Burt Reynolds, R.I.P. – big hits, bad choices

It says everything about the career of Burt Reynolds that he only signed on very reluctantly in 1997 for one of the best pictures he ever made — ”Boogie Nights” (above).

The star’s career was in a slump and his agent had to talk him into appearing in Paul Thomas Anderson’s epic drama about the Los Angeles porno underworld of the 1970s. Reynolds was very unhappy about appearing in what he feared would be a salacious movie. Even after the movie was completed, the star’s first reaction to a private screening was to fire his agent.

Of course, Reynolds changed his mind when the picture was chosen for the 1997 New York Film Festival, and rave reviews started to come in for his portrayal of a porn director whose career was destroyed in the transition from film to video in the early 1980s. When awards season came along, Reynolds won a Golden Globe for his performance and then received the only Oscar nomination of his career for a movie he hated making. The star was bitterly disappointed to lose to Robin Williams for “Good Will Hunting.”

In both of his memoirs, Reynolds admitted that his career, as successful as it was, suffered from some of his terrible decisions about material. He was offered and rejected the “Terms of Endearment” role that won Jack Nicholson an Oscar. He also took himself out of the running for “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Reynolds rejected the part Bruce Willis played in “Die Hard.”

But, no movie star of the 1970s and 1980s was more popular with audiences than Reynolds. He was the number one box office attraction in the country for five years, a record that only Bing Crosby had accomplished decades earlier.

Reynolds achieved stardom a bit late for a Hollywood actor. The performer had been bumming around in B-movies and less than memorable TV series for well over a decade when getting cast in the 1972 critical and financial hit “Deliverance” changed his luck at 36. For the next ten years or so, almost everything Reynolds appeared in did big numbers at the box office, from “The Longest Yard” to “The End” to “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.”

And, he gave wonderful performances in pictures such as “Semi-Tough” and “Best Friends.” The camera loved him and he was always wise enough to give great opportunities to co-stars like Kris Kristofferson and Jill Clayburgh.

The actor’s drawing power went into the stratosphere with “Smokey and the Bandit,” the 1977 sleeper hit that wound up becoming the second most popular movie of the year (after “Star Wars”). Ironically, Universal had no faith in the road comedy, and planned little more than a regional Southern release. But the figures that came in from North Carolina, Georgia and other states below the Mason-Dixon line were so huge that the film went into national release and delighted audiences all over the country (spawning two unfortunate sequels).

Reynolds had generously set up his old stunt coordinator friend, Hal Needham, in the director’s chair, and they would go on to do several hits together, including 1980’s “The Cannonball Run.”

The actor knew that his love of loosely produced B-pictures hurt him with the critical community, so that when he finally did the Oscar bait 1979 Alan Pakula movie “Starting Over” he faced the embarrassment of seeing both of his co-stars (Jill Clayburgh and Candice Bergen) nominated for their work while the Academy ignored him. Reynolds went public with his anger – claiming that he would only be nominated if he did a role “with a hump” – which no doubt did not please Oscar voters in subsequent years.

It was only after his glory days were over that the star expressed regrets about doing forgettable 1980s movies such as “Stroker Ace” and “Rent-a-Cop” rather than the challenging scripts that had come his way.