Burt Reynolds probably wouldn’t like that, in death, so many of us are remembering him naked.
Minutes after news came Thursday that the legendary screen star had died at age 82, fans started tweeting out his iconic 1972 Cosmopolitan centerfold: Reynolds, stark naked, reclined on a bearskin rug.
At the height of Playboy’s popularity, he was drafted by Cosmo’s editor Helen Gurley Brown to be the first-ever nude male centerfold.
Sporting nothing but a mustache and a mischievous smile, there he was, a wily hunk of testosterone, as hairy as the bear coat tickling his ass cheeks. A dangling cigarette, a drunken glint in his eye, and, as your gaze speeds from the scruffy chest down to the scruffier pubic region, his left forearm acting as cruel gatekeeper to the naughty bits: here was A Stud. A stud who knew it.
It was a landmark sex-positive moment for women and a rare mainstream acknowledgment of the female gaze. The issue sold out all its 1.5 million copies.
Forty-five years later, it must be said, the photo is still hot as hell. And, 45 years later, it is still groundbreaking in its singularity; instances of male celebrities submitting to equal-opportunity objectification with no inhibition and, at least in Reynolds’ case, with humor are extremely rare, even now in our post-Magic Mike world.
It was and is perhaps one of the most important moments at the intersections of culture, sex, and media. That is why, with the news of Reynolds’ passing, it is being celebrated with as much hallowed respect as any of the actor’s best performances and greatest films.
The thing is: He apparently regretted the whole thing.
Over the years, there were whispers of him disdaining the pictorial and claiming that the industry didn’t take him seriously after it was published. He went so far as to blame the photo when he failed to garner an Oscar nomination for his performance in Deliverance, which came out three months later.
He elaborated at a 2016 South By Southwest Festival event in support of The Bandit, a documentary about his career, saying, according to UPROXX, “It was really stupid. I don’t know what I was thinking. Probably, knowing me, it was like, ‘You won’t do that, you chicken,’ or something and I went, ‘Well, that’s all I had to hear,’ of course. I said, ‘Yeah, I will.’”
Speaking with The Daily Beast’s Jen Yamato shortly after, he was significantly more good-natured about it.
“A lot of people took it in the spirit that it was meant,” he said. “They saw that I was smiling and it was meant to be a Playboy takeoff. I had fun, but as I remember the only way I could do it was I had to have a few toddies before… quite a few, in fact. It took a few hours and then I kind of wobbled home. I wobbled in there and I wobbled out, and hoped for the best.”
That’s more in line with the account he shared in his 2015 memoir, Enough About Me, an excerpt from which Cosmo shared on its site aptly and cheekily titled, “Why Burt Reynolds Decided to Be the First Guy With the Balls to Nearly Show the Balls in Cosmopolitan.”
He was asked by then-Cosmo editor Gurley Brown to be the first male nude centerfold of the magazine during a commercial break while both were on The Tonight Show in 1972.
“He was handsome, humorous, wonderful body, frisky,” Gurley Brown told James Landers, author of a book on the first 100 years of Cosmopolitan. “During our conversation I asked him if he would pose for us.” Gurley Brown, as Reynolds would later find out, had asked Paul Newman to do it first. He declined.
In his memoir, Reynolds wrote that Gurley Brown didn’t need to sweet talk him into it. “I was flattered and intrigued. I wish I could say that I wanted to show my support for women’s rights, but I just thought it would be fun. I said yes before we came back on the air. (I may or may not have had several cocktails in the greenroom before the show.)”
Drinking, understandably, was a theme of the entire ordeal. “On the way to the photo shoot, I stopped for two quarts of vodka and finished one before we got to the studio, which was freezing cold (bad for a naked man’s self-esteem),” he wrote.
There were more takes besides the one Cosmo eventually used. A hat, a dog, and Reynolds’ hand were all shot as modesty alternatives by photographer Francesco Scavullo. An inebriated Reynolds fooled around a bit, going so far as to wrestle with the world’s luckiest bearskin. The deal was that all the outtakes would be burned and Reynolds himself would have control of the negatives.
In Enough About Me, Reynolds called his life “a carnival” in the months following the sell-out issue’s release. He was appearing in the play The Rainmaker in Chicago, and audiences would catcall instead of applaud. The photo was slapped on merchandise; he wrote that at one point he checked into a hotel only to find his nude body smiling up at him from the bedsheets.
Smutty fan mail poured in, including from one woman in Nova Scotia who regularly shipped him her pubic hair. The Catholic Church condemned him.
“It was a total fiasco,” he wrote. “I thought people would be able to separate the fun-loving side of me from the serious actor, but I was wrong. I’m still embarrassed by it and I sorely regret doing it. It’s been called one of the greatest publicity stunts of all time, but it was one of the biggest mistakes I’ve ever made. And I’m convinced it cost Deliverance the recognition it deserved.”
For all its popularity, it wasn’t necessarily the watershed moment Gurley Brown, or the women who flocked to snatch the issue off newsstands, might have hoped.
Douglas Lambert founded Playgirl the following year with the same ethos Gurley Brown had espoused: a feminist response to Playboy and Penthouse. Few famous men would pose for it—lest you count Bristol Palin baby daddy Levi Johnston to be of the same caliber as Reynolds.
It would take another two years for another male centerfold to pose, and only Arnold Schwarzenegger, who posed in 1977, carried the same arguable name recognition.
Sure, a performative catering to the female gaze would become a trademark of the publishing world in the decades that followed—People’s “Sexiest Man Alive” is among its most popular issues—but there’s a safe sort of chastity to those photos. There are plenty of celebrity shoots flaunting stars’ sculpted bodies—look at the latest superhero actor’s brand new abs!—but few, if any, celebrities, even in 2018, would willing pose as bluntly nude as Reynolds did back in 1972.
When Ryan Reynolds posed on a bearskin rug earlier this year in a nod to Burt Reynolds’ photo, it was in costume as Deadpool and meant in jest. Reynolds’ pictorial was taken with a wink. But it was still meant to titillate.
And titillate Reynolds’ photo still does. It’s historic titillation, really. I’m blushing a little as I type how that deliciously hairy, naked-ass man, lying drunk as a skunk on a bear rug meant something. It was sexually liberating at a time when a movement needed it to be, and it’s been sexually awakening all these years since.
Reynolds had the courage to do what no man before and only few since have done in the name of equalizing sex and gender, regardless of how he felt about it afterward. And millions—generations—are forever grateful for it. Hot, bothered, and grateful.