Burt Reynolds, star of film, TV, and tabloids, dies at 82

Mr. Reynolds starred in the prison comedy “The Longest Yard,’’ in 1974.
Mr. Reynolds starred in the prison comedy “The Longest Yard,’’ in 1974.(Handout)

NEW YORK — Burt Reynolds, the wryly appealing Hollywood heartthrob who carried on a long love affair with moviegoers even though his performances were often more memorable than the films that contained them, died Thursday in Jupiter, Fla. He was 82.

A spokeswoman for the Martin County Sheriff’s Office said Mr. Reynolds died at the Jupiter Medical Center after being taken there in an ambulance from his home in Hobe Sound. A caretaker at the home had called the authorities, apparently after Mr. Reynolds experienced chest pains, the spokeswoman said. No cause of death was given.

A self-mocking charmer with laugh-crinkled dark eyes, a rakish mustache, and a hairy chest that he often bared onscreen, Mr. Reynolds did not always win the respect of critics. But for many years he was ranked among the top 10 movie draws worldwide, and from 1978 through 1982 he ruled the box office as few had done before.

From road comedies such as “Smokey and the Bandit” to romances like “Starting Over” to the hit television series “Evening Shade,” Mr. Reynolds delighted audiences for four decades, most often playing a good-hearted good ol’ boy seemingly not that different from his offscreen self.


Yet his career, which span-ned some 100 films and countless television appearances, was often marked by turbulence and he had close brushes with death, some resulting from his insistence on doing many of his dangerous stunts. He braved the raging rapids of the Chattooga River between Georgia and South Carolina for a favorite role, as one of four suburbanite buddies who undertake a journey into America’s heart of darkness, in “Deliverance” (1972).

A decade later he battled an addiction to prescription medication after his jaw was shattered in a fight scene, an accident that left him wizened and led to false whispers that he was dying of AIDS.


Fellow actors praised Mr. Reynolds as an exacting artist who worked hard at his craft and fought to overcome many demons, including a volatile temperament. But he himself projected an air of insouciance and professed not to take his career too seriously. He told The New York Times in 1978, “I think I’m the only movie star who’s a movie star in spite of his pictures, not because of them; I’ve had some real turkeys.”

To many in Hollywood, Mr. Reynolds was an enigma. Tormented by self-doubt — he particularly disliked hearing how much he resembled the young Marlon Brando — he was also strong-willed, clashing often with directors and producers. For much of his career he accepted roles, he admitted, “that would be the most fun, not the most challenging,” while turning down more substantive parts, including the one in “Terms of Endearment” that led to an Academy Award for Jack Nicholson.

Mr. Reynolds never won an Oscar, although he was nominated for best supporting actor (and won a Golden Globe) for his performance as a paternalistic director of pornographic movies in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1997 “Boogie Nights.” Robin Williams won that year, for “Good Will Hunting.”

“I once said I’d rather have a Heisman Trophy than an Oscar,” Mr. Reynolds, who played football in college, later wrote. “I lied.”

Burton Leon Reynolds Jr., originally called Buddy to distinguish him from his father, was born in Lansing, Mich., on Feb. 11, 1936, and grew up in Riviera Beach, Fla., where his father was police chief. Many biographical sources say Mr. Reynolds was born in Waycross, Ga., but in his 2015 memoir, “But Enough About Me” (written with Jon Winokur), he said he had told that to interviewers to distance himself from his northern roots. “I grew up a Southern boy who didn’t want to be a Yankee,” he wrote.


Although young Burt acted in high school plays, his passion was football. He played for Florida State University, but his sports career ended in 1955, when he was seriously injured in a car crash. He studied acting at Palm Beach Junior College before moving to New York City, where he shared an apartment with a fellow actor, Rip Torn, and found an agent with the help of Joanne Woodward.

Mr. Reynolds signed a seven-year contract with Universal Studios in 1958 and was cast in a new NBC series, “Riverboat,” starring Darren McGavin. He rubbed shoulders with Hollywood royalty on the Universal lot and, he recalled, received some valuable advice from Spencer Tracy on how to be a successful actor: Don’t let anybody catch you at it.

Mr. Reynolds left “Riverboat’’ before the show ended its brief run. (He later said he left after tossing an assistant director in the studio lake.)

He returned to New York in 1961 for what turned out to be a brief run on Broadway in the play “Look, We’ve Come Through” and then went back to Hollywood to play a half-Indian blacksmith on the long-running CBS western “Gunsmoke.”


In 1963, after what he called “a kooky whirlwind romance,” Mr. Reynolds wed a young British actress, Judy Carne, who would later gain fame as the “sock-it-to-me girl” on “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In.” By summer 1965 the marriage was over. Carne, who died in 2015, later said Mr. Reynolds had physically abused her, an accusation he denied.

He remained primarily a TV actor for the rest of the 1960s, with roles in episodes of “The Twilight Zone” (in a comedic episode in which his character was a parody of Brando), “Route 66,” “Perry Mason,” and many other shows. Mr. Reynolds, who was part Cherokee, was cast so often as a smoldering Indian.

His career did not take off until he became a regular on the talk-show circuit in the early 1970s, drawing laughs as the guest of Johnny Carson, Merv Griffin, and others by self-effacingly presenting himself as, in his words, “the most well-known unknown.”

“I spent 10 years looking virile and saying ‘Put up your hands,’” he told critic Roger Ebert in an interview for The New York Times in 1972. “Suddenly I have a personality. People have heard of me.”

One TV host who was particularly captivated by Mr. Reynolds’s charm was singer Dinah Shore. The difference in their ages raised some eyebrows — she was 20 years older than he was — but shortly after he was a guest on her popular afternoon show, the two became inseparable, and they remained a couple for several years.


His appearance in “Deliverance” in 1972 — his first substantial role in a major movie — was a turning point in his career.

His performance was critically praised and prompted talk of a possible Oscar nomination. That he did not get one was attributed by some, including Mr. Reynolds, to his decision to pose artfully nude as a centerfold in an issue of Cosmopolitan magazine that was published at roughly the same time the movie was released. The photo was a sensation, but the image it projected made it harder for Hollywood to take him seriously as an actor.

“It was really stupid. I don’t know what I was thinking,” Mr. Reynolds said in 2016. “I really wish I hadn’t done that.”

He nonetheless worked steadily for the next decade; he made more than 20 movies between 1973 and 1982, most of them hits. They included two in which he got to revive his college gridiron dreams: “The Longest Yard” (1974), which cast him as an imprisoned football star who coaches his fellow convicts to victory over the warden’s team, and “Semi-Tough” (1977), based on Dan Jenkins’s comic novel about pro football.

Mr. Reynolds took on one of his defining roles in 1977, when he played a daredevil driver who leads the law — Jackie Gleason as a hyperventilating sheriff — on a madcap chase from Texas to Georgia in “Smokey and the Bandit,” a box-office smash that spawned two sequels (although Mr. Reynolds made only a cameo appearance in the third “Smokey” film) and ignited a long-running romance between Mr. Reynolds and his co-star, Sally Field.

“One of the things people say about ‘Smokey’ is that you watch two people fall in love on the screen,” Mr. Reynolds wrote in “But Enough About Me,” “and it’s true.”

Although he once called Field “the love of my life,” their relationship ended after a few years.

Critics were not impressed by “Smokey and the Bandit,” but audiences were thrilled: Only “Star Wars” did better business that year. For five weeks’ work on another car-chase picture, “The Cannonball Run” (1981) — directed, as were the first two “Smokey” movies, by Mr. Reynolds’s friend Hal Needham, a former stuntman — he was paid $5 million (the equivalent of about $14 million in 2018 dollars), a record at the time.

Success gave Mr. Reynolds the freedom to try new things. He directed himself in “Gator” (1976), “The End” (1978), “Sharky’s Machine” (1981) and “Stick” (1985). He tried his hand at musical comedy — feebly, critics said — in “At Long Last Love” (1975), with Cybill Shepherd, and again in “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” (1982), with Dolly Parton.

By the time he returned to the cars-as-stars genre as a stock-car racer in “Stroker Ace” (1983), his career had peaked. Vincent Canby of The Times called it “the must-miss movie of the summer,” and this time audiences agreed.

Mr. Reynolds and his “Stroker Ace” co-star, Loni Anderson, began living together in 1984 and wed in 1988. The marriage ended in 1993, in acrimony unusual even by Hollywood standards. Two decades later, the acrimony remained. “The truth is,” he wrote in 2015, “I never did like her.”

Survivors include their son, Quinton.

Mr. Reynolds was making “City Heat” (1984) with Clint Eastwood — a pairing of Hollywood heavyweights that turned out to be another box-office flop — when a stuntman clobbered him with a heavy chair that was supposed to be a breakaway balsa wood prop.

Along with a shattered jaw, he was found to have temporomandibular joint disorder. He became addicted to the sedative Halcion. He overcame that addiction, but later entered rehab after injuring his back and becoming addicted to painkillers. Adding to those problems, his investments soured, leaving him deeply in debt.

He rebounded and in 1990 began a long run on a new CBS comedy, “Evening Shade,” playing, in yet another football iteration, a former pro player who returns to his small Arkansas hometown to coach the losing local high school team. He won an Emmy for his performance in 1991.

His days as a box-office champion were long over by then, but he remained busy almost to the end. In addition to his Oscar-nominated triumph in “Boogie Nights,” there were small roles in big movies, bigger roles in smaller movies, voice-over work in cartoons, and numerous television appearances, often as an exaggerated version of himself.