“…But I am the best Burt Reynolds in the world!” And Burton Leon Reynolds Jr played that role to the hilt, seeming to define “full life” from his earliest years.
A high school football star, he got a full football college scholarship, but plans for national fame crashed due to injuries which made him give up the sport. Plans to leave leave college & become a cop were sidelined by his police chief father, who encouraged his son to finish studies with an eye to becoming a parole officer.
It was during his college days that an English teacher, after hearing Burt read Shakespeare in class, urged him to try out for a play – Outward Bound – he was producing; Burt won the role & the 1956 Florida State Drama Award for his performance! Small wonder that he considered the teacher, Watson B. Duncan III, the most influential person in his life.
The award included a lot more than minor fame – it came with a scholarship to the Hyde Park Playhouse, in Hyde Park, NY – the thought of doing summer stock in a pleasant town on the Hudson sounded like fun, but Burt didn’t take acting seriously as a profession.
Ah, but then he met Joanne Woodward, who helped him find an agent. He was cast in Tea & Sympathy at NYC’s Neighborhood Playhouse – his die was cast. He received favorable reviews for his Broadway debut – Look, We’ve Come Through – which he stayed with through its tour, both appearing on stage AND driving the bus!
Although he almost gave up acting after a disastrous acting class improv performance, he landed a role in a revival of Mister Roberts (Charlton Heston played Henry Fonda’s role). Encouraged by director John Forsythe to try out for Sayonara, he was passed over by Joshua Logan due to looking too much like the film’s star, Marlon Brando. But the director liked what he saw & urged Burt to head to Hollywood. Lacking confidence in his acting, the young man stayed in New York, where he – like many aspiring actors – juggled a variety of jobs, from waiting tables & washing dishes to a bouncer & dock worker.
But Hollywood’s beckoning call could not be denied & by the late 1950s, Burt had lit out cross country. He made his film debut in a forgotten film, then was cast in his first television show – the equally forgotten Riverboat. Then came his Big Break – being cast in Gunsmoke as as blacksmith Quint Asper. Burt parlayed his tv work into leading roles for low-budget movies, then hit the mother lode when he was case in the early ’70s as the title character in the short-lived police drama, Dan August.
The people who matter – directors & producers – liked what they saw. The legendary Albert Broccoli even offered him the part of James Bond, but Burt famously turned it down – “An American can’t play James Bond. It just can’t be done.”
Deliverance aptly delivered the role that took Burt to the top – followed by the lilting notoriety he gained by posing naked for the April 1972 issue of Cosmopolitan! He worked steadily, a surefire draw for audiences who adored his cocky confidence & swoon-worthy good looks. Last year, he gave a widely acclaimed performance in The Last Movie Star, a film about an aging movie star dealing with the fact his days of glory are behind him. A film that would be his last but NOT define Burt – this past May, he was signed to the cast of Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. He died before filming his scenes.
Unlike the star in his last flick, Burt’s glory days were whichever ones were in front of him! As quoted at the end of today’s lengthy NY Times obituary, the actor nailed his life in one short take – “I may not be the best actor in the world, but I’m the best Burt Reynolds in the world.” Amen to that!
related links: https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-17896980 ~ about his Cosmo cover
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=czaBMJQe0j4 – a tribute to Watson B. Duncan III