Reflecting on Burt Reynolds by Wayne Byrne
When Burt Reynolds passed away on September 6th, 2018 I was three-quarters way through the final draft of what would become my new book, Burt Reynolds on Screen. That morning I was in the middle of a conversation with my pal, Nick McLean, who was Burt’s dear friend and cinematographer for over thirty years, when all of a sudden Nick’s home and cell phones began ringing off the hook, accompanied by the ping of arriving text messages. We thought it was unusual but kept talking regardless, coincidentally about Burt; then I saw Nick’s wife Karen come into view behind him and grab his attention. “Burt just died,” Karen said. Nick relayed the devastating news and we were both in shock. Only one minute prior we had been midway through our usual approbation of Burt and here we are, in an instant, mourning a hero and a friend, respectively. We could barely speak and left each other to grieve.
Spending so much time working on the book and becoming close to Burt’s own friends meant that his death genuinely impacted upon me and not just as a fan; it also brought the reason for this book’s existence into sharp focus. As the tributes poured in across the media, you would be forgiven for thinking that he had made only three films: Deliverance, Smokey and the Bandit, and Boogie Nights. All great films, to be sure, but Burt Reynolds was so much more than that. Aside from those cinematic touchstones there were the hundred-plus films that he starred in, the major TV shows, the albums, the talk show appearances, the books…but to many he will always be The Bandit, and understandably so. But only Burt, who was once the Number One Box Office Star on the planet for five consecutive years, could leave this mortal coil without having such work as his massively successful, critically-acclaimed, award-winning sitcom Evening Shade even mentioned in his obituaries. For anyone else that show would have been a pinnacle of achievement, but Burt achieved so much in his life it is hard to know where to begin to celebrate it. That’s where my book comes in. Burt Reynolds on Screen takes us through his career one film and TV show at a time. All of them. Chronologically. The book is a reminder that Burt was perhaps the most prolific film star of the twentieth century and is the first and only tome to be wholly devoted to his work, rather than his lifestyle or personal life. In a filmography as large as Burt’s, there are bound to be a few duds. For every Sharky’s Machine there’s a Mad Dog Time; for every Stick there’s an End Game, but this is more than just an analysis of the art, it is also a journey through various aesthetic and cultural movements in Hollywood over the last six decades, as told by some of those who were there directing, photographing, and co-starring with Burt.
Technically-speaking this project was a mammoth undertaking. My debut book, The Cinema of Tom DiCillo: Include Me Out (2017), was eight chapters long covering the eight feature films of the titular director; for Burt Reynolds on Screen I tasked myself with writing about each and every one of Reynolds’ hundred-plus films and television shows, some of which are two or even four seasons long, so a commitment of time was a must. Even though these are some of my favourite films, texts that I felt were ripe for objective critical analysis as well as subjective celebration, within the fourteen months it took to deliver the final manuscript there were many caffeine-fuelled graveyard shift writing sessions filling the gap normally occupied by sleep, that which takes place between my day job as a librarian and my part-time evening work as a professional journalist. Those dark circles under my eyes are not the result of decadence and debauchery, but of finishing yet another draft of that pesky Cannonball Run II chapter at 3:00am. Time seems to move fast when you’re writing, and just as you hit your two-thousandth word of the evening, the dawn chorus sounds and the blackbirds begin alerting you to the fact that you have to leave for work in four hours yet you still have to go to bed. Sitting on your ass and staring at a screen is rarely as tiring as it is when writing a book.
The great thing about writing non-fiction, and particularly a book on an artist you adore, is the people you meet along the way. Of course there are the interviews that don’t work out for whatever reason (technical, temporal, personal, you name it), but then there are the people whose voice and contributions enrich your work, and in the case of those who become friends, enrich your life. Perhaps this whole book-writing endeavour of mine is less a literary adventure or vanity project than it is an opportunity to meet new friends…they just so happen to be the stars of my silver screen dreams.
When I wrote about Tom DiCillo for my first book, almost every major actor I approached for an interview said yes without hesitation. With Burt it was different; with stars like him there can often be a cadre of protectors who are there to be professionally suspicious and wary of people like me. Most of them assume I am probably there to write some salacious backstage expose, an indecent biography perhaps, or a juicy tabloid rag rich with tales of wine, women, and woe. But I have absolutely no interest in who Burt was married to and when, or what he looked like without his wig. What deeply interests me is his stellar work in the American Cinema across six decades, and to uncover my own fascination with his cinematic magnetism and commercial magnitude. My mandate with this book was to celebrate the elemental force of film that was Burt Reynolds, to remind people that behind the tabloid headlines and blockbuster bluster remained a distinguished, sensitive artist who managed to seduce us with his rogue charm and bellowing hyena laugh, that which rings ineloquently but reassuringly throughout our collective memories of him as it does through his exceptional oeuvre.
(c) Wayne Byrne
The interview photograph above, showing the author and the cinematographer Nick McLean discussing Burt Reynolds (on the big screen behind), was taken at An Evening with Nick McLean in The Sugar Club in March 2019.
About Burt Reynolds on Screen:
In a prolific career spanning six decades, actor Burt Reynolds was a definitive American icon and one of the world’s most famous stars of film and television. As much a folk hero as a Hollywood celebrity, he began as a stuntman and bit player in B Westerns and TV shows before landing a starring role on NBC’s Riverboat (1959–1961). His breakthrough role in Deliverance (1971) made him famous and the sleeper hit Smokey and the Bandit (1977) made his name a household word.
This first critical overview of Reynolds’ work examines his complete filmography, featuring candid discussions with costars and collaborators, exclusive behind-the-scenes photos and a wealth of film stills.
Burt Reynolds on Screen will be released in autumn 2019 by McFarland and is available for pre-order here.