This year's screening list for the San Diego International Film Festival arrived, and it was my task to choose an interview subject. I dreamed big. Remember, this is the same organization that in the past delivered on Alan Arkin and Susan Sarandon.
I found a winner in the cast of Dog Years. “Burt Reynolds?” came the publicist’s reply. “Really?” Even she was impressed by my taste. Okay, hot shot. Here is your chance to shine. I’ll hang up and wait for my rejection slip.
A 7 p.m. spin of the dial that night stopped on Antenna TV where Reynolds was seen sandwiched between an egg-hurling Dom DeLuise and a pantsless, half-snockered Art Carney. That night’s rerun of The Tonight Show was a good sign.
A week later comes a succinct voicemail from festival publicist Susan Clausen. “Scott… It’s going to happen.”
There was one more obstacle in the path to confirmation. Reynolds resides in South Florida, where Hurricane Irma left him without power for days. At first a bit distant and frail-sounding, the 82-year-old actor’s voice grew stronger as the conversation progressed. He shrugged off any talk of hurricanes with, “They don’t bother me too much. The shakiest I think was when I was about 16. My dad was the chief of police. The eye of the hurricane came right over where we lived. I was out riding my bicycle having the best time and all of a sudden his police car pulled up and my dad yelled, ‘Get in the car and stop gawking!’
"That was the closest I’d come to actually being in one. If I’d have gone any further on my bicycle, I wouldn’t have gotten back.”
For years Reynolds was a top box-office attraction The second act of his life is best chalked up to bad career choices. Talk of a third-act revival surrounding his Oscar-nominated performance in Boogie Nights (1997) never materialized. IMDB credits the actor with consistent work, but it has been ages since last we saw the actor’s face splashed across a San Diego movie screen. Try The Dukes of Hazzard over a decade ago.
His was the first generation of movie stars to grow up on Hollywood movies. Reynolds arrived on the scene at the dawn of Hollywood’s nostalgic period. His reverence for the Golden Age of the studio system permeated the work. The whipped-cream schtick that he and Johnny Carson famously engaged in was 100 percent Laurel and Hardy. Check out his introductory shot in Fuzz, a relatively minor cop picture and his last stop before superstardom. Seated opposite a jail cell, the camera turns to reveal Reynolds, his hat brim flipped up and screaming John Wayne in Rio Bravo.
A recent article in the New York Post claims that millennials have turned their back on classic Hollywood. The news doesn’t please Reynolds, who replies, “That’s too bad. There’s a bunch of actors now that really don’t give a shit about old films and old actors… of which I am one. Once in awhile you’ll get a kid who loves film, who knows your movies and wants to talk about them. But not nearly as much as it used to be.”
Reynolds landed the part in Deliverance after director John Boorman saw him fill in for Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show. When people ask who the best director he ever worked with is, Reynolds always answers, “Johnny Carson. This is generally followed by a long pause like they’re trying to figure out how the hell this makes sense. I wouldn’t have had the career that I did were it not for Johnny Carson. I learned so much working with him.”
My personal Reynolds bandwagon began construction somewhere around the time of his long-forgotten 1966 TV series, Hawk. I remember theatrical visits to 100 Rifles (more for Raquel Welch than for Reynolds) and Sam Whiskey when they opened, but not Shark. This is as obscure as it gets, but I could not pass up the opportunity to ask Reynolds about his time spent in the presence of auteurial angel, Sam Fuller. Actors who worked with Fuller describe him as a character, a Hollywood maverick and one of the most experimental directors ever to find regular work in the studio system.
“You know, he didn’t say, ‘Action!’” Reynolds says before pausing to laugh. “He shot a gun. It’s a love scene and I’m holding the girl about to say something really romantic and BANG! I said, ‘I know you do that, Sam, and everybody likes it, but I don’t. Would you mind not doing it with me?’ And he said, ‘I would. Yeah.’ He didn’t stop. I never saw him without a cigar in his mouth. And he loved talking about the Army. He always talked about the Army. My dad was quite a hero in the Army, too. We would talk about that more than anything. He was crazy. I think he had done some really wonderful work. The picture we did together wasn’t.”
Were it not for Burt Reynolds, there might never have been a Playgirl magazine. Reynolds’s infamous centerfold in a 1974 issue of Cosmopolitan is briefly mentioned in the upcoming Battle of the Sexes in which Steve Carrell impersonates Bobby Riggs’s vamp on Reynolds naked gatefold.
“Did you ever think this stuff would have survived almost 50 years, you ask?” he says with a chuckle. “Hell, I didn’t think I would survive for 50 years. That was a daring thing to do at the time. I still don’t know what the hell it was about. I was scared to death. An hour before, I went to a bar next door to where we were shooting and got loaded on booze. It was a place that had become famous, the Peppermint Lounge, where they invented the Twist [dance] and all that crap.”
Reynolds had the good fortune to work with directors including Robert Aldrich, Blake Edwards, Don Siegel, Stanley Donen, and Peter Bogdanovich. What’s the best piece of advice a director ever imparted and what was the worst?
“Mel Brooks told me, on the first day, ‘Fire somebody.’” Pause for laughter. His favorite words of encouragement came from his acting teacher Wynn Hammer, who advised, “Don’t act, behave.”
Reynolds teaches acting on Friday nights, where “One of the things I tell my students is to get to know the crew. Learn their first and last names. Before the film is over, you’re having drinks together.”
The East Coast cadre of directors — the Scorseses, the Coppolas, the Martin Ritts, the Sidney Lumets, the Brian DePalmas — never sought his services. Reynolds appealed more to the Hollywood crowd. Why is that?
“At the time, I was blamed for whatever it was anyone didn’t like about Hollywood. And so were they. One night I was out having dinner with Clint [Eastwood] and across the room was a group of New York directors that included some that you mentioned. When we got through eating we stopped at the table on our way out and said hello. I saw their faces drop. I kept walking, but it was one of the most obvious put downs I’ve ever experienced. I wanted to go back and push their table. But I didn’t.”
He couldn’t wait to talk about Robert Aldrich’s The Longest Yard. “I was playing ball and getting paid for it,” says Reynolds, fondly recalling his time spent making the picture. He took a lot of hits, both on the gridiron and on the screen. If given the choice of never having been tackled or never doing a stunt, Reynolds would choose “The stunt work. I was such an ass. I did stuff that was just ridiculous. I walk around with a cane right now because of it. The football stuff, the hits I took, that comes with the territory.”
Instead of a stuntman doubling the hits, Reynolds went up against guys such as pro footballer Ray Nitschke. After filming, the football great pulled Reynolds aside and said, “You know, kid, you could have played.” There’s a pause before Reynolds adds, “I’ll take that to my grave and put it on my tombstone. I kept saying to him, ‘Ray, it’s just a movie!’ And he would say, ‘Not to me!’ He didn’t give a shit that it was a movie. He saw that I was open with no one blocking me and he put me in the ground. He would always put his hand on the back of my helmet to use as leverage when he stood up. I’d be pulling grass out of my face guard.”
Another football film, Semi-Tough, contains one of the actor’s most memorable and daring moments. It involves Mary Jo Catlett as Earlene Emery, the big girl with a wealth of personality who always finds herself parked at the end of the bar come closing time. Reynolds’s character invites her back to his hotel room. The prankster is fully capable of having a crew of people hiding in his room waiting to yell “SURPRISE!” the moment she disrobes, but it doesn’t play out that way.”
Reynolds remembers the scene well: “If ever in the world you could lose an audience, that was the scene. What I wanted to do by the end of the scene was make an audience think. I think we pulled it off.” The fade-to-black that ends the scene is arguably the classiest moment in Reynold’s canon.
Reynolds says he feels loyalty to those who have helped to make him look good over the years, saying, “If you have a guy who is one of the best directors or cinematographers or actors, it makes no sense to me not to hire them as many times as you can. And I always did. Paying it forward. Thank god they wanted to work with me.”
Run through the cast and crew list on several of his movies and you’ll find a lot of repeat appearances. Normally when an actor appears in a big moneymaking film, s/he can guarantee themselves at least a few years of consistent work in front of the camera. Reynolds had so much clout that he actually got a friend like Dom DeLuise work as a director. The only other director at the time who yielded enough influence to get friends in the director’s seat was Mel Brooks.
One of his favorite collaborators was Charles Durning, a recipient of a Silver Star and three Purple Hearts, and a war hero whose body count according to Reynolds was second only to Audie Murphy. “This guy was a killer,” Reynolds remembers, “And here he was playing Santa Claus types in 90 percent of his pictures. I used him in about five pictures. I was crazy about him. He was my dad’s favorite actor, the first guy he wanted to meet when he came to L.A. There will never be another guy that I love more than Charles Durning.”
Durning co-starred in Sharky’s Machine, in which Reynolds plays an Atlanta detective in love with a call girl. This time he directed. It was a difficult project to get off the ground mainly due to “studio politics. They did not want to make a film like that. There is certainly a thing about an actor directing a film that was really difficult for them.”
He hired a man who at the time was considered the best cinematographer in the business. No one worked around highly reflective surfaces better than William Fraker and this trait came in handy when doing a traveling aerial shot of an elevator ascending a glass tower. Reynolds “was in the chopper during that shot worrying to myself how Fraker was going to keep it out of the reflection. The pilot wasn’t pleased with me because I kept opening the door. In three takes we had the shot.”
Reynolds worked in about every conceivable genre, including a pair of ill-fated musicals (Lucky Lady, Nickelodeon). Why no science-fiction? “That’s the only part of this business,” he falters. “I really don’t like science fiction. I have a lot of good friends who I respect who have acted in a lot of sci-fi pictures. I don’t think [Jon] Voight has ever done one. Just about the time you start to think people are really good actors, they walk out in one of these alien movies with an elephant’s nose on their face or something. It’s not my thing.”
You’ll have two chances to catch Reynolds’s film, Dog Years, when it plays this year’s San Diego International Film Festival: October 6 at 7 p.m. and October 8 at 2 p.m.
The film is the creation of screenwriter (Small Soldiers) and director (Detroit Rock City) Adam Rifkin. Clearly created as an affectionate homage to its subject, Reynolds stars as Vic Edwards (née Marty Schulman), a former box-office titan who agrees to attend a Nashville film festival expecting the Ritz only to find it’s the pits. When asked if Schulman is his first Jew, Reynolds responds in the affirmative. Sadly, he didn’t do his homework. What kind of Jew falls asleep during the Three Stooges? Talk about science fiction...
There are moments where Reynolds electronically interacts with his characters in Smokey and the Bandit and Deliverance that are jarringly effective. After watching the finished product, Reynolds noted, “I don’t know if I’ve seen it or dreamt it. I don’t know if it was shot on green screen or not. I don’t think so. I don’t think I’ve ever worked on green screen. I don’t think I want to.” I’m guessing what with the cost of CGI, half the budget was spent on those scenes.
Rifkin came prepared. “I trusted Adam a lot,” Reynolds adds. “He loves actors.” Unlike the character written for him, Reynolds doesn’t waste time doting over the past. “I never look in the mirror,” he sighs. “It’s fatal.”
Ariel Winter spends the lion’s share of her onscreen time as the actor’s unwilling driver. The 19-year-old star of Modern Family has said in recent interviews that her mother sexualized her as a child. Judging by the costume she almost wears in Dog Years, mom was a success.
Reynolds had this to say about his first impression of the actress: “What’s interesting about that girl is, when she came on the set she was probably intimidated. She said the ‘f’ word 38 times in her opening sentence. After about the fifth round I stopped and took her behind the flat and said, “You’ve got to earn that kind of stuff. You’ve got to be George C. Scott’s wife before you can talk like that.”
He continues: “Maureen Stapleton was another actress who always used the ‘f’ word. One time she said, ‘Why don’t you come over tomorrow morning and have fucking breakfast?’ I said, ‘Could I come over and just have breakfast?’ And I did. Breakfast with Maureen Stapleton and Colleen Dewhurst was like sitting down with George C. Scott and Ward Bond. After a while I thought, I gotta get outta here before I get the shit beat out of me.”
My hour with Reynolds was rapidly drawing to a close. But he couldn’t leave without one more thought about Sharky’s Machine: “It’s interesting how people eventually came around to the film. I guess I’ll just have to outlive ’em all. Fuck ’em!”