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Burt Reynolds Appreciation: A Classic Movie Star With a Modern Sense of Humor

He made comedy and drama look equally easy, and he created a new kind of sex symbol

Much has been written about the New Hollywood of the 1970s and how it was formed by a group of bearded film-school grads who grew up on a diet of cinema and broke the hidebound rules of the studio system. But there’s no talking about American film in the Me Decade without discussing the impact of Burt Reynolds, the iconic star who encapsulated so much of the era’s freewheeling attitudes and post-modern sensibilities.

Unlikely the falsely humble stars of yore, Reynolds clearly reveled in being a movie star, whether he was yukking it up on Johnny Carson’s couch or mugging through silly all-star extravaganzas like “The Cannonball Run.” He had the cool of the Rat Pack, but in a way that seemed more attainable to a country mired in recession; Reynolds’ public vibe always leaned closer to a six-pack and a Trans Am than to martinis and limousines.

He was one of the first male sex symbols of the women’s liberation era, a beefcake stud who understood that he was subject to the female (and even gay male) gaze when he bared all for Cosmopolitan magazine. And yet, within all of this, he was a talented performer and filmmaker, with a string of box-office hits matched by few in the entire history of Hollywood. And if the Cosmo centerfold cost him an Oscar nomination for “Deliverance,” as some argued at the time, Reynolds just smiled and kept going.

Born in 1936, Reynolds was a promising college football star before injuring both knees his sophomore year. He made his way into acting, first on Broadway (opposite Charlton Heston in a revival of “Mister Roberts”) and eventually in Los Angeles, where in the 1960s, he joined the cast of the long-running hit “Gunsmoke.” In 1972’s “Deliverance,” he impressed audiences as a macho suburban adventurer who runs afoul of denizens of the deep woods while on a weekend rafting trip. He starred in an eclectic mix of films immediately thereafter, from Southern-tinged action like “White Lightning” and “Gator” to old-Hollywood nostalgia pieces like “Lucky Lady” and “At Long Last Love,” working with seemingly everyone from Woody Allen (“Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex”) to Catherine Deneuve (“Hustle”).

“Smokey and the Bandit,” released in 1977, catapulted Reynolds to the top echelon of film stardom. The CB radio craze and his chemistry with co-star and then-girlfriend Sally Field helped, but “Smokey” pretty much lives and dies on Reynolds’ charisma, and the film launched his long stretch as a box-office champ. During this time, he also doubled as director, most notably on the sexy cop thriller “Sharky’s Machine” (1981). At his best – in, say, Alan J. Pakula’s “Starting Over” — he demonstrated the principal talent of any great movie star: comedy, drama, or musical, he made it all look easy and graceful.

His presence as a standard of masculinity became so ubiquitous that in Ross McElwee’s groundbreaking personal documentary “Sherman’s March,” wherein the filmmaker travels through the South looking for love, Burt Reynolds becomes a leitmotif, an object of obsession of several women that McElwee meets. (Reynolds even briefly appears in the documentary for a few seconds before his bodyguards intervene.)

The 1980s were less kind to Reynolds; starting with 1984’s exceedingly phoned-in “Cannonball Run II,” he served up a string of duds – “City Heat,” “Stick,” “Heat” (1986), “Malone,” “Rent-a-Cop” – that put the kibosh on his reign as Hollywood’s king. But even if Reynolds’ career never quite had a second act, he enjoyed a series of epilogues that overshadow most show business careers, whether it was occasional subtle work for interesting directors (Bill Forsyth’s “Breaking In,” Alexander Payne’s “Citizen Ruth,” and Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Boogie Nights,” the latter role garnering him his sole Oscar nod), his four-season sitcom hit “Evening Shade,” or even his support of theater students through his donations to the University of Florida and his creation of the Burt Reynolds Dinner Theater in Jupiter, Fla., which hosted some 116 productions before shuttering.

Reynolds was lucky enough to live to see his legacy carry on – his brand of good-humored cocky machismo lives on as a recurring touchpoint on the animated series “Archer” (on which the actor guested as himself in 2012), and as seemingly the last legend of the 1970s not to be cast in a Quentin Tarantino movie, the auteur finally gave him the role of the Spahn Ranch’s owner in the upcoming Manson movie “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.”

And once upon a time in the real Hollywood, there was a Burt Reynolds, whose like we may never see again.