Growing Up With Burt Reynolds
After a decade of doubts, bad luck and cruel rumours that he had Aids, Burt Reynolds is back - older and wiser. By Douglas Thompson. Picture by Mario Casilli
At 5ft 1 l in tall, tanned, not-so-trim, wearing someone else's hair and his own familiar moustache and grin, Burt Reynolds is going into 1992 a happier man. He may not be totally content but in a couple of days he'll be able to say "Happy New Year" with gusto.
He's still wearing a hairpiece but maybe that's as much to do with business as vanity because, for years, Reynolds was one of the screen's major action men and much larger than life. Then, life caught up. After a decade of doubts, rotten luck and movies and cruel rumours, not hinting but stating, that he had Aids, the actor could be forgiven for not being too affable. He was living proof of the higher up you are, the harder you fall, But Burt Reynolds didn't fall. He says he simply grew up. He's 56 in February, so it took him a little longer than most. Of the talk that surrounded him, he says: "All you get from a terrible, wicked, gossipy rumour is pain. You finally look in the mirror and say: 'Why don't you just get a cross and nail yourself to it, you pitiful putz? Get your act together and work.'"
Burt did. For half a dozen years he had been the biggest box-office attraction in the world and for a decade one of the top 10 favourites but, because of the gossip, he had to submit to medical tests before he would be considered for film roles. He had to meet studio executives to show not only that he was alive but that he was bright and cheerful. "We didn't want them to be able to say: 'Oh, he looks depressed.'" He worked to show he could but many of the films were remarkably bad. Ironically, his private life was exactly the opposite. Professionally, Burt is now back at the top with the television situation comedy Evening Shade, a sort of Southern Cheers, for which he won an Emmy - the TV Oscar - his year. Burt, as Wood Newton, a former American footballer, has returned to the fictional town of Evening Shade, Arkansas, to coach the local football team, whose major handicap is that they don't know how to play football. The half-hour programme is filmed "live" before a studio audience. This particular Friday evening, Newton has been handcuffed to a telephone pole. Suddenly, there is a noise offstage. The next moment actress Loni Anderson, who has been with Burt since 1981 and his wife since 1988 - their fourth anniversary is next April -is walking over to the star of the show with their adopted three-year-old son Quinton. Seeing his father handcuffed had upset the boy, explains Loni. "We're just playing," Reynolds tell his son. "It's only a play."
Despite appearances on Gunsmoke and starring as a TV policeman in Dan August, the actor first grabbed attention by being just half-an-inch shy of revealing all as the world's first male centrefold in Cosmopolitan. Then, he was a Cosmo girl's sort of guy, but now he laughs: "If it was such a big deal, how come I hid everything with my hands?"
But the image was of an amiable superstar superstud. He was married to British Laugh-In girl Judy Carne, had long romances with Dinah Shore and Oscar-winner Sally Field, was involved with Chris Evert and Tammy Wynette, and for the past decade has been with eye-catching Loni, the lavishly endowed secretary in WKRP In Cincinnati.
He was just as hot at the box office. He had impressed as a serious actor in Deliverance in 1972 and The Longest Yard two years later. There was 1979's Stalling Over and a decade later Breaking In, when he did some wonderful work as an ageing safe-cracker for Scotland's Bill Forsyth. But during that 20-year period there was also Smokey And The Bandit and The Cannonball Run, which made Reynolds millions of fans and dollars, and also made him open season for the critics.
When Burt made City Heat with Clint Eastwood - a friend since their film studio contract player days when they were both fired by a misguided executive for being useless — he was hit in the jaw. He thought he'd broken it. It was much worse. The bash in the face developed into temporomandibular-joint disorder (TMJ), which affected his balance and sensory perceptions. "You're in kind of brain pain that comes up and whips your eyeballs out. Then the nausea starts. It's like being seasick all the time. You throw up, can't lie down, can't take any light. I didn't eat - just drank soup.
"I kept getting thinner and thinner. I had these real carved cheekbones. Lots of people have TMJ but there are thousands of dentists who don't know how to treat it. I saw 13 of them. Finally, I found a guy in Florida who spent weeks, 10 hours a day, and he rebalanced every tooth in my head. I didn't work for three years. When I did my first picture the studio doctor gave me a physical like I was going into the Foreign Legion. He practically drained every drop of blood from my body to see if I had Aids. On the second picture, they took even more blood. By the third, I just walked in and 'said: 'Don't bother to weigh me — just take the blood.' People were willing to believe I had Aids because it was too good a rumour to let go. And when I wasn't showing up and got thin ..."
He reacted by selling his famous Spanish-style Hollywood bachelor pad - actually a mansion stuffed full with art and antiques next door to Gregory Peck's in Beverly Hills - and moving back to his home state of Florida. With Loni's help he turned it all around: "If I managed to keep my head in those years it was Loni who held it up. She's kind, she's loyal."
Reynolds met his future wife when they appeared together on The Merv Griffin Show in 1981. She had been married twice before (she has a 16-year-old daughter Deidra), and says they were both marriage-shy. Nevertheless, seven years later they said their vows in a simple ceremony. "They finally came to that point," says their friend Lynda Wonder Woman Carter, adding: "It wasn't spur of the moment, although it was time Burt did it."
Shortly after they married, the couple registered with an adoption agency. "I thought about adopting when I was single but then my. Southern upbringing got in the way and I didn't think I should have a kid unless I was married. After Loni and I got married we wanted to have children right away. But because of our ages we decided it would be best to adopt."
They arranged to adopt Quinton when he was three days old. Proud papa Reynolds is a mellower man: "I had heard all these things about fatherhood, how great it is," says Burt, adding: "But it's greater than I ever expected -I had no idea Quinton would steal my heart the way he has. From the moment I laid eyes on him I knew nobody could ever wrestle him away from me.
"We'd love to adopt a girl now but we want to wait until Quinton is a bit older. We will raise them with all the right ingredients. My father was a police chief and he was a wonderful and loving father but he wasn't demonstrative in any way. I think that's important, so Quinton will get lots of goodnight kisses and that land of stuff."
Reynolds is comfortable in the role, as he is in Evening Shade, which starts to be screened in Britain on Channel 4 in February with a one-hour introductory show. It will win many fans. "A lot of people wanted me to play a guy who was a single father who's still chasing the girls. I wanted to play a man with a family because that's the kind of way I am now. I understand why people are totally crazy over a
family. I really realise it now but it's taken a long time."
Evening Shade is the sort of town where everyone knows everyone else's business. Marilu Henner plays Wood Newton's wife Ava. They have three children and live with her newspaper editor father, played by Hal Holbrook. Elizabeth Ashley is an eccentric aunt — everyone in the show is a little odd -veteran actor Ossie Davis runs the local cafe and Oscar nominee and Reynolds' friend Charles Durning is the town's redneck doctor. The acting ensemble is first class, award-winning and high-powered, and the scripts have a sassy sense of humour. The series has brought Burt Reynolds back to Hollywood.
"I had a wonderful movie career that I don't think I'll ever match again. I had five years at number one, for 10 years I was in the top 10. Most actors can't say that — big actors, wonderful actors, actors that I love and respect, cannot say that."
He now also knows there's more to life than being number one. You know that by his response to the critics who said he was finished: "I may not be the best actor in the world but I'm the best Burt Reynolds in the world. And nobody does Burt Reynolds I Vg I better than I do."
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