Burt Reynolds played the biggest badass in movie history.
Which one? Hell, pick any of ’em. Everybody’s got a favorite badass role from Reynolds’ cinematic oeuvre. Maybe you prefer the ex-football pro turned prison convict from The Longest Yard. Or the cowboy hat-wearing bootlegger from Smokey & the Bandit. Or the silver fox pornographer from Boogie Nights. In six decades, Reynolds has appeared in over 160 films and TV shows, and every single character is someone who could beat you at arm-wrestling while simultaneously seducing your girlfriend.
But for us, the top of the Reynolds mountain will always be the movie role that made him a superstar—Lewis Medlock in Deliverance, the epitome of rugged masculinity in a leather wetsuit vest, who says awesome things like “I don’t believe in insurance. There’s no risk.” The film may’ve come out in 1972, but it’s still as hauntingly brilliant today, and Reynolds is still as convincing as the guy you really want by your side if your Appalachian canoe trip is thwarted by toothless, rapey hillbillies.
They don’t make movie stars like Burt Reynolds anymore. That’s literally true. For most of the 70s and at least half of the 80s, he was the biggest star on the planet. Putting him in a movie guaranteed absurd huge box office profits. What leading man since has even come close? George Clooney? Tom Cruise? Matt Damon? Have any of them owned an entire decade like Reynolds?
We called Reynolds at his home in Malibu, California. The now 80 year-old legend seemed tired at first, maybe even a little sad. But as we talked, reminiscing about his remarkable career, that inimitable, instantly recognizable Reynolds laugh soon re-appeared. If you grew up with his movies, you know exactly what that laugh sounds like. You can hear it in your head. “It’s still there,” he told us. “It just takes a little longer to come out.”
A belated happy birthday. You turned 80 earlier this year, right?
Don’t remind me.
That’s an impressive milestone. How did you celebrate 80 years of being alive?
I mostly just cried. No, no, I had a bunch of people over. We had some fun.
At any point were you driving a black Trans-Am at dangerous speeds while being chased by cops?
I haven’t done that in years. You’re thinking of a younger birthday.
Wait, we were talking about the Bandit movies. You actually got in high-speed chases with the police in your real life?
Oh sure. A long, long time ago. I had bad days. I liked driving fast. I outran a few police cars. My dad was the town’s chief of police, so I had to be kind of careful. If he found out, he’d grab me and shake me a little bit, straighten me out.
How else did your life imitate art? In your memoir, But Enough About Me, you mention getting into fisticuffs.
Yeah, but I never started it. It was always some asshole who’d come over, take a swing at me.
Did you ever deserve it?
Usually. [Laughs.] They’d get mad because I was talking to their girlfriend, or they saw the way she was looking at me. They had to make an example of me. “You think you’re as tough as you are in the movies?” That kind of shit.
You had a reputation in the 70s for being kind of a ladies man.
I was an idiot.
Well, okay. But an idiot with a lot of female admirers. We want to learn from you.
No you don’t.
We really do! What was your secret? Were you just charming? Was it the mustache? The muscles? The attitude? Why did women fall over themselves for you?
You know what it is? It’s about knowing how to crack a joke. That’s what gets a woman every time.
That’s all they want?
That’s what it was for me. Make ‘em laugh. Even back when I was a jock, I was always more interested in being the jokester. If you can be funny, you’ll get the girl every time.
Maybe that explains why women loved your 1972 nude centerfold for Cosmo. It was meant to be sexy, but it was also . . .
A little ridiculous.
Hey, you said it.
I still can’t believe I did that.
But you did it with humor, right? The bearskin rug, that was just . . .
Oh yeah, totally. I was trying to poke fun at myself. There’s a lot of things people don’t know about that photo. For one thing, I was pretty smashed when we shot it. I’d brought along a couple of bottles of vodka—you know, for liquid courage—but I ended up drinking them mostly for warmth. It was freezing in the studio.
Did the temperature have, um . . . an unflattering effect on your man business?
Did it shrink my tallywacker? Well, I wasn’t holding a hand over it because I was shy. Cold isn’t helpful in that area. It wasn’t happy, if you know what I mean.
But women loved the photo. You became a sex symbol overnight.
It was a little too much. I couldn’t go outside without getting catcalls. They’d walk right up to me and say the filthiest things. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I like it when a woman waits for a man to come over to her. When there’s a little bit of back and forth, a little seduction. But this was just ridiculous. There was a woman in Nova Scotia who was sending me her pubic hair.
Like in a manila envelope?
And it happened all the time!
You call yourself old-fashioned, but that sounds reasonable to us.
You just wanted a relationship that begins with “Can I buy you a drink?” Not “Please stop mailing me your pubic hair.”
That’s all I’m asking.
We found this amazing book you put out in the early 70s, called Hot Line. It’s basically a collection of your fan letters, most of them from women.
You remember it?
I don’t remember the specific letters, but I remember that they were pretty wild.
One woman writes, “You hear that mating meow? Guess where it’s coming from. It’s coming from my little pussy.”
[Laughs.] Oh my gosh.
“It keeps crying for you all the time. ‘Burt, I need you,’ it cries day and night.”
[Laughs.] Please stop.
Another fan—Connie from Lincoln, Nebraska—calls your mustache a “real womb broom.”
What? I don’t know what that means.
We don’t think she does either.
They don’t understand basic human anatomy. A mustache doesn’t . . . that wouldn’t work.
There’s no way you’re getting a mustache all the way up there.
I appreciated the letters, and I appreciated the ones that were sincere. But some of them, they were just frightening.
You’ve called Sally Field, your co-star in Smokey & the Bandit, the “love of my life.” But don’t we all over-romanticize the past?
Sure. But with her, it’s the absolute truth.
Are you sure? Everybody has an ex-girlfriend that they remember with rose-colored glasses. But the reality is, if she stuck around, you might’ve ended up hating each other.
No. I’ve replayed it enough times in my head. She was the one. The timing just didn’t work out. There was a time when she wanted us to stay together, and there was a time when I wanted us to stay together. We just never felt that way at the same time.
Maybe if you’d never married Loni Anderson, she’d be the one you were calling the love of your life.
Nope. [Laughs.] Absolutely not.
She was really that bad?
Oh, she was worse.
In hindsight, looking back, were there any warning signs that you missed? Anything that made it obvious that you were making a big mistake with Loni?
I remember when we got married, it was in a chapel that I’d built specifically for our wedding. I was walking down the aisle, and Perry Como was walking with me.
Perry Como? The singer?
Yeah. I looked over at my mom, and she was shaking her head, “No.” I didn’t pay attention, but my mom was always right.
Maybe she thought you were marrying Perry Como.
[Laughs.] I never thought of that.
Speaking of regrets, what’s a bigger regret for you, turning down the chance to sleep with Greta Garbo, or the chance to play Han Solo in Star Wars?
It’s a tough question, we know.
I don’t even know how to answer. I feel bad about both of them. Especially Greta. Oh my goodness, I can still see her. When was it? 19 . . .
Yes! I was maybe 20, she was in her 50s. I was at a party in New York, and she was in a yellow silk number, no bra. I’d never seen a woman without a brassiere on. I’ll never forget those breasts.
She had nice breasts?
Beautiful breasts! I was staring at them, and she said to me, “My eyes are up here.” [Laughs.] I said, “Yes, ma’am.” She invited me back to her place after the party, and I didn’t go. What a putz! What was I thinking?
So what about Han Solo? George Lucas was seriously considering you for the role. How would you have played him differently than Harrison Ford?
Well, Harrison did a terrific job. But I guess I would’ve done it with more humor. Star Wars would’ve had a lot more jokes.
And you would’ve made them cast Dom DeLuise as Chewbacca?
[Laughs.] Yes. Absolutely. I wouldn’t have done it without him.
You made nine movies with Dom. Was that just because you had so much fun together?
It was the best time of my life. Nobody made me laugh like him. The thing was, he was scared to death of physical danger. I used to put him in situations where he got so scared, and I would say, “Don’t be such a chickenshit!” And he would start to cry. [Laughs.] I would just, I couldn’t handle it. He made me laugh so hard, I had to leave the set and go outside. They’d come to get me and I’d be like, “No, no, I need more time. I can’t go back in there.” Just tears in my eyes.
Is it better to have been in a movie that’ll be considered a classic in 100 years, or a movie that you almost peed yourself every day, it was so much fun to make?
They’re usually the same ones. The movies where I laughed the most, those are the ones that people are still watching. The Longest Yard, my god, there were a million laughs on that picture. (Former Green Bay Packer) Ray Nitschke kept trying to kill me. He would hit me so hard, and I wouldn’t even have the fricking ball! I would say to him, “Ray, for Christ’s sake, it’s just a movie!”
There wasn’t much laughing on the set of Deliverance, was there?
No, that one was different. That was all dark and brooding. I was just lifting whatever I could between shots, to make sure my muscles were nice and pumped.
You nearly died on that film, right? From riding a canoe over a waterfall?
That’s right. It was stupid thing to do. A couple of stunt guys came up to me before we shot it, and they were like, “Don’t do it, you’re going to get hurt.” But I didn’t listen. I was too confident. I was in the best shape of my life. I thought, “What’s the worst that can happen?”
You could drown like an asshole.
Like an asshole! Instead, I just cracked my tailbone on a rock. And then, when I went down, I got sucked into a whirlpool. I couldn’t get out, so I just let it suck me to the bottom. And then it shot me out like a torpedo. And the force of it ripped off all my clothes.
Everything. My pants, my shirt, my boots. I lost it all. The film crew saw a 30-year-old guy go over the falls, and when I reappeared, about a mile away, I was this shivering, nude old man, stumbling out of the water. It’s a miracle I’m here talking to you today.
We should talk about your hair.
[Laughs.] Must we?
Not a lot of Hollywood actors admit when they’re balding. And they definitely don’t admit to wearing a toupee. But you have no problem with us knowing.
There’s always something. You know what I mean?
We’ve all got something to hide?
Nobody is perfect. We all pretend we are, but we aren’t. There’s a hell of a lot of things that I’m lacking. I’m not as tall as people hoped I’d be.
Who? Women? Directors?
All of them. They all wanted me to be more. I’m not as strong as they thought I’d be. Or as funny. You’re never all of the things the world wants you to be. The secret to life is not giving a shit. To know that you’re doing the best you can, and to be okay with that.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in the May 2016 issue of Men’s Health.)