Burt Reynolds, a top Hollywood star of the 1970s whose hits ranged from such classic, easy-going drive-in fare as Smokey and the Bandit to the intense, hunted-men drama Deliverance, died today at the Jupiter Medical Center in Florida. He was 82.
“It is with a broken heart that I said goodbye to my uncle today,” Reynolds’ niece Nancy Lee Hess said in a statement (read it in full below).
With a sly, knowing grin, signature moustache and a unique blend of charm, cool and machismo, Reynolds was a bona fide cultural phenomenon. He became a frequent guest of Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, was the first major celebrity nude male centerfold and off-screen romantic partner of such stars as frequent co-star Sally Field and Dinah Shore. Reynolds would achieve a newfound respect among critics and fans alike for the late-career peak in 1997’s Boogie Nights, for which he earned his only Oscar nomination.
Quentin Tarantino cast Reynolds in his star-packed Once Upon a Time in Hollywood back in May, but the actor had not filmed his scenes.
He was among the most popular movie stars in the 1970s, starting with the gritty Deliverance (1972) — in which he starred alongside Jon Voight and Ned Beatty — and continuing with leads in hits including Shamus (1972), The Longest Yard (1974), Gator (1976), Smokey and the Bandit (1977) and its 1980 sequel, football dramedy Semi-Tough (1977), the stuntman tale Hooper (1978) and Starting Over (1980).
Born on February 11, 1936, in Lansing, MI, Reynolds was a burgeoning football star at Florida State University in the mid-1950s when a knee injury interrupted that career. He eventually returned to the team but reaggravated the injury in a car wreck and was forced to hang up his cleats. After leaving school, he soon scored TV roles and was toplining his own series — NBC’s two-season Riverboat — by 1959. He went on to guest or recur in the 1960s on such classic shows as Gunsmoke, Route 66, The FBI and the final hourlong episode of The Twilight Zone.
He landed a second starring TV series in 1966, playing an Iroquois Indian police detective in ABC’s Hawk (left). It lasted only one season but, as he movie career took off, NBC re-aired the series during the summer of 1976. An episode Hawk was Reynolds’ first time in the director’s chair — a TV role he would reprise in the 1980s with episodes of Amazing Stories and Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
Reynolds continued to work in TV and film through the ’60s before landing a third toplining TV series. This time it was ABC’s Dan August (1970), playing a detective who got personally involved in his cases. August always got his man, but the show was not renewed after its rookie year. That series also re-aired as his big-screen fame grew, with CBS running episode in 1973 and 1975, and Reynolds returned for a trio of Dan August telefilms in 1980.
But everything was about to change for Burt Reynolds.
After starring with Raquel Welch in the 1972 romp Fuzz, he co-starred in Deliverance, director John Boorman disturbing film about four friends who take a canoe adventure in the Georgia wilderness. It became one of the year’s top-grossing films, and Reynolds’ film career was off.
After a role in Woody Allen’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex *But Were Afraid to Ask (1972), he starred the next year in the private-eye pic Shamus and followed with lead roles in The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing and White Lightning that same year. (He would reprise his Gator McKlusky role from the latter in 1976’s Gator, which also was his feature helming debut.) Reynolds then made the first of two football-themed ’70s films, playing a washed-up ex-star quarterback-turned-prison inmate in The Longest Yard. Widely regarded as one of the greatest sports movies, it was remade in 2005 with Adam Sandler in the Paul Crewe role. Reynolds co-starred as Nate Scarborough, the role played by Michael Conrad in the original.
Reynolds’ film career stayed on solid ground through the mid-1970s with films including W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings, Hustle and Nickelodeon; he also played himself in Mel Brooks‘ Silent Movie. But Reynolds’ stardom was about to hit full speed — and he would become filmdom’s biggest box office draw for five consecutive years.
The 1977 car-chase epic Smokey and the Bandit was a stone smash. Directed by stunt legend Hal Needham, it starred Reynolds as a speed-burning smuggler who is chased through the American South by local-yokel Sheriff Buford T. Justice (Jackie Gleason). Also starring Sally Field and Jerry Reed, it was one of the year’s most popular films and helped fuel the CB radio craze of the era.
Reynolds and Needham would reteam for the 1978 comedy Hooper, which co-starred Jan-Michael Vincent as a hotshot upstart stuntman who tries to upstage the wily stunt king (Reynolds). That same year, Reynolds directed himself and frequent co-stars Field and Dom DeLuise in slapstick dark comedy The End.
He took a left turn with his next film, the Alan J. Pakula-directed romantic comedy Starting Over. Written by James L. Brooks, it reteamed Reynolds with Clayburgh, alongside Candice Bergen — both of whom earned Oscar nominations for their roles.
Reynolds’ box office stardom continued in the early 1980s with such crowd-pleasing yarns as Smokey and the Bandit II (1980), star-packed racing pic The Cannonball Run (1981), Sharky’s Machine (1981), opposite Dolly Parton in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982) and Stroker Ace (1983). He also directed Sharky’s Machine.
But amid lackluster mid-’80s sequels to Smokey and the Bandit and Cannonball Run, Reynolds’ box office fortunes began to turn.
He continued to land starring roles in such films as City Heat (1984) — opposite fellow 1970s box office favorite Clint Eastwood — Malone (1987), Switching Channels (1988) and Rent-a-Cop (1988). That film, which co-starred Liza Minnelli — with whom he’d starred in 1975’s Lucky Lady — “earned” Reynolds a Razzie nom for Worst Actor. Minnelli “won” for Worst Actress.
Reynolds soon would return to the small screen as the voice of an unseen extraterrestrial in the 1987-91 syndicated comedy Out of This World and again as a private eye in B.L. Stryker (1989), which lasted one season on ABC. He also was the co-exec producer of the series.
During the 1980s, Reynolds teamed with Bert Convy to form Burt & Bert Productions, whose first series was the daytime game show Win, Lose or Draw.
The now-veteran actor’s TV fortunes finally turned with the 1990 premiere of CBS’ Evening Shade. Set in small-town Arkansas, it starred Reynolds as an easygoing former football star who returns home to coach the local high school team. Co-starring the likes of Marilu Henner, Hal Holbrook, Ossie Davis and Durning, it was Reynolds’ first small-screen hit, finishing in the primetime top 20 in its second and third seasons. Reynolds earned multiple Emmy and Golden Globe nominations for his role as Wood Newton, nabbing those respective statuettes in 1991 and 1992. He also directed nearly three dozen episodes of the series, produced two dozen and wrote the story for a few. It ran until 1994.
But Reynolds’ career would sag again — until he was cast as porn filmmaker Jack Horner in writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights. Starring alongside Mark Wahlberg, Julianne Moore, Heather Graham, Don Cheadle, John C. Reilly and William H. Macy, the erstwhile Bandit nearly stole the movie, which premiered at Toronto and earned him a Supporting Actor Oscar nom.
He directed and co-wrote the 1993 CBS telefilm Harlan & Merleen, which starred his frequent onscreen colleague Durning.
Reynolds continued to work in TV and film into the 2010s, including playing himself in 2017’s The Last Movie Star. Written and directed by Adam Rifkin and originally titled Dog Years, the A24 film saw Reynolds as an aging screen hero who is lured into attending a local film festival to give him a career achievement award. It turns out to be “run” by a pair of starstruck local dudes.
Reynolds most recently appeared in indie features Miami Love Affair, Henri, Shadow Fighter and Defining Moments.
Here is today’s full statement from Reynolds’ niece:
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.
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. My uncle was looking forward to working with Quentin Tarantino, and the amazing cast that was assembled.
So many people have already contacted me, to tell me how they benefitted professionally and personally from my uncles kindness.
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.