John Lennon–an actual child of the working class–once sang about a working class hero being something to be. Burt Reynolds, middle class as they came (his dad was a police chief), was a Working Class Legend.
He built that legend in the seventies with a long string of good ol’ boy roles–White Lightning, Gator, The Longest Yard, Hooper, Semi-Tough, and, of course, Smokey and the Bandit, all among the most entertaining of their day and often better “social” commentaries than the Film School crowd ever managed–which belied his training (he was first spotted, and sent on to New York, by an acting teacher who was impressed with his Shakespeare).
It’s called acting for a reason. When he got a chance to stretch out, he proved himself adept at black comedy (The End), romance (Starting Over), drama. There’s no better–or trickier–performance from the seventies than his “Lewis” in Deliverance, and no better film in the justly celebrated 70s cannon. It’s not every actor who can give his breakthrough performance, and anchor an era-defining movie, playing an asshole-nobody- likes-but-you-still-don’t-want-him-to-die.
It’s not every actor who can play that part at all.
But, really, his best acting was probably his persona. That happens a lot with those select few who can manage it, and Reynolds was more impressive in this respect than even the old-time Hollywood stars because neither the business of movie making, nor the culture within which Old Hollywood operated, had anything like the hold on us during that hellish time they had even a minute earlier.
“I’m Burt Reynolds. I used to be big in the 70s,” he would tell people he just met in the nineties and beyond.
No doubt with a smile the Bandit would have appreciated.
And boy was he big in the 70s.
Based on that decade alone, he’s still the most famous attendee of my alma mater, FSU, which, being among the strangest of all state schools, has a celebrated drama school and an even more celebrated football program.
He played football, too (career was cut short by injuries). Used to see him with his entourage at the games. He couldn’t have been happier to represent us.
And we couldn’t have been happier to have him represent us.
We got Burt Reynolds, we used to like saying to all the other drama schools, with our own Bandit smile. Who you got?
Nobody ever had a real good answer.
Bet they still don’t.