Burt Reynolds, the star of Deliverance, The Longest Yard and Boogie Nights, has died, aged 82. His manager, Erik Kritzer confirmed the news on Thursday that Reynolds died that morning at Jupiter Medical in Florida. The star had undergone a quintuple heart bypass in February 2010 but been working until recently; he was currently filming Quentin Tarantino’s film about the Charles Manson murders, Once Upon A Time in Hollywood.
Reynolds, who famously turned down the roles of James Bond and Han Solo, never-the-less forged a film career that marked him out as a singular talent.
A Michigan native transplanted to Florida, he was an American football player in his youth, but switched to acting after a knee injury was aggravated by a car accident. Discouraged, Reynolds started part-time lessons at Palm Beach Junior College, where his acting talent was spotted by Watson B Duncan III, an English teacher who liked the way he read Shakespeare. Reynolds would later say that Duncan was the most important influence on his life.
He soon found regular work on stage and in TV, but delayed heading to Hollywood, citing a lack of confidence after being turned down during his first audition (for the 1957 war romance Sayonara) for looking too much like Marlon Brando. Brando got the role. Reynolds eventually made his debut in 1961’s Angel Baby, a pulp thriller about religious zealotry in the American south.
His profile got a bump in the early seventies when he posed naked on a bear skin rug for Cosmopolitan magazine, but his film breakthrough arose shortly after with Deliverance - another story of backwoods behaviour - in which Reynolds starred opposite Jon Voight. He played Lewis Medlock, an Atlanta businessman who, with three friends, is stalked and attacked by violent locals while on a river boating trip through rural Georgia. The film, famous for a scene in which one of the party is ordered to “squeal like a pig” before being raped by their captors, made Reynolds a star, even if many of his later roles would gently mock Lewis Medlock’s brimful machismo.
The Longest Yard, Robert Altman’s 1974 sports drama about prisoners who play American football against their guards, allowed Reynolds to combine hobbies. He played Paul “Wrecking” Crewe, the charismatic team leader of inmate team the “Mean Machine”, who finds himself compromised after being threatened with more jail time if he doesn’t throw the game. The film was later remade with Adam Sandler taking the ball as Paul “Wrecking” Crewe, while Reynolds played Coach Nate Scarborough.
Another enduring hit came in 1977 when Reynolds starred in Smokey and the Bandit, a madcap action comedy in which the actor played a rebellious trucker, Bo Darville (aka “Bandit”), hired to drive bootleg booze across state lines. Notable for its lengthy last act chase scene, the film was the second highest grossing of the year and spawned two sequels. Another petrolheaded hit came later with 1981 Hal Needham comedy The Cannonball Run, about a cross country car race.
Later the red leather jacket Reynolds wore in Smokey and the Bandit was part of a collection of memorabilia sold off by the actor in 2014 to pay off mortgage debts of a rumoured $1.4 million. Also among the auctioned items was the best supporting actor Golden Globe award Reynolds won for his role in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights. Set in the 1970s porn industry, Anderson’s film rejuvenated Reynolds career by casting him as the pragmatic, occasionally ruthless adult film director Jack Horner. A critical hit, Boogie Nights never-the-less did not sit well with its star, who had trouble with the subject matter and hated working with Anderson, who he thought cocky. Horner was his only Oscar-nominated performance.