Enduring, strong-featured, and genial star of US cinema, Burt Reynolds started off in T.V. westerns in the 1960s and then carved his name into the 1970s and 1980s popular culture, as a sex symbol (posing nearly naked for Cosmopolitan magazine), and on-screen as both a rugged action figure and then as a wisecracking, Southern type of “good ol’ boy.”
Burt Reynolds entered the world on February 11, 1936. He attended Florida State University on a football scholarship, and became an all-star Southern Conference halfback, but – faced with a knee injury and a debilitating car accident – switched gears from athletics to college drama. In 1955, he dropped out of college and traveled to New York, in search of stage work, but only turned up occasional bit parts on television, and for two years he had to support himself as a dishwasher and bouncer.
In 1957, Reynolds’s ship came in when he appeared in a New York City Center revival of Mister Roberts; shortly thereafter, he signed a television contract. He sustained regular roles in the series Riverboat, Gunsmoke, Hawk, and Dan August. Although he appeared in numerous films in the 1960s, he failed to make a significant impression.
In the early 1970s, his popularity began to increase, in part due to his witty appearances on daytime TV talk shows. His breakthrough film, Deliverance (1972), established him as both a screen icon and formidable actor. That same year, Reynolds became a major sex symbol when he posed as the first nude male centerfold in the April edition of Cosmopolitan. He went on to become the biggest box-office attraction in America for several years – the centerpiece of films such as Hustle (1975), Smokey and the Bandit (1977), The End (1978), Starting Over (1979), The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982), and The Man Who Loved Women (1983). However, by the mid-’80s, his heyday ended, largely thanks to his propensity for making dumb-dumb bumper-smashing road comedies with guy pals such as Hal Needham (Stroker Ace, The Cannonball Run 2).
Reynolds’ later cinematic efforts (such as the dismal Malone (1987)) failed to generate any box office sizzle, aside from a sweet and low-key turn as an aging career criminal in Bill Forsyth’s Breaking In (1989). Taking this as a cue, Reynolds transitioned to the small screen, and starred in the popular sitcom Evening Shade, for which he won an Emmy. He also directed several films, created the hit Win, Lose or Draw game show with friend Bert Convy, and established the Burt Reynolds Dinner Theater in Florida.
In the mid-’90s, Reynolds ignited a comeback that began with his role as a drunken, right-wing congressman in Andrew Bergman’s Striptease (1996). Although the film itself suffered from critical pans and bombed out at the box office, the actor won raves for his performance, with many critics citing his comic interpretation of the role as one of the film’s key strengths. His luck continued the following year, when Paul Thomas Anderson cast him as porn director Jack Horner in his acclaimed Boogie Nights. Reynolds would go on to earn a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination, and between the twin triumphs of Striptease and Nights, critics read the resurgence as the beginning of a second wind in the Deliverance star’s career, ala John Travolta’s turnaround in 1994’s Pulp Fiction.
Definitely one of Hollywood’s most resilient stars, Reynolds continually surprised all with his ability to weather both personal and career hurdles and his almost 60 years in front of the cameras were testament to his staying ability, his acting talent and his appeal to film audiences. Burt Reynolds died of cardiac arrest on September 6, 2018, in Jupiter, Florida, U.S. He was 82.