The mustache, the smirk, the dimples, and the apple-seed eyes—these 8 x 10 glossy attributes were the late Burt Reynolds’ impish stock and trade. He was a man’s man and a ladies man. He was even a hero to kids (he never cursed in films) as “Bandit” with his bitchin’ Trans Am in the Smokey and the Bandit trilogy. He was, in short, a one-size-fits-all movie star straight out of old Hollywood.
Like those stars from Hollywood’s golden age, he had a career that spanned decades (he was funny, he was charming, and given the chance he could act—see Deliverance, or Boogie Nights). He also had a not-very-private private life that would titillate tabloid readers for years. But somewhere along the way, he seems to have grown tired of it all. Maybe the good parts dried up. Maybe he got tired of answering the same questions, because while the interviews kept coming, the charm went missing. As the decades rolled on, he sounded more and more like a grumpy old man telling the world to get off his lawn. He became, as he confessed in late-life interviews, an asshole.
Millennials reading about him today might easily have no idea why there was a time when men, women, and children adored him. Which is too bad, because if he was an asshole, he wasn’t always an asshole.
To see the unadulteratedly lovable Burt Reynolds, we have to go back to 1972, to the moment just before he became the most famous actor in Hollywood, before he discovered that actions, even frivolous, well-intentioned actions, often have dire consequences, and before he found out that people in the public sphere do not always get to control their own narrative.
We have to go back, in other words, to 1972 and the Burt Reynolds centerfold in Cosmopolitan.
For those who came in late, the centerfold—the first male centerfold ever—shows Reynolds reclining naked on a bearskin rug. When the April 1972 issue of Cosmo hit the stands, the centerfold became a national sensation. It also went up on the walls of beauty salons nationwide—or mostly nationwide: It was banned in Arkansas. As a cultural marker, that centerfold is the male equivalent of Farrah Fawcett's iconic 1976 Mexican blanket and red swimsuit poster. So, I am focusing on the month leading up to the publication of the April issue of Cosmopolitan—the cusp of his stardom—and to allow the younger, untainted Burt Reynolds to reveal himself through his words in a March 1972 interview with WGN Chicago, just weeks before Cosmo hit the stands.
It was a banner year for Reynolds. Deliverance was about to debut to great reviews and huge box office. He had been doing the variety show circuit, appearing on Sonny and Cher and The Carol Burnett Show. ”If anybody ever told me I’d be a guest on the Carol Burnett show five years ago, I would have said, you’re crazy!” The kid-with-a-new-toy excitement in his voice was palpable: “Carol Burnett is as you may or may not know… if I had to go to a desert island and could pick one lady, she would be the girl. She’s super.”
He was doing the WGN radio call-in show ostensibly to promote his local appearance in a play, The Rainmaker, and he was charmingly modest in the face of the sudden fame he experienced after 15 years of doing “everything in this business from falling off a horse to under five, as they say... lines.”
In a soft voice, almost a deep purr, he answered questions from callers, most of them women, most of whom wanted him to come to dinner. Graciously, he accepted:
“Is there any possibility that you might be able to come over to our home for dinner? We would love to have you,” one lady, clearly married, asked in a heavily Chicago accent. She was obviously completely fantasizing about him, but would settle for dinner.
“Well, I would love to come. The only problem is I don’t know when I could come to your dinner. When is your dinner?” Reynolds replied—and he wasn’t fucking with her, maybe flirting a little, but earnest in his intention to break bread with this couple.
“Whenever is convenient for you,” she said as he laughed.
“Well, can we talk about it when you come to the theatre?”
She reminded him, “OK, but that’s March 30th and you’re leaving April the 2nd.”
“Well, I still got a couple days left. I get some invitations to dinner every now and then and I go and I usually meet some very nice ladies and... the husbands, and I would like to talk to you about it.”
“Do you like Italian food?” She was locking this down.
“I love Italian food” He said Italian food like it was a euphemism for sex.
“I’m a great italian cook.”
“You are?” He revealed in a later call that his mother was second generation Italian from Milan—“a very fiery kind of crazy marvelous mother.” So for the remainder of the hour, ladies offered Italian dinners in their homes—until the lady on the very last call changed it up, asking him to Passover Seder at her house.
Sounded like he was all for eating with her and her husband, and maybe he would bring Dyan Cannon, because, when, the host asked about the female visitor who had flown into town to see him, he said, “Dyan Cannon, healthy devil.” That was weird, but no weirder than a lot of things he’d say in the years to come. Just recently, on The Today Show, he said he was glad Hoda Kotb’s lips aren’t bigger.
His March 30, 1972 appearance on the WGN show was not only to promote the The Rainmaker. It was also a teaser leading up to the Cosmopolitan centerfold. Prior its publication, mystery surrounded who the centerfold was, but it was the worst kept secret, so Burt went ahead and let everyone know on local radio. Before signing twenty advance copies for winners who had sent postcards for a drawing (I miss the ’70s and those 3x5 notecard drawings), he said, “Well, I think, it’s, pardon the expression, it’s out. I think everybody knows it’s me, so I might as well cop out and say it’s me.”
He wasn’t entirely comfortable. He spoke for a long, rambling minute about the reasons and conditions he placed on it, and how it all fell together. “The original reason I did it was because # I… it was gonna be the first time anybody ever did it, which kind of appealed to me a lot… also thought it would be a lot of fun.” At 36, he was still giddy and naive, and believed the repercussions would be minimal, that he was “gonna get a lot of flack from it, and… gonna have to take an awful lot of kidding, and get on airplanes and having guys whistle and that kind of thing, but that’s all part of it and you’ve got to be able to handle that part of it, too. But so far, it’s been fun. I had no idea the reaction was going to be quite as much as it has been so far.”
The centerfold idea came about after Helen Gurley Brown, Cosmo’s editor, appeared The Tonight Show when Reynolds was guest hosting. When she asked him about posing,, he at first said, “No, definitely not, unless it was done with a great deal of fun… and if I could pick the picture.and she said yes, so I did and… uh, this is not the picture I picked, by the way.” He seemed to have some remorse after the fact. “The one I picked, I was laughing hysterically, and had a much more sense of fun about it than this one does. People might look at it and say, who does he really think he is, and that really wasn’t the idea. The idea was to…. do a take off on Playboy, which really I thought was marvelous. I thought they were going to take pictures of me in the shopping market, saying, ‘Gosh o golly gee, I want to be a starlet someday.’ And then the picture, which would have really been fun. Apparently, it doesn’t matter. The magazine is going to sell anyway.” Clearly, whether Burt was upset about it or not, he had lost creative control. The riff on the editorial along with the photo turned into a straight sex-symbol launch, nothing tongue-in-cheek. When he returned to guest host The Tonight Show after Cosmo came out, the show’s ratings broke all records.
On that radio show, a flirty, carefree Reynolds clearly had no clue how ruinous posing nude in Cosmopolitan would be. Ruinous to his image: he was Mr. Macho, a sort of national punchline, for years after that. But also ruinous to to the credibility he had amassed after his clean-shaven performance in Deliverance. (The mustache actually didn’t do him any favors.) He didn’t yet regret it, and was happy to tell the story. He did not feel in 1972 how he would feel in 2009 when he told Piers Morgan, “I’m very embarrassed by it.” Reynolds had no idea 1.6 million copies, every last one, would sell, and that the timing was terrible, as it hit the stands only a few weeks before Deliverance was released. “I thought it cost some actors in Deliverance an Academy Award,” Reynolds told Morgan. “I think it cost Jon [Voight]. I think it cost Ned Beatty, who certainly deserved an Oscar nomination. I think it hurt me, too.”
That Chicago radio interview is one of the last times that Reynolds would speak without a touch of remorse, and often more than just a touch—remorse over becoming a national joke, remorse over not being taken seriously as an actor, There would be big parts and lots of success, but somehow he knew that he was never going to be taken seriously, and it rankled. Thereafter, in interview after interview, you hear the echoes of missed chances in his voice. You hear it when he talks about work, and even when he talks about love.
While discussing his 2015 book, Enough About Me, with Michael Hainey, the question about his acrimonious divorce from Loni Anderson comes up.
Most men, it seems, at one point in their life, date someone who is "crazy." And some guys don't just date the crazy, they marry the crazy. So, why is it men often times can't see the crazy until it is too late?
“Well, crazies are the sexiest. They also have an ability to be really smart. They come after you and give you a ‘shit or get off the pot’ ultimatum. And of course you don't want to lose them because they are so full of life. Or so it seems. At some point, you hear the voice telling you to run.” Going further with Hainey’s question as to why, Reynolds says, “Because it is the most logical voice. And you are, at that point, not in love with logic. You are in love with beauty. You are blinded. We forget the ocean is beautiful and deep and vast. But it can change on you in a flash and drown you.”
That’s the older and maybe wiser and certainly more remorseful Burt Reynolds talking. But that’s not the Burt Reynolds I want to remember. I want to remember the happy, carefree, flirty Burt Reynolds, back when he was on top of the world, and we wanted to be there with him. Or at least have him over to dinner.