Burt Reynolds has seen both sides of America, and he stands at the center of a great divide. Shortly before Hillary Clinton announced her second presidential campaign, Reynolds joined her and Bill for a high school football game in Arkansas. The actor has deep roots in the state, where he’d shot the early ’90s show “Evening Shade” and the 1973 rural action drama “White Lightning.” In the audience with the Clintons, Reynolds found himself witnessing a very different country from the fast-paced world of entertainment figures and political pundits.
“Nobody paid much attention to us,” said Reynolds, 80, during a recent conversation in Key West, Florida. “It was a hell of a lot of fun. I love Bill. Mrs. Clinton and I had a lot of laughs. I had never that experience any place, before or since.” The crowd was respectful but ambivalent about the famous faces in the room. “It was important to them, but I understood that we weren’t in their group,” Reynolds said. “We were outsiders who came to watch.” He found himself thinking back to his own football days as a teenager in Riviera Beach, Florida. Watching the game, Reynolds added, “was very much like going back to the ’50s. It was so innocent.”
As for Clinton, he added, “I like her very much. You can imagine the quandary that I was in with her and the man she ran against being a friend of mine.”
With that anecdote and another that would come later, Reynolds — his old-fashioned movie star swagger still dictating his persona — spoke eloquently to dueling visions of a divided America that he has studied for some time. In a career that ranges from commercial hits like “Smokey and the Bandit” to the dramatic intensity of “Deliverance,” Reynolds has managed to experience both the bubble of the cultural elite and the working-class personalities that live outside of it. As a longtime Floridian, he’s experienced the complexities of a politically divided society up close.
The actor came to the burgeoning Key West Film Festival in November to receive the Golden Key Career Achievement award, an ideal fit for the longtime Floridian, who has weathered many different stages of a complicated career. But he still manages to wear the same confident, polished look of rugged masculinity — with an edge of smarminess — that has defined his image for decades. When he entered his suite at the palatial Casa Marina hotel for a free-ranging 45-minute conversation, the afternoon sun beamed in from the ocean visible just outside the window, bathing him in an unearthly glow.
Wearing a slick black suit adorned with a red handkerchief and small gold cross pin, the actor’s style outshone his trembling hands and a wrinkled face that spoke to years of late-night drinking sessions and other debaucheries. He rushed from one topic to another, almost as if engaged conversation with himself.
Even as he shows his age, Reynolds hasn’t stopped doing this thing. He recently wrapped three small projects, Adam Rifkin’s “Dog Years,” the boxing movie “Shadow Fighter,” and “Apple of My Eye.” He may not surface in the most widely seen or acclaimed movies of his earlier years, but anyone who assumes he’s gone off the grid isn’t looking hard enough. “I probably heard four times since I’ve been here, ‘When did you decide to retire?'” Reynolds said. ‘I haven’t retired. I’m exceedingly happy that I’m working, and I won’t be happy when I stop. I guess it’s good, in a way, that they miss you before you’re gone.”
As Reynolds continued to speak, his longtime aide Todd Vittum handed him a glass of orange juice. Vittum keeps tabs on Reynolds’ health and runs the Burt Reynolds Institute for Film and Television, where Reynolds still teaches acting seminars on Friday nights from his 160-acre ranch. His students range in age from 18 to 86. “It’s wonderful for me,” Reynolds said. “I learn things, and then I hope they learn things.”
Reynolds’ relationship to Florida has been in a state of flux for decades; his current prominence strikes a marked contrast to his teen years. “Key West was the place to skin dive in high school,” he said, glancing out the window at the regal view of the sea and the beach resort. “Now, this place, I don’t believe it was there, and if it was, I couldn’t have afforded to walk across the beach. At least it was a dream.”
Rising up from a middle-class background to global celebrity, Reynolds often wrestled with fame. At an early stage of his career, he famously turned down an opportunity to play James Bond. When he did the action-comedy “Smokey and the Bandit” in 1977, he forged a memorable relationship with director Hal Needham (now memorialized in Jesse Moss’ documentary “The Bandit”), but the box office hit was a world away from the material he tackled several years earlier in “Deliverance.” When he agreed to do “Smokey,” he said, “I didn’t know how it was going to transfer to the audience. What were they going to say? That dirty rat’s picking up a check and forgetting about it? But I had a hell of a lot of fun on it, and the audience seemed to love that kind of craziness.”
It was at that point that Reynolds decided to keep giving the people what they wanted. He became the centerpiece of virile crowdpleasers on film and television. “I realized very quickly that the public has a perfect right to tell you what they want to see,” he said, noting that his well-reviewed 1979 comedy “Starting Over” was far less successful than “Smokey” or its sequels. “The studios and the other people who put up the money can say, ‘No, that’s not his kind of picture.'” Reynolds used to joke with his pal Gregory Peck that the two should trade roles. “He had that kind of dignity and class,” Reynolds said. “I’d say, ‘You can have my salary, I’ll have your salary, and we’ll just have a great time.’ But he said, ‘I can’t do your films.'”
Reynolds bounced around through the ’80s and ’90s, finding success with “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” and “City Heat,” but other work during this decade fell short both commercially and critically, leading Reynolds to reboot his career in television with “B.L. Stryker” and “Evening Shade.” His role in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Boogie Nights,” for which he received an Oscar nomination in 1998, was seen by many as the apex of his career — but Reynolds was less than enthused about the role, which found him playing a porn mogul in the seventies. He clashed with Anderson on more than one occasion, and felt on some level like he was the victim of a gimmick.
“I hated the experience,” he said, reflecting on the way the part played off his image. “I thought I’d sold out, in a way. I wasn’t sure whether that was why they were offering the film to me, but apparently I did it very well. It won some awards and I was proud of that. But I’ve done 60 films or something, and it was just the worst experience I ever had.”
If nothing else, Reynolds’ lasting dissatisfaction with “Boogie Nights” speaks to the extent to which he remained choosy about his roles through the end of the last century. He has been equally picky about where he shoots them. Reynolds spent years trying to produce more projects in his beloved Florida, to no avail.
“I’ve gone to two governors of Florida asking them if we can make a film there,” he said. “I ended up making both of them in Georgia, because the governors were so wrong about the films. They acted as if we were a traveling burlesque show or something, and the morality of the town was going to be ruined when were there.” He chucked, recalling a meeting with former Florida governor Reubin Askew. “He said, ‘Mr. Reynolds, I don’t like your movies,'” the actor said. “I said, ‘Really. Well, that’s interesting, because I don’t like your governorship, but what’s that got to do with it?'”
In the first few years of his career, Reynolds had far less control over the conditions of his productions. “I was under contract to the studio,” he said. “Clint Eastwood and I both went through that. My god, what a fabulous career he’s had, and what a wonderful man. He represents the industry so well.”
Talk of Eastwood inevitably turns the conversation back to politics. “I think, if I were going to put somebody up for office, it would be Jon Voight for president and Eastwood for sergeant-at-arms,” he said. “I don’t pretend to be in their league, in terms of brain power and being smart about what you do. I like them very much. We’ve been close, close friends for … gosh, how long? Over 30 years. Amazing.”
Reynolds’ relationship to those actors, known for conservative politics that sometimes shows in their work, hints at Reynolds’ own inclinations. But that doesn’t mean he’s thrilled with the new president. “The elections are scary as hell,” he said. “I was sitting around in a quandary about who to vote for. I didn’t want to go through four more years of more Obama, which is a great way to get a sleeping pill. We’ve got to do something about things that are happening. Unfortunately, everybody’s now expecting Trump to start a war with somebody.”
Reynolds knows Trump, and he sees the businessman’s ascension as part of a broader story. “What’s going on in America is fascinating now,” Reynolds said. “I’m not happy with it, and it is scary, but it’s also amazing.” The actor first met Trump in the early ’80s, when they were both involved with the short-lived United States Football League. Reynolds had a minority stake in the Tampa Bay Bandits, and Trump took a larger share of the New Jersey Generals. At Trump’s urging, the league switched from a spring to fall schedule in 1986 to compete with the NFL, a decision that ultimately doomed the nascent league.
“I wish he hadn’t gotten involved,” Reynolds said, “because we’d still be playing. I told him that, and he understood why I said it. He didn’t get upset.” Years later, Reynolds stayed at Trump Tower in New York, assuming he was there as Trump’s guest. When he checked out, he realized that Trump expected him to pay his own bill. “I thought, ‘Well, that’s why he’s such a good business manager,'” Reynolds said with a grin. “Man, he gets his pound of flesh to pay for it.”
It was a world away from the utopia of Arkansas high school football games, but another window into a facet of society often ignored by the rest of the country. Reynolds has seen middle America and the worst extremes of capitalism in equal measures. At the same time, he has often sought to unite disparate sensibilities. He bragged of getting the combative liberal Orson Welles and cowboy Roy Rogers into the same room at one of his ranch parties. “Roy would say, ‘I would never think that I would sit and talk with these people,'” Reynolds recalled. “I said, ‘Well, why not? You’re an educated man and have done things they can’t do. It doesn’t matter. We’re all fighting the same battles, usually with the same people.”
It was late in the afternoon and Reynolds looked tired. He was expected to make an appearance at the festival later on and needed time to prepare. “Thanks for letting me run on,” Reynolds said. We shook hands and I headed outside to the sand, where chickens ran wild. Thanks to a law passed ages ago, the birds are protected on the island and wander freely through its terrain. Walking from Reynolds’ suite past a nearby pool, I jolted as a rooster attempted a violent mating session with a hen. The pair darted around and flew dangerously close to a couple of sunbathers. And for a brief moment, the idyllic beachside vision felt a little less safe.