An Interview with Burt Reynolds
Brad Evans talks with one of his heroes about drinking with Jackie Gleason before noon, walking down the street in New York with Marilyn Monroe and more in this incredible interview.
When I was a kid, there wasn’t a bigger star on the planet than Burt Reynolds. And when I’m 80, I don’t think there will have been a movie star that sticks out in my memory any more than he will. A lot of things my daddy taught me about being a man were probably picked up from Burt Reynolds movies. The Bandit defined my childhood. Is there any movie that had a more profound affect on our psyche than “Deliverance”? “The Longest Yard”, “Sharky’s Machine” , “Gator”, “White Lightning” – these are films that I can turn on today and enjoy as much as I did the first time I saw them. The reason for that is Burt Reynolds. Yes, he’s good looking. There has never been another man that looks more at home on a bear skin rug. But he’s also likeable. He’s also Southern. He gets the joke. I don’t know if there is anyone I would have rather interviewed than Burt Reynolds, and this week I got that chance. Burt will be here in Macon next week for the Macon Film Festival, and I was able to speak with him for a little while about his life and his career. He was kind and funny and gracious; I’ve never felt more like a fan in my life than the time I spent on the phone with him.
You were born in Waycross, but your family moved to Florida where your father was the chief of police. What was he like?
Well, he was a very good man, but he was a very hard man. He was in the war, stormed the beach at Normandy, though he never talked about it. I talked to others who were there with him and they told me a lot of stories. He took a hill by himself where there were eight or nine Germans. He took all of them himself. So he had a very illustrious career in the service. But eventually, my mother told him either you can be a Major and be single, or you can come home. So he came home. We had a very contentious relationship at times, but I really, really loved him.
Did he push you to play football?
No, not at all. He was happy, I think, that I did. But he didn’t push me in that direction.
How about acting? What did he think about this when you first got into it?
Well, he didn’t think much of acting. I remember one time, there was a bunch of actors shooting down at my ranch, and he leaned over and said, “Now do those guys work, or are they in your business?” (laughs)
Now I’m sure he was half kidding, but he saw you become one of the biggest stars in the world. Did his ribbing continue even after you became successful?
Oh yes. It never stopped. It was with us the whole way through. But listen, we loved each other. We were just tough on each other.
That’s what some men do though, right? We communicate our love with insults.
That’s exactly right. Folks of our ilk, anyway.
Let’s talk about “Deliverance” for a minute. The most infamous scene, I read they were having a hard time finding an actor to play the part of the hillbilly who rapes Ned Beatty. But I heard you fixed that problem?
Oh yeah. I worked with this guy, Cowboy, at Ghost Town. We did this old west show together. He’d shoot me and I’d fall off a roof into a pile of gravel. I told him, when I left, that we’d meet up again. I’m sure he thought I was crazy. But when they were trying to find an actor to play this part, no one wanted to do it. And Cowboy had no front teeth and he couldn’t read or write. So I told Boorman that I had someone I’d like to bring down. I called Cowboy, and he came down to the Holiday Inn there, where we were all staying, and he read the whole scene for us (after I’d called out the lines because he couldn’t actually read). Boorman knew he was perfect for the role, but he felt like he had to explain what the role really was. He said “Cowboy, I just need you to know that in this scene, you rape another man.” Cowboy looked at him and said, “That’s ok, I’ve done a lot worse than that.” He got the part.
You did all your own stunts in that movie. What made you do that?
Well, I’m crazy I guess. But really I think that it made a better movie. We had a lot of up close shots in that film, and I think it just made it look better. Voight did the same thing though. He climbed that mountain. That wasn’t easy.
You and Clint Eastwood got fired from Universal on the same day. Can you tell me about that?
Oh, Clint and I are great friends. I love that guy. But yeah, we were there on the lot and they told Clint that he talked too slow, and that his Adam’s apple stuck out too far, so they were going to let him go. They told me I couldn’t act, and they were going to let me go. So we walked out of the studio together and started walking down the street outside. I looked over and said “Clint, you are in some big trouble, buddy.” He asked me why and I said, “Well, I can learn how to act, but that Adam’s apple isn’t going anywhere.”
I have to ask some “Smokey and the Bandit” questions. What was the set like for that film?
It was so much fun. It really was. Just having Gleason on the set was a riot. I don’t think I’d ever laughed so much in my life as I did filming that movie. We just had a blast. Gleason never said a word that was in the script.
I heard Buford T. Justice was based on someone your dad actually knew. Is this true?
Yes, Buford T. was loosely based on this guy my dad knew. And Gleason used some of the broken vernacular of this guy. I can’t really remember a lot of what he used, but he used a lot of different sayings that this guy used.
How about “sumbitch” – was that one of the phrases from your dad’s friends?
(Burt laughs that classic Bandit laugh right here; Brad almost pees his pants.)
Oh yes. I can’t believe I forgot sumbitch. Yes. That was one of our favorites. I think we used that word for the next 20 years after that movie came out. But yes, that came from the guy Dad knew.
Did you spend a lot of time with Jackie off set? Get into any trouble? Tell me something you probably shouldn’t about him.
Well, we had a lot of good times. I went to a lot of places with him. He was always funny and wonderful, especially when he was angry. But another thing he did, that he thought none of us knew about – he had this guy that went everywhere with him, his assistant or whatever. He called him Mal. And Jackie drank on set, sometimes before 11 AM. He’d look over his shoulder and say “Mal! Hamburger!” And that meant glass of bourbon. Whenever he said “Mal! Hamburger!” that meant go get me a tall glass of bourbon. But he thought none of us knew about that.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen two friends on screen that did it better than you and Jerry Reed. I really don’t. I think I’ve compared every best friend I’ve ever had to you two. I kind of still do.
I’m so glad you picked up on that, Brad, because it was real. That friendship was very real. I loved him very much. He’d always say. “I can’t do that, I can’t act.” And I’d look at him and say, “The hell you can’t.”
Where did you two meet?
I met him in Nashville. I used to go to Nashville all the time. I met him there. I had a feeling about him. The way that he talks, ten million miles an hour. I thought it was unique and fun, so I told him he should be in a movie with me. He said, “Burt, I can’t act,” and I whispered, “Don’t worry, neither can I.”
Well, I had the opportunity to meet Jerry before he died, and the only thing I asked him about was his friendship with you. He had nothing but the kindest things to say about you. I could tell he really loved you.
Well, that means a lot, because I really loved him too. I’m so glad to hear that.
I also heard you knew Marilyn Monroe? Tell me about that?
Well, I walked to a class with her for the studio for a while. We’d walk down the street together, and I was in my early twenties then. But I noticed that no one recognized her. So I mentioned that to her. She looked at me and said, “Oh, do you want to see her?” I of course told her I would love to. All she did was change her posture, change the way we were walking, and within five minutes, we couldn’t move, so many people were around us. It was pretty amazing.
I know we are running out of time here. But let’s talk about “Boogie Nights”. I know you didn’t want the part. Did your feelings change once you saw the film?
Not really. I never really cared much about that movie when I was doing it, and that didn’t change when I saw it. I just didn’t like the subject matter. I thought I did a good job, I certainly worked hard on that film, but I was never crazy about it. And needless to say, my parents didn’t see it.
You set the bar for manhood for a certain generation. What do you think is important about being a man?
Well, I think one of the things is not to get out there and try and prove you are really something you’re not. Just be who you are. For me that was being an ex-jock and proud of it, or being from the South and proud of it. I’ve always been proud to be a Southerner. We get a bad rap down here. But let someone come down here and experience our kindness and they don’t know what hit them.
Have you ever been to Macon?
Oh yeah. Many, many times. One of my best friends in the world was J.L. Parker. They had a lumber company there. I’d stay with them all the time. When I got ready to build my Mom and Dad a house they came down and helped us. We couldn’t have done it without them. But I spent a lot of time up there.
I heard the Allman Brothers came down and recorded at your ranch in the 90’s. Is this right?
Oh yeah. I remember that. They came down and were amazed at how quiet it was there. Of course, they brought all their folks in and changed that pretty quickly. But I was happy to have them there, and I think they were happy to be there. We had a blast.
Well Burt, I really can’t tell you how fun this was for me. You meant so much to me and my father. Most of the memories I have with just me and him involve you somehow. We’d go to your movies, or we’d travel to see the Bandit car at some car show. You mean a lot to us…………. I love you, man.
Aww buddy, I love you too. God bless you. Listen, let’s please make an appointment together when I’m there in Macon. I’d love to sit down with you.
Consider it done, Bandit. Over and Out.
Over and Out.