Burt Reynolds, who balanced rugged toughness and good-ol’-boy appeal to achieve superstardom in films such as “Deliverance,” “The Longest Yard” and “Smokey and the Bandit,” has died at age 82.
Reynolds’ niece, Nancy Lee Hess, confirmed the news Thursday in a statement.
“My uncle was not just a movie icon; he was a generous, passionate and sensitive man,” she wrote. “He has had health issues; however, this was totally unexpected. He was tough. Anyone who breaks their tail bone on a river and finishes the movie is tough. And that’s who he was.”
With his devil-may-care attitude, a permanent twinkle in his eyes and his trademark mustache, Reynolds was a bankable box-office star of the 1970s and early ’80s – accumulating a string of box-office hits and unforgettable appearances on “The Tonight Show” couch with his dear friend, host Johnny Carson.
He earned his first and only Oscar nomination in 1998 for Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Boogie Nights.” He flaunted his sex appeal in 1972, posing rakishly on a bearskin rug as the first male nude (well, nearly) centerfold in Cosmopolitan magazine – a choice he later described as “one of the biggest mistakes I’ve ever made.”
Reynolds was known for his personal dramas off the screen: his high-profile lost love with his “Smokey” co-star Sally Field and a messy divorce from actress Loni Anderson, a string of box-office clunkers that tanked his career, and well-chronicled financial problems.
Reynolds re-emerged earlier this year for personal project “The Last Movie Star,” which looked at the life of a faded star filled with regret and longing, an exaggerated version of the actor content to live a mostly quiet life in Jupiter, Florida.
“I’ve been very, very lucky through ups and downs. When you crash and burn, you have to pick yourself up and go on and hope to make up for it,” Reynolds told in an interview in March. “Along the way, I’ve met some wonderful people. And you always run into some jerks. But that would be the same if you were working for the Ford Motor Co.”
“It’s a tough business. Very tough. But I always tried to leave a good impression wherever we shot, and I didn’t leave any buildings burning or anything,” he added with a smile. “And I’ve had a good time through it all.”
Reynolds was born Feb. 11, 1936, in Lansing, Michigan, and moved to Riviera, Florida, where his war-hero father Milo was the chief of police. The young Reynolds often clashed with his tough dad, who arrested and locked him up for fighting when he was a teenager.
“For two more days, I sat in there. And for two more days, he threw every drunk he could on top of me,” Reynolds recalled. “We never really made up. But I think he was proud of me at the end.”
Reynolds excelled in football and was a star halfback at Florida State University before an injury derailed his career. He moved into movie stunts and eventually small acting parts in TV and movies.
In 1972, he made his breakthrough performance in the Oscar-nominated “Deliverance,” the film he remained the most proud of throughout his career.
“It didn’t make as much money as a lot of the others,” Reynolds said. “But it was a very difficult picture to make it. And it was done with a crazy leading man.”
Reynolds insisted that it was his frequent appearances with Carson on the “Tonight Show,” including serving as host in Carson’s absence, that shot him to true stardom.
“My career was going along OK. But it didn’t really take off until the ‘Tonight Show.’ And that was because of the way Johnny treated me,” Reynolds said. “The public treated guests the way he treated you.”
Leading roles in box-office hits followed, including “Smokey” and “Semi-Tough” in 1977, and continued through banner years such as 1981 when “The Cannonball Run,” “Paternity” and “Sharky’s Machine” all hit the big screen.
His most personal role was in the 1979 comedy “Starting Over,” playing the divorced Phil Potter opposite Jill Clayburgh and Candice Bergen. That “was the closest to me, in terms of, I see myself in that character and it was a classic film,” Reynolds told . “It had some beautiful women and all the good things.”
Reynolds kicked himself for some of the roles he turned down, such as Jack Nicholson’s characters in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “Terms of Endearment,” and Richard Gere’s part in “Pretty Woman.”
He also lamented losing out on the relationship with his “Smokey” co-star Field. “That will never die,” Reynolds said in 2017.
On Thursday, Field paid her love back.
“There are times in your life that are so indelible, they never fade away. They stay alive, even forty years later. My years with Burt never leave my mind,” Field said in a statement. “He will be in my history and my heart, for as long as I live. Rest, Buddy.”
He wed Anderson in 1988, with whom he adopted a son, Quinton. The couple split contentiously after a six-year marriage, but she remembered him fondly on Thursday, praising him as “a wonderful director and actor.”
“He was a big part of my life for twelve years and Quinton’s loving father for thirty years,” Anderson said in a statement. “We will miss him and his great laugh.”
In his later years, Reynolds was content to live a small-town life in Jupiter, where he would drink at a local bar with his best friend since seventh grade.
“He’s lost his wife and I’ve lost my girl (Field). We’re just two old farts at the bar drinking and telling lies,” Reynolds said. “It’s pathetic and it’s also very funny when you look at it like that. And that’s how we choose to look at it.”
He was readying to shoot the part of rancher George Spahn in Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon A Time in Hollywood,” but died before his time came in front of the camera. But he never lost that smile, despite heartache.
“I would do some things different. But you can’t,” Reynolds said with a laugh at the end of his talk. “You can only lie and say I wouldn’t do things differently.”