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Burt Reynolds, Swaggering Star Actor, Has Died At 82

Burt Reynolds was known for turning down some high-profile parts, including Han Solo, James Bond and the lead in <em>Pretty Woman</em>.
Hulton Archive
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Burt Reynolds was known for turning down some high-profile parts, including Han Solo, James Bond and the lead in Pretty Woman.

Actor Burt Reynolds, who played good ol' boys and rugged action heroes in an acting career that spanned seven decades, has died. Reynolds died Thursday morning at a Florida hospital following a heart attack. He was 82.

Reynolds came to stardom in Deliverance and Smokey and the Bandit in the 1970s and was still making movies more than 40 years later. In 1977's Smokey and the Bandit, Jackie Gleason was Smokey the sheriff, Burt Reynolds was Bandit, and the plot hinged on whether Bandit and a truck-driving pal could blow through Smokey's roadblocks and make the run in 28 hours. The smile, the mustache, the twinkle in his eye ... without them, would anyone have buckled up for that bootlegging run from Texarkana, Texas, to Atlanta?

Smokey and the Bandit opened the same year Star Wars hit theaters. Reynolds had been offered the part of Han Solo, actually, and turned it down, just as he turned down the role of James Bond and would later turn down Pretty Woman. No one ever accused him of being smart about choosing film roles.

But smart in the films? No question.

Deliverance was the one that made him famous. Years of bit parts on TV hadn't prepared audiences for his scarily ripped outdoorsman who led Jon Voight, Ronny Cox and Ned Beatty on what would end up being a harrowing canoe trip in the Georgia backwoods. There were dueling banjos, hillbilly rapists and Reynolds using a bow and arrow to spear fish and to meet nature on its own terms.

After Deliverance put him on the map, Reynolds more or less owned the rest of that decade. He played football players in The Longest Yard and Semi-Tough — not a huge stretch for him, since he had attended college on a football scholarship. And then there was the bootlegger thing: Before Smokey, there was White Lightning and Lucky Lady.

Off-screen, he cultivated an outlaw vibe — including posing nude on a bearskin rug for Cosmopolitan. Two marriages didn't last, nor did a relationship with sometime-co-star Sally Field, whom he later called the love of his life in a 2015 article.

His mistakes on-screen included singing in the musical comedy The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. "I can sing," he admitted to interviewers, "as well as Fred Astaire can act."

He had no quips to offer for his business acumen. Reynolds briefly owned a football team, a nightclub and a chain of restaurants before declaring bankruptcy. He also took 22 years to pay a divorce settlement to Loni Anderson.

And somehow, he kept coming back — most famously, perhaps, in 1997's Boogie Nights, in which he played a porn director who had dreams of making movies that were more than (just) porn. "This is the film I want them to remember me by," his character says. It was certainly his most-honored role: He garnered an Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe win for best supporting actor.

Almost 20 years (and 60 roles) later, he published a memoir called But Enough About Me — a jokey title for a bestseller that proved beyond a doubt that audiences still weren't tired of hearing about Burt Reynolds.

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Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.