Encore: Burt Reynolds Has Tales To Tell: Passing On ‘Cuckoo’s Nest’, 007, ‘Die Hard,’ Bonding With Eastwood, McQueen, Newman & Carson But Not Brando
UPDATE: Few in Hollywood had more stories to tell, or told them better than Burt Reynolds. Wanna bet? Read this interview Reynolds did with Deadline while promoting his memoir, with great tales about his interactions with everyone from Bette Davis to Orson Welles, Clint Eastwood and Johnny Carson. He would have told these gems and more had he completed the role in Quentin Tarantino’s film and lived to see it released next year, and it was clear in this interview he was eager for another shot after turning down a dizzying array of roles that made stars out of other actors. It might bring back some warm memories for fans who are thinking about him today.
EARLIER, DECEMBER 22, 2015, 9:50 AM PST: The wide press pickup of Burt Reynolds saying Charlie Sheen got what was coming when his reckless lifestyle led to an HIV diagnosis has skewed the perception of his new memoir But Enough About Me. I got to this book late, and it is just a ripping Hollywood read, full of not only triumphs but regrets. When I was a kid and we first got HBO and started watching R-rated films, Reynolds was the man. His memoir tells of his rise where he was the world’s biggest movie star five straight years, spanning films that included Deliverance, The Longest Yard, Sharky’s Machine and, later, Boogie Nights. His fun-loving personality led him to bond with Hollywood immortals from Cary Grant to Frank Sinatra, Bette Davis, Mae West, Spencer Tracy, Roy Rogers, Orson Welles, John Wayne and Johnny Carson. There are dishy stories about all of them.
Example: When girlfriend Dinah Shore urged Reynolds to bond with Sinatra, he accepted an invite to play poker and found himself in the kitchen of the eatery Nicky Blair’s on Sunset Blvd. Let’s pick it up at the point where a busboy drops a whole tray of glassware and incurs the loud wrath of Blair, a longtime Sinatra buddy.
“Wait a minute pal,” Frank said. “How much do those glasses cost?” “I don’t know, a few bucks apiece,” Nicky said. Frank nodded to [his bodyguard], who hauled out a roll of hundreds the size of a calzone and counted out three thousand dollars. Frank took it and gave it to Nicky…“Now, bring me three grand worth of glasses.” “I beg your pardon?” Nicky said. “Bring me three grand worth of glasses,” Frank repeated. Nicky shrugged and went away. A minute later, busboys were coming from all direction with glasses. Frank said to the unlucky busboy, “What’s your name, kid?” “Hector.” “Hector…break ‘em!” Frank said. “Que?” “Break ‘em!” Frank repeated. Hector smashed them, one by one, until the floor was covered with broken glass.
I wondered what the customers thought was going on in the kitchen. Frank told Nicky, “If I ever come in and don’t see Hector, I’ll never come back again. Understand?’ “I’ve always loved Hector,” Nicky said. Everybody turned back to the game. As [the bodyguard] shuffled the cards, I got up from the table and began crunching my way to the door. “Where the hell are you going?” Frank said. “Home,” I said. “I got my Sinatra story.” Reynolds saved a few yarns for Deadline.
DEADLINE: Jamie Foxx got close to his co-stars Tom Cruise and Will Smith and said both were ultimate alpha males who were the most competitive people he ever met. He said that’s what it takes to be Number One. You were that guy five years straight. Your peers were Clint Eastwood, Paul Newman, James Caan, Steve McQueen. With whom were you most competitive and how did those rivalries manifest themselves?
REYNOLDS: I think you’re mythologizing it a bit. I was in there with Clint and he and I became very, very good friends, since we were fired on the same day from Universal Studios for different specific reasons. As we were walking down the street to his truck that day, I said, you know you’re in a hell of a lot of trouble here. When he asked why, and I said, “Well, how are you going to get rid of that f*cking Adam’s apple? I can always learn to act.” Clint was the guy I liked the most. The other guys, I didn’t think that much of in terms of, well, being Number One. I thought Jimmy Caan was a poser of a tough guy all the time, and the other guys, I didn’t think of in that way. But Clint was the real deal.
DEADLINE: How do you explain your friend Clint’s continued prolific pace at age 85?
REYNOLDS: Well, maybe he just got married and he wants a new house. I don’t know. But knowing Clint, he loves to do what he does, and he’s very, very good at it. He’s the best of my group, at directing, and I think he’ll do it till he drops over.
DEADLINE: How is it you seemed to have formed a bond early in your career with so many Hollywood immortals?
REYNOLDS: I think I was just very enamored of these people, that they had done it the hard way, that they had done it well. Johnny Carson was not easy to get to know, but the first time that I was on the show, by the second commercial he leaned over and said, you want to guest host a show?
DEADLINE: This was after you were warned not to talk to Johnny on the commercial break, or touch anything on his desk, and when he spoke to you and you said, “Don’t talk to me. I’m sorry, but I don’t talk to anyone during commercials.”
REYNOLDS: Everybody almost fell over when Johnny asked me to host, especially because I had only done the show once. When I said yes, he said, “You think you can handle it?” I said, I know I can handle it. I’d studied Johnny like you studied for your exam. When I got to know him, I loved him very much. He was a very private, private man, but I felt very honored to be, I think, the first actor, the only actor he ever invited to his house. He always married a girl with the same name, so he didn’t have to worry about it. He was just a wonderful, a wonderful guy to be around. He was funny when he wanted to be, and he was very quiet when he wanted to be, and I took him either way.
DEADLINE: Who taught you the best lessons?
REYNOLDS: One guy I liked so much was Cary Grant because he was such a self-creation. Nobody understood what the hell that accent was. I don’t think he did, but it was wonderful. He was just great to be around. I went to his house one time, and he had some paintings on the wall, I thought they were paintings, and then I went up and looked closely. And they were photographs of paintings. He came out and he saw me almost touching one of them, and he said, isn’t that wonderful? Those are photographs of paintings. I didn’t have to pay for the paintings, I just paid for the photographs. He was very much a little bit tight [with the buck].
DEADLINE: Who else?
REYNOLDS: Paul Newman, he was the real deal, and I liked him enormously. He was a great deal like Johnny Carson in the sense that he was very, very private. He was a terrific driver, as good as anybody out there, though Steve McQueen maybe would’ve given him a run for his money. Those two guys I greatly admired and liked a lot, they were really special. I didn’t really know Duke that well, but I got to know Steve real well. He’d get in a fight in a bar at the drop of a hat, and I thought, oh sh*t, here we go again, but I loved being with him. It was fun.
DEADLINE: Why did you get along so badly with Marlon Brando? You describe meeting him, him accusing you of capitalizing on your physical resemblance, and you telling him you weren’t getting plastic surgery to change anything, but that you would make it a point not to get fat.
REYNOLDS: I think he hated that people kept telling him, there’s this young actor who…but you know, I never tried to act like him. I do a pretty good imitation of him, but I never did it in a movie, or at a party, or anything like that. Rita Moreno was a real good friend of mine, and when they were together, she used to say he was so curious about me. He would constantly ask her questions about me, how I was to be around. I didn’t know why he felt that way; I never had any dealings with him whatsoever, never really even sat down and talked to him. But when The Godfather came along, I thought I had the chance of being one of his sons because of the physical likeness. He made sure I wasn’t, and I never understood why.
DEADLINE: You wrote you could have been Michael Corleone, which surprised me. I’d have figured Sonny Corleone because you were fully formed. When you watched Al Pacino’s character evolve from a young idealist into a killer, what did you think?
REYNOLDS: I felt exactly the same way you did. The Jimmy Caan part would’ve been better for me, physically, and I would’ve loved to have done it. I liked Jimmy, and I think he’s a good actor, but I would’ve loved to have done that part.
DEADLINE: Big stars back then had it rougher than now. You write that you got walloped in the face when you and Eastwood shot City Heat, and it set your jaw out of alignment so badly that you lost a ton of weight and rumors spread that you had AIDS, and then you were going to join Ossie Davis in the historic Selma march but shot a movie called Operation CIA in Thailand and then collapsed because you filmed scenes in a polluted river and they found snail parasite eggs hatching in your bloodstream. Why did you put yourself through this stuff and do all the stunts yourself when your best pals were stuntmen and they were all around you?
REYNOLDS: I could point to any part of my body and tell you which movie, like point to my knee and think back to Shark, and the four operations I had on it, and I could point to my stomach, and I had a splenectomy, and I could tell you what movie that was. It was a lot of dumb ideas of mine, I guess it was macho, or that I was going to get more respect from the crew if I did the stunt. The public doesn’t know whether you did it or not, and it doesn’t matter to them. The ones that do know anything about movies, they’re somewhat impressed, but it doesn’t make that much of a difference. I think that it just is something that I loved to do, honestly. I loved to do the stunts because the stuntmen were all my friends, and my best friends. In fact, I lived with Hal Needham for years, and he was amazing, and Glenn Wilder, he was also a dear, dear friend. When Hal died last year, it just tore me up. I never thought anything could kill Hal Needham, nothing.
DEADLINE: Tom Cruise, who shot stunts 110 floors up an Abu Dhabi skyscraper and then hung from the door of a moving plane in the last two Mission: Impossible films, thinks audiences can tell the difference. With all those souvenirs you feel every morning you get out of bed, what do you think?
REYNOLDS: I’ll tell you what, I was impressed that he did those. I know how it was done; there were a lot of wires and things attached to him, but it still was a very deadly stunt, and very few, very few actors would’ve done it. It took a lot of balls for him to do that.
DEADLINE: In addition to all the people you came across, you write introspectively about mistakes you made. You felt you were on the precipice of something when you starred in Deliverance, and you undermined the movie and your career by posing nude for Cosmopolitan Magazine. What did it cost you?
REYNOLDS: I don’t know what role it cost me, but it was a dumb, dumb thing to do on my part. I did it because I thought it was a good way to take a jab at the magazine Playboy, and I really didn’t think it would hurt me that much. I thought most people would get the joke. Nobody got the joke, except me. It was not the brightest thing I ever did.
DEADLINE: It marginalized perception of you as a serious actor?
REYNOLDS: No question about it. For a long time after I did it, it was kicking the sh*t out of me, whenever I was up for something.
DEADLINE: You discuss in details the directors you liked and didn’t, and you wrote that some directors are nasty because they hate actors. Can you elaborate?
REYNOLDS: Well, I think that it’s true. With some directors, their girlfriends, their wives or whatever are in love with the actors, and they’re now telling them, get over here, shut your f*cking mouth. They actually talk to you like that. They only talked to me like that once, and then I turned around and walked away, or I pushed him up against the wall and we had a quiet conversation. I don’t take that from anybody. I don’t have to.
DEADLINE: On the other end of the spectrum, which director was best, and got the most out of you as an actor?
REYNOLDS: Without a doubt, John Boorman was the best.
REYNOLDS: He just had a great deal of faith in me. He thought I could do things that nobody else did, and he was a wonderful man to work for. He cast Deliverance so beautifully. I’d never seen Ned Beatty or Ronny Cox before, and they were both wonderful actors, and he got them onboard with me and Jon Voight. He originally wanted Brando, Henry Fonda and some other people, and they all felt that the script was great. Then, they found out that he wanted them to do their stunts, and they all said “f*ck you, I don’t do that. I act, but I don’t do that.” I loved him for that. A guy I had a real run-in with was John Avildsen, who was a hell of a director, but just a total prick.
DEADLINE: You worked with him on W.W. And The Dixie Dancekings…
REYNOLDS: I did that picture with him, and he told Mel Tillis, “cut the stutter.” I said, what? And he said, “I told him cut the stutter, I don’t like it.” So, I said, ‘come here.’ I took him around behind the gas station where we were shooting, and I shoved him up against the wall, and I said, “You dumb son of a bitch, don’t you do any homework before you do a picture? Mel Tillis stutters. That’s what he does. He has stuttered his whole life. He can’t stop it because you tell him to stop it.” We were back there a good 15 minutes, and then finally I said, “Oh, f*ck it, come on.” We go back around and we start shooting that scene, and Mel doesn’t stutter, at all. I thought, what the f*ck? I grabbed Mel and I said, “Mel, I almost killed this guy for telling you to cut the stutter, and now you don’t stutter, what happened?” And he said, “Well, I don’t stutter when I drink, and I got a bottle of Schenley’s, and I just downed it.”
DEADLINE: Another director you didn’t get on with was Paul Thomas Anderson on Boogie Nights. I’d always heard you didn’t love that movie, and you write you never really watched the whole thing and suggested your family do the same. But it was your lone Oscar nomination. What does it say that you had a director who challenged you and pissed you off to where you almost took a swing at him, and yet he coaxed out that performance? Is it sometimes better to work with a prick who challenges you?
REYNOLDS: I guess John Ford wasn’t real pleasant to work with, and I think that I would’ve had a hard time with him. Duke used to go right back at him, so I probably would’ve done that, and I probably would’ve been fired because I wasn’t John Wayne. I don’t know. I mean there’s a lot of directors that have strange little things they do. I loved Sam Fuller, and he was a good director, but he wasn’t as good as he thought he was. And just before we started the scene, instead of saying “action,” he would shoot off a gun. Half the people would jump five feet in the air. You could be doing a love scene, and he’d say, OK, everybody ready, and then BAM, and the girl you were holding would jump about three feet in the air. I mean it was not the way to start a scene like that. But that was Sam, you know. He constantly talked about the war, and what he did in the war.
DEADLINE: What was it about Paul Thomas Anderson that set your teeth on edge?
REYNOLDS: I think he’s talented, but I don’t think he’s a nice man. It was obvious he’s one of those guys we were talking about, directors that don’t like actors, especially actors that have the lead in the picture. He doesn’t like them. He feels…I don’t know what he feels. He’s smart, but he’s a funny little prick. I don’t know. He’s a good director.
DEADLINE: The Longest Yard is a football classic. It was clear you didn’t love the remake. Hollywood is now fixated on these remakes and sequels, and it seems originality was prized more in your day, even though Smokey And The Bandit and Cannonball Run had sequels. What do you think?
REYNOLDS: Anything that makes money, they figure that they’ll do another picture with the same title and a number after it, and they’re going to beat it to death. That second one, The Longest Yard, I totally just sold out. I kept saying, no, I don’t want to do it, I don’t want to do it, I don’t want to do it, but the money got so good for the amount time I was going to work that I said, OK, I’ll do it. But it wasn’t a good picture.
DEADLINE: It grossed a lot more than the original, didn’t it?
REYNOLDS: Yeah, but that was because everybody loved the first one. It was much better because it was much more real. I mean, we were really in a prison, and those guys were trying to kill me. Every time I ran the ball, they were just trying to bury me. But we had the right director. Bob Aldrich who was one of my favorite directors. He was tough, rough, he played football, and he was a wonderful man’s director. The Dirty Dozen, the films he did, I loved them. He wasn’t good with women, and he usually was really rough with them. They had a hard time with him.
DEADLINE: Steve McQueen, Clint Eastwood, you. There seemed to be a lot more room for real tough guys, misbehaving alpha male, than you find today. It’s hard to find real men on the screen these days. Who do you watch now that reminds you of you when you started?
REYNOLDS: Truthfully, I don’t go see a lot of their movies, the new ones, so I don’t know. I wish I got out to see more. When I said Bob Aldrich was great with men, everybody says, well, what about Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, since he did a great job with them in Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? I say, yeah, but they were both men.
DEADLINE: Well, they were ballsy women and it’s clear from your book they loathed each other. The most surprising chapter was the one where you either turned down roles or could have had them had you chased them. You were up for the leads in Rocky, M*A*S*H*, Taxi Driver, and you turned down One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and Terms Of Endearment, which won Oscars for Jack Nicholson; Pretty Women and others. Tell me why you said no to a few others: the John McClane role in Die Hard?
REYNOLDS: You know, I don’t know. At the time, something struck me wrong, and I kept thinking back to films that I had turned down, and the films, when I saw it later, I was glad I turned them down. But there are some films I wish I’d done. But you’ve got to follow your heart and not your head sometimes. I haven’t made the best decision about some pictures, and I realize that, but I did the best I could.
DEADLINE: You also said no to James Bond, and Han Solo in a Star Wars sequel, you wrote. Is there one in particular you wish you had back?
REYNOLDS: I would’ve liked to have had a shot at James Bond, if for no other reason, I’d be very rich now, and I could’ve had a good time with him. I would’ve at least smiled once in a while, whereas the new guy doesn’t even chuckle.
DEADLINE: Not a fan?
REYNOLDS: I think Sean Connery was great, but I thought nobody else was close to what I think the character needed to be. Roger Moore was that guy…I mean Roger grew up knowing how to order a martini, and I don’t know the difference between a martini and a whatever, but I think I could’ve had a good time with Bond. I think that the problem has been that they haven’t found a guy who was ballsy enough as a character, but yet had a great deal of suave and knew how to handle himself. So, as a character, Roger Moore has all that stuff, but Roger’s a little bit cleaned and scrubbed, you know?
DEADLINE: There’s been a lot of debate in the press over Idris Elba and whether they would cast an actor of color for 007. You wrote you turned down Bond because how can an American play him. When I first watched Elba in The Wire, I didn’t even realize he was British until I saw his BBC series Luther. Could you have faked the British accent?
REYNOLDS: Yeah. I wasn’t worried about that. I thought I could make that passable. I’ve got a good ear, and I can play a lot of different things, and I wasn’t worried about that. That wasn’t the reason. I just felt that, at the time, I thought there might be a resistance from the public. I don’t know. What the hell was the matter with me? I should’ve done it.
DEADLINE: You made a lot of good decisions. You mentioned Han Solo and Star Wars, and while that was the biggest film in 1977, your Smokey And The Bandit was second. Star Wars has just relaunched. What do you remember about the original?
REYNOLDS: That they didn’t ask me. I don’t think they thought I would do it. I probably said, somewhere, in stupidity, that I don’t like that kind of movie. I was doing Smokey, and it was doing real well. We had a great time, they let me have a say-so about the casting, and I got some rough people who could play that kind of stuff. That’s another thing that makes me crazy is they don’t pick the rough, tough guys anymore that you need to have in pictures.
DEADLINE: Russell Crowe is the last one where you looked at him in a movie like L.A. Confidential or Gladiator and you went, wow, that’s a tough dude.
REYNOLDS: He is, and I did a hockey picture with him called Mystery Alaska, and went out with him a couple of times. You know when you go out with Russell, you’re going to have to drink way too much. So I always went behind the bar and told the girl, give me one with water and the next one with booze, so I could stay with him. After about the seventh drink, he looked at me and said, “You know, you’re all right.” He said I was all right because he thought I was drinking great, but I liked him a hell of a lot. He was strong, and he was just like me, once. We didn’t know anything about hockey, but we faked it, and I got on the damn ice skates. I was from Florida, so I damn near got killed just going to 10 feet, but I learned how to do it before we rolled the camera. I was the coach, so I only really had to go 10 feet. He’s a good athlete, and you’re right, he’s tougher than hell.
DEADLINE: Sly Stallone is in the Oscar hunt for Creed, 40 years after his first nomination in Rocky, and we always like to rediscover big stars when they’ve been away, like Kevin Costner, or your Deliverance co-star Jon Voight in the Showtime series Ray Donovan, or your buddy Bruce Dern, who followed Nebraska with The Hateful Eight. Seems remarkable that Quentin Tarantino or one of these young directors who grew up on The Longest Yard, or Sharky’s Machine hasn’t written a killer comeback part for you. Is that something you want?
REYNOLDS: Yeah, with the right director I sure would. Yeah.
DEADLINE: You spend most of your time now, teaching acting in Florida, and immersing yourself in the technical aspects of the craft. What has all that training taught you that maybe you didn’t know when you were on top?
REYNOLDS: Well, it’s not like you just suddenly find it. I worked my buns off from being the third guy from the left, when I started out, to a leading man who could carry a picture. You get that confidence that you can do it, and I did it, and I do still feel that way. I don’t have a problem having somebody hand me a script and carrying a picture. I feel like I can, and I’d like to do it. It’ll happen. I mean I’m not that old that I can’t carry a film. It just has to be at the right script. Paul Newman once told me, whatever you do, don’t let the bastards make you hang it up. Just keep doing what you’re doing, and somebody’s going to hand you a script, one day, and you’re going to kick the sh*t out of it. I loved him for that, and he’s right. Someday they will, and I will.
DEADLINE: That happened for him with The Verdict and Road To Perdition. So we can make it clear that Burt Reynolds is ready if you have that great script?
REYNOLDS: Oh, yeah.
DEADLINE: You wrote about the sage advice you got from John Wayne, who told you, never play a rapist or die in a move that you’re the star of; or Spencer Tracy, who told you never let them see you act. You turn 80 in February. If young Burt Reynolds came to you looking for advice, what would you tell him?
REYNOLDS: Well, I’d tell him be careful what you turn down, because you never know. You never know, you know, and when you do get something, just kick the sh*t out of it. Give it everything you’ve got. The best advice was Tracy. It’s a great profession, but don’t let anybody else catch you acting. I teach acting every Friday night, here. I have a class full of people from 85 to 18, and it’s amazing to watch them and see that some have the chops now. When these students first came to me, you wanted to just throw them out the window, but they’ve gotten better, and better, and better. I’m really proud of them now. The main thing I tell them, constantly, is what Tracy told me. Don’t let them catch you acting. I’ll stop them right in the middle of the scene, sometimes, and say, I see you acting. Stop, and don’t get back up there again until you think you can do it without acting.