Burt Reynolds: The Eternal Bandit

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It was the grin you first noticed.

And it was the kind of grin that seemed as if he was getting away with something naughty.

Or was about to.

Other actors have tried to recapture that grin, but nobody has ever had that combination of boyishness and daring.

Burt Reynolds was the biggest star when I was a kid.

Whether he was the Bandit romancing Sally Field while Jerry Reed sang “Eastbound and Down” in the background, or chatting it up with Johnny Carson, Reynolds was the sex symbol of the ’70s. But often his private life filled with temper tantrums, notorious womanizing and drug addiction overshadowed his acting roles.

A former college football player, Reynolds had a few bit parts, but he broke through in 1959 on the series Riverboat. From there he starred in Gunsmoke, Hawk, and Dan August, but he really hit it big with films like Deliverance and The Longest Yard.

In the ’70s he dated Lucie Arnaz, Dinah Shore, and Sally Field. According to Loni Anderson’s My Life in High Heels, one time he was with Lucie, then with another woman. He tried to charm his way back with Lucie, doing what was known as the “Burt is a bad bad boy” spiel that was perfected on Carson’s couch.

Not impressed, Lucie started humming “The Tonight Show’s” theme and walked away.

In spite of the womanizing, Anderson was the one that captured his heart.

She was on WKRP when they started dating and their romance had her floating on air. But she soon realized he had an addiction to prescription pills. There were times he was charming and kind, other times he was out of it or even violent. In fact, when Anderson’s mother Maxine was dying, he was so out of it that she felt as if she had two patients to deal with.

In spite of the troubles, Anderson stayed with him, even helping him go through a painful withdrawal from the drugs.

In the late ’80s, Reynolds’ career had slowed down because of bad roles and rumors of AIDS started to circulate because of a dramatic weight loss. Reynolds’ thinned down because after being hit by a chair on the set of City Heat he had temporomandibular joing dysfunction in his jaw, making eating a challenge.

Reynolds had to take risks to stay in the game.

He took a role in John Sayles’ Breaking In as an aging cat burglar, then returned to TV to play detective B.L. Stryker. But he would soon get his biggest critical acclaim as Wood Newton, the trouble-plagued football coach on the sitcom Evening Shade. Evening Shade was like a lovely novel written by Linda Bloodworth Thomason, showing life in a small southern town. With an ensemble cast including Elizabeth Ashley, Ossie Davis, Charles Durning, Jay Ferguson, Hal Holbrook, Marilu Henner, and Ann Wedgeworth, plus smart funny writing by Bloodworth Thomason, Reynolds had a hit, and in 1991, a well deserved Emmy on his mantle. Add to that marrying Anderson in 1988 and adopting a son Quentin in 1989, he was back on top.

Of course, the demons were still there, lurking and the erratic behavior started again. He picked fights with co-stars and when he was on The Tonight Show, he nearly got into a fight with Double Dare’s Marc Summers.  In June 1993, Reynolds said goodbye to Anderson. A day later, she found out he wanted a divorce. As she left their Florida mansion with Quentin, helicopters flew above them.  She had to hide the anger from Quentin, but as she would later write she felt as if he threw his son and wife to the wolves.

A long ugly tabloid-documented divorce followed. I’ll be honest: I was Team Loni. A man doesn’t dump Jennifer Marlowe! What was he thinking? He made it worse by posing with his new girlfriend on the front page of The Enquirer. I had to stop watching Evening Shade. Watching someone self-destruct wasn’t entertainment. The show was canceled in 1994, the same year Dinah Shore died and Reynolds filed for bankruptcy in 1996.

Three years later, Reynolds rose again. This time he was Jack Horner, the patriarch of a porn empire in the movie Boogie Nights. Reynolds made Horner an oddly likable man who was okay watching his girlfriend Amber (Julianne Moore) have sex with Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg) while the camera was running. Yet he strived for excellence in a mocked industry. Reynolds won a Golden Globe for his role, and was then nominated for an Oscar.

As the years went on, Reynolds did guest starring roles but his failing health found him working less and less.

Reynolds was rugged, funny, handsome and charming.  And thanks to that inimitable wink in his eye, he remains one of Hollywood’s most enduring and evergreen matinee idols.