastiest in Hollywood history.

Yet I like to think about his body of work, instead of the hot bodies of the women he dated.

I was 9-years-old when I saw him play a stuntman in Hooper. I loved it (and years later would meet the main stuntman from that movie at a party in Fallbrook). The same year as Hooper, he gave us the slightly dark comedy The End (his first teaming with Dom DeLuise, who always made him laugh during takes).

I was a freshman in high school when City Heat came out. Reynolds played a detective in the ‘30s, and it teamed him up with that stuntman he got fired with — Clint Eastwood. I wanted to like it more, but it was still fun watching a lot of actors I liked on screen (Rip Torn and Madeline Kahn were in it). That same year I caught The Man Who Loved Women on HBO. It was an awful movie, but I got to see Marilu Henner naked, and when you’re a freshman in high school, and you’ve had a crush on her since Taxi — it made the movie worth it.

He was part of a terrific ensemble in Woody Allen’s Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sex (but were afraid to ask).

He did so many movies, most of them garbage. But that didn’t make him less of a “movie star.” He’d saunter out onto Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show and the audience adored him.

Instead of going back and revisiting one of those movies you loved growing up, why don’t you seek out this new movie you probably haven’t seen and should — The Last Movie Star. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry. And you’ll realize…we may have lost the last movie star.