Watch him at his peak, though — Smokey and the Bandit, Gator, Semi-Tough, The Longest Yard, Deliverance, Hooper, and The End, the underappreciated 1978 black comedy he directed as well as starred in — and you’ll notice how little the stereotype has to do with what he did on screen. Bad scripts, not his personal attributes, were his undoing. As much as any movie star, Burt in his prime was the distillation of American cool. He was nearly the ultimate leading man, combining Crosby’s good-humored unflappability with John Wayne’s physicality and Steve McQueen’s sexiness. Such was his impact that, like Charlie Chaplin, he inspired doppelgangers, ripoff artists — early ’80s TV was awash with Tom Sellecks and Lee Horsleys.
“The Cannonball Run” was a poor movie about one of the great outlaw events of the 20th century, the Cannonball Run race across the U.S., created by the late great car writer Brock Yates. (“The Gumball Rally” was much better.) However, the aforementioned movies passed test number one — they were all entertaining. And with Reynolds getting top billing, they were box office gold.
Most of us first saw him in Deliverance, which many would call his best film and is probably one of the few Reynolds efforts that is watched much anymore. Yet this was an atypical role: No mustache, for a start, and he’s plays a city slicker, a professional man drawn into a life-and-death match with hostile hillbillies, saving his friends from rapists with a deadly recurve bow. As he settled into a recognizable type, Reynolds became a good ol’ boy who didn’t fight much because he didn’t have to.
In the 1980s, his heir proved to be Tom Cruise, the shrimp with the floodlight smile who was always wound about 10 percent too tight. Reynolds embodied the loose, louche ’70s: He was muscular, but you couldn’t picture him at the gym. He smoked for pleasure, not because it made him look good. You couldn’t picture him waxing his chest or flexing in the mirror. When he posed for the infamous shot on a bear rug that became the most famous male centerfold in history when it appeared in Cosmopolitan in 1972, he looked beefy, not ripped.
McQueen, much preferred by critics and growing in stature among them since his 1980 death, better embodied ’70s American cinema. But if McQueen’s message was They’ll capture you and they’ll hurt you, so remain stoic, Reynolds’ was Those jerks aren’t as smart as they think. Have another beer. In what other car chase but the one in Smokey and the Bandit does the hunted man stop for a leisurely session of making whoopee with a girl he picked up on the road? Learning that Reynolds and Jackie Gleason essentially improvised the movie on the fly makes Smokey that much more of a pleasure. More than McQueen, Reynolds was in tune with a true American character — the dumb jock who isn’t so dumb, the back-of-the-class clown who barely tries but succeeds anyway, the guy who just keeps winning. Instead of intensity, athletic grace radiated from him. Before he played football in The Longest Yard, he played it at Florida State, where he lettered at tailback. With his sangfroid and his arched eyebrow he was a kind of redneck James Bond, partial to moonshine instead of martinis: Cubby Broccoli even asked him to play 007, but Reynolds demurred, saying no American could do it.
Central to his laid-back appeal was his generosity as an actor; at his commercial peak in 1981, when he made The Cannonball Run, he was content to be the calm center in an ensemble piece of crazed performances — Sammy Davis Jr., Jackie Chan, Jamie Farr, Jack Elam, and especially Dom DeLuise, with whom Reynolds starred many times. DeLuise didn’t live life as a gay man — when he died in 2009, he’d been married to the same woman for 44 years, and they had three children. But he came across as exceptionally gay on screen, and Reynolds was happy to be his straight man (in both senses). This tolerance for eccentricity, too, was very American: Contrary to the red-state stereotype, Reynolds showed how a strong, self-confident Southern man takes everything in stride, even a rotund sidekick who likes to play dress-up while calling himself “Captain Chaos.” And who more stirringly channeled our national credo than the Bandit when he explained why he was bootlegging a truckload of Coors across the Mississippi? “For the good old American life: For the money, for the glory, and for the fun. Mostly for the money.”
Reynolds has had a really long career, on TV and in movies …
… some of which were better than others. (John Wayne once played Genghis Khan. Really.)
You might claim that Reynolds played pretty much the same character in most of his movies. That would be essentially correct. A lot of actors made a very nice living for themselves by playing a narrow list of characters.
Reynolds lived much of his life in the tabloids, thanks to his well-publicized romances with Judy Carne, Dinah Shore, Sally Field and Loni Anderson, and various other personal issues.