Top Ten Tuesday – The Best of Burt Reynolds
Article by Jim Batts, Dana Jung, Travis Keune, and Tom Stockman
We like to celebrate the movie tough guys of the ’70s here at We Are Movie Geeks and at Super-8 Movie Madness. We’ve posted Top Ten lists to tie into Super-8 shows featuring Charles Bronson (HERE), Clint Eastwood (HERE), and Lee Marvin (HERE). This month we’re going to honor the #1 top money-making star for five consecutive years – 1978 – 1982 – Burt Reynolds. On February 11th, 1936, Reynolds was born in Waycross, Georgia, before his family moved to Jupiter Florida, where his father served as Chief of Police. Young Burt excelled at sports and played football at Florida State University. He became an All Star Southern Conference halfback (and was earmarked by the Baltimore Colts) before injuries sidelined his football career. He dropped out of college and headed to New York with dreams of becoming an actor. There he worked in restaurants and clubs while pulling the odd TV job or theater role. Burt was spotted in a New York City stage production of Mister Roberts and signed to a TV contract and eventually had recurring roles in such shows as Gunsmoke (1955), Riverboat (1959) and his own series, Hawk (1966).
Burt’s movie debut was in the 1961 ANGEL BABY. On the advice of his friend Clint Eastwood, Reynolds used his TV fame to land a leading role in the Italian Spaghetti Western NAVAJO JOE in 1966. The film was a hit and established Reynolds as a bankable leading man in movies, and earned him starring roles in American big-budget films. His breakout performance in DELIVERANCE in 1972 made him a bona-fide movie star (The same year, Reynolds gained notoriety when he posed near-naked in the April (Vol. 172, No. 4) issue of Cosmopolitan Magazine).
Burt Reynolds has appeared in over 160 films and TV shows so far in his six decades as an actor, and here, according to We Are Movie Geeks, are his ten best:
Reynolds joined director Robert Aldrich a second time for this underrated slice of neo-noir. Leisurely paced, character-driven, and dripping with irony, HUSTLE is one of Reynolds’ best films. Once again cast as a cop, Reynolds this time plays an edgier, more jaded version of lawman – an L.A police detective involved in a romantic relationship with a high-class prostitute played with sensual warmth by Catherine Deneuve. The mixing of American tough guy Reynolds with pensive French actress Deneuve almost sounds like a recipe for disaster, but their chemistry together smolders on the big screen. All of their scenes have a rhythm and underlying emotional undercurrent that is at times palpable. The somewhat simple plot follows the investigation of a dead girl found on the beach. But it is the way in which the story unfolds, in layers of ever-more cynical revelation, that makes the film fascinating to watch. Aldrich keeps things off balance by utilizing a great eclectic soundtrack, offbeat love scenes, and hard-edged police action. Supporting players are uniformly excellent, especially Ben Johnson and Eileen Brennan as the dead girl’s parents, Eddie Albert as the smarmy villain, and Ernest Borgnine as the cop’s boss. The great Paul Winfield is solid as Reynolds’ partner, and look for Catherine Bach (aka Daisy Duke) in a small role–as a porn actress! Reynolds’ performance is thoughtful and nuanced in portraying a man seeking something in life that he knows– from seeing the world through lenses of skepticism, doubt, and mistrust – will forever elude him.
In SHAMUS (1973), based on the 87th Precinct novels by Ed McBain, Burt Reynolds played Shamus McCoy, a studly, ex-pool player-turned rugged private eye who is quick with his fists and has an eye for the ladies, especially a ridiculously sexy Dyan Cannon. Hired by a shady rich man to find out who killed a diamond thief, Shamus stumbles on something bigger: gun-running and the illicit sale of surplus US military equipment.Briskly directed by Buzz Kulik, with a colorful script by Barry Beckerman, occasional exciting outbursts of raw rough’n’tumble fisticuffs, gritty cinematography by Victor J. Kemper, a funky New York City atmosphere, and a few charmingly quirky touches (Shamus sleeps on a pool table with a mattress on it and has a deep-seated dread of large dogs), SHAMUS made for a hugely enjoyable and often thrilling private eye flick. Popping up in solid supporting parts are Larry Block as funny sports trivia freak informant Springy, Joe Santos as hard-nosed police Lieutenant Promuto, John P. Ryan as crazed fanatical army Colonel Hardcore, and John Glover in his film debut as a pathetic heroin addict. The downbeat ending was ahead of its time. SHAMUS is something of an overlooked Reynolds film, containing some startling stuntwork by the actor and is definitely one his best vintage 70’s action vehicles. The 1976 sequel, A MATTER OF WIFE AND DEATH, starred Rod Taylor as Shamus.
8. CANNONBALL RUN
Reynolds’ teaming with stunt expert/director Hal Needham reached its peak of car chase films with this comedy based on real life cross-country races held during the 1970s. Although the story had been filmed years earlier as GUMBALL RALLY, this version featured an all-star cast that included Farrah Fawcett, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Roger Moore, Dom DeLuise, Adrienne Barbeau, Terry Bradshaw, Jamie Farr, Peter Fonda, Jackie Chan, and even Bianca Jagger! CANNONBALL is certainly the most absurdist car stunt movie ever, at times resembling the Three Stooges at their best, full of funny performances (Jack Elam steals every scene he’s in, and DeLuise is hilarious), witty one-liners, non-sequiturs, and numerous sight gags. Then there’s the amazing stunts, which aren’t just limited to cars; airplanes, skydivers, and motorcycles also get into the act. With major stars like Moore poking fun at the Bond persona (driving an Aston Martin, naturally) and Chan doing some kung fu (though he must’ve been miffed to be cast as Japanese), everyone seems like they’re having a great time, and the film was a huge box office success. Prior to CANNONBALL, Fawcett was having a tough time in her career, after quitting CHARLIE’S ANGELS and filming three box office flops. Reynolds thought she would be perfect as the female lead, and got her cast despite objections. Fawcett is perfect, delivering a performance that is naturally sweet and sexy, making it even funnier when she utters phrases like “gang bang”. From the first frame when the film spoofs the 20th Century Fox logo, to the last (this was one of the first movies to show outtakes during the closing credits), CANNONBALL is carried along on Reynold’s sense of unbridled mirth, and it’s a contagious blast. Almost the entire cast (sadly, minus Farrah) reunited a few years later for the inevitable CANNONBALL II, with even more guest star cameos (Frank Sinatra, Shirley MacLaine) and it was also a hit, but was to be the last of Reynolds’ ‘car‘ movies.
7. THE MAN WHO LOVED WOMEN
For this remake of the Truffault directed 1977 French farce, Reynolds teamed up with comic mastermind Blake Edwards of the PINK PANTHER series and Mrs.Edwards, the lovely Julie Andrews. She plays Marianna, a therapist trying to help famous sculptor David Fowler (Reynolds) end his chronic womanizing. Reynolds had garnered quite a rep as a ladies man in the gossip columns and tabloids, so perhaps this film was his commentary on all the speculations. Quite an impressive group of women were assembled for him to romance in this 1983 comedy/drama. Besides Ms. Andrews, Reynolds shared the screen with Marilu Henner (his future TV wife on “Evening Shade”), Cynthia Sikes, Sela Ward, and Kim Basinger as a funny, daffy Texas belle. There’s plenty of the trademark Edwards slapstick here, but it’s also a chance to admire Mr. Reynolds’s charming screen persona.
6. SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT
Ever wonder what the second highest grossing film of 1977 was, after STAR WARS?Redneck bad boys were all the rage in ’77. Cars were still made in Michigan and CB radios were the hot technology with phrases like “10-4 good buddy” familiar expressions and SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT captured that side of American culture as well as any film.The plot of SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT was merely an excuse for the many car chases and gags that comprised the thin story, which is about Bandit (Burt Reynolds) and his buddy Cledus (aka: “Snowman” – Jerry Reed) attempting to win a bet. They have to drive from Georgia to Arkansas, pick up four hundred cases of Coors beer, (an early example of product placement) and deliver it back in Georgia within twenty-eight hours. Along the way they pick up escaped bride Carrie (Sally Field) and get chased by the jilted groom’s father, a Texas sheriff; one Buford T. Justice, hilariously played by the great Jackie Gleason.It was the directorial debut for former stuntman Hal Needham and was the first of nine collaborations with his pal Burt Reynolds. Sally Field was Burt’s squeeze at the time and looked super-cute with her skin-tight jeans and no bra. Jackie Gleason tossed off great one-linerslike the comedy legend that he was and former Tarzan Mike Henry was perfect as his doofus son. Jerry Reed contributed to the top-selling soundtrack and would co-star with Burt in six films. Like STAR WARS, there were two sequels, but they weren’t very good and Burt made but a cameo in the third film. Buford T. Justice was the name of a real Florida Highway Patrolman known to Burt’s father, who was at one time the Chief of Police in Jupiter, Florida.
5. SHARKY’S MACHINE
For his third time directing himself, Reynolds tackled this gritty crime thriller from novelist William Diehl. Echoing his previous TV lead roles (“Hawk”, “Dan August”) he plays Tom Sharky, a cop that doesn’t go by the book. He’s assigned to observe from a nearby apartment (shades of REAR WINDOW) a high-priced call girl named Dominoe (played by the very alluring Rachel Ward in her big studio film debut). Things get complicated when Tom falls for her while watching her affair with a big politico. In a twist recalling the classic noir LAURA, the two, with the help of “the machine”-Brian Keith, Bernie Casey, and Richard Libertini, try to take down a vicious drug kingpin (Victorio Gassman) and his demonic kid brother hitman (Henry Silva). This flick is a great police thriller with some fabulous stunts including a record-breaking fall by Dar Robinson. And just try not to look away when Sharky is tortured by the bad guys! Reynolds proves to be quite the artist on both sides of the camera.
4. THE LONGEST YARD
Hollywood veteran director Robert Aldrich (DIRTY DOZEN, HUSTLE) gave Reynolds one of his biggest hits – and best roles – in this seriocomic tale of prison life and football. On the surface, the character of Paul Crewe is fairly despicable – he is a smartass, a drunk, and a violent malcontent not above mistreating women. But Reynolds not only makes us like Crewe, he makes us actually root for him to find redemption. With Eddie Albert and Ed Lauter as the villains, and wonderful character performances from Richard Kiel, Michael Conrad, Bernadette Peters, and many others, YARD doesn’t gloss over its portrayal of prison society. The hard life often explodes in violence, racial tensions abound, and then there’s the warden’s secretary. Aldrich, himself a gridiron fan, smartly peppered the film with many real-life ex-NFL players, such as Joe Kapp (Vikings) and Ray Nitschke (Packers). This gives the film, along with Reynolds’ natural athleticism (he played for Florida State), a tone of realism lacking in many sports- based tales.The climactic football game takes up nearly half the movie’s running time, and it is certainly one of the most brutal and exciting events – in any sport – ever put on film. Coming on the heels of DELIVERANCE, this movie solidified Reynolds’ box office appeal. With his winning mixture of bravado and self-deprecating humor (we get a lot of the trademark laugh), Reynolds helped make THE LONGEST YARD one of the greatest sports movies ever made.
3. WHITE LIGHTNING
Booze, broads, car chases, corruption and revenge — all the things that make life worthwhile! WHITE LIGHTNING (1973) was a tough country melodrama in which hard-driving Bogen County, Arkansas moonshiner Gator McCluskey (Burt Reynolds) is paroled from prison in order to get the goods on a thoroughly corrupted sheriff (Ned Beatty) who is not only taking graft but also murdered Gator’s kid brother. Crisply directed by Joseph Sargent who manages to instill the proceedings with both atmosphere and pace, the fragmented story of rough backwoods codes is punctuated by several high-powered car chases that keep the dust swirling on those backcountry roads (the stunts were coordinated by Hal Needham who would go on to direct Burt in SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT and CANNONBALL RUN). While the 1976 sequel GATOR was more a comedy, WHITE LIGHTNING has real authenticity in its look at the American South of the early 1970s. Beatty is truly black hearted as the mild-mannered but hateful sheriff Conners, who kills Gator’s brother just because he looks like a hippy commie. He’s the opposite of the buffoonish cartoon lawman that Jackie Gleason would play opposite Burt in the later Smokey and the Bandit films. There is some tough suspense and some genuinely moving scenes in WHITE LIGHTNING, which was a huge hit in 1973, securing Reynolds’s place in the superstar strata throughout the 1970s. R.G. Armstrong, Bo Hopkins, Diane Lane, and Dabbs Greer all lend able support and watch for a young Laura Dern in a small role, her film debut.
Reynolds had been toiling in TV and ‘B’ movies for decades before this 1972 classic finally catapulted him to big screen super-stardom. Aside from the “Dueling Banjos” scene (which became a top 40 radio hit), John Boorman’s backwoods horror tale may be best remembered for, let’s be delicate, the “squeal” sequence. Well, which character puts an end to this nightmare? It’s Reynolds as the alpha male of the foursome, Lewis Medlock. He’s the only one truly prepared for anything in this Georgia jungle. Before the Avengers’ Hawkeye, before Katness, Lewis is the deadliest screen bow and arrow marksman since Robin Hood. With his slicked-back hair and black leather vest (exposing his impressive biceps) coupled with his “good ole” boy” persona, Reynolds dominates every scene and stakes his claim as the next great action movie hero.
1. BOOGIE NIGHTS
Times, they are growing turbulent once again for the ole porn biz… with the San Fernando Valley threatening new regulations that could send the industry packing. But, how did it all begin? Leave it to Paul Thomas Anderson to give us a flashback into the wild and “wooly” ’70s when the business of sex was less corporate and more coital. Don’t let the title or the content shake your resolve, because BOOGIE NIGHTS is a great film, not exclusive to Burt Reynolds, but he most definitely added an element to the film that few could have accomplished. Burt, even today, sort of exudes ’70s masculine sexual bravado, as is on display in this film. Burt plays Jack Horner, a filmmaker of the flesh, who discovers a youngstar in Eddie Adams, aka Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg), who works alongside a young actress known as Rollergirl (Heather Graham) in what is, in many ways, a family business. Awkwardly dramatic, hilarious and a remarkably well made film that takes itself seriously, but not at it’s own expense… perhaps an original “most interesting man in the world,” Burt Reynolds makes his mark.
Burt Reynolds made so many great films and runner-ups for this list would have to include Woody Allen’s EVERYTHING YOU’VE ALWAYS WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT SEX BUT WERE AFRAID TO ASK, THE MAN WHO LOVED CAT DANCING, STICK, and SEMI-TOUGH.