10 Surprising Facts About Burt Reynolds

Universal Pictures
Universal Pictures

If your first memory of Burton Leon Reynolds is from the 1993 film Cop and a Half, then you’re probably too young to remember—or even realize—that Burt Reynolds was once Hollywood's biggest movie star. To put it in perspective: Every year from 1973 to 1984, Reynolds was listed as one of Quigley’s “Top 10 Money Makers,” and held the top spot on the annual poll from 1978 to 1982 (the only other person to boast a record five consecutive years at the top of the list is Bing Crosby, back in the 1940s).

After a serious knee injury and subsequent car accident ended a promising football career at Florida State University, Reynolds found his way into acting. He got his start in a series of television roles, including a regular gig on the western series Riverboat, then hit the big screen big time with his breakout role in John Boorman’s 1972 backwoods classic, Deliverance.

Reynolds followed Deliverance up with such hits as Smokey and The Bandit (a film Playboy called “the Gone with the Wind of good-ol’-boy movies”), Semi-Tough, The Cannonball Run, and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. Though he hit a bit of a rough patch for a few years, all of that changed when Reynolds agreed to star in Boogie Nights, Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1997 ode to pornography, which earned the actor a Golden Globe award, a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination, and one of the biggest comebacks of the decade. Here are 10 things you may not have known about the mustachioed Hollywood icon, who passed away on September 6, 2018 at the age of 82.

1. HE TURNED DOWN SOME MAJOR ROLES.

Over the course of a near-60-year career, one is bound to pass on some prime roles. And Reynolds turned down a lot, including (by his own admission in the video above) Han Solo in Star Wars, R.P. McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Edward Lewis in Pretty Woman, and John McClane in Die Hard. Although he doesn't regret that final one: “I don’t regret turning down anything Bruce Willis did,” Reynolds told Piers Morgan.

More notably, and perhaps more regrettably, Reynolds turned down a chance to play James Bond in 1969. As Reynolds explained it: “In my infinite wisdom, I said to [producer] Cubby Broccoli, ‘An American can’t play James Bond. It just can’t be done.’ And they really tried to talk me into it. It was a 10-minute discussion. Finally they left. Every night, I wake up in a cold sweat.”

The role Reynolds laments turning down the most, however, is a role that was written specifically with him in mind. When director James L. Brooks approached him about playing Garrett Breedlove in 1983’s Terms of Endearment, Reynolds balked, instead taking a role in Hal Needham’s Stroker Ace. “When it came time to choose between Terms and Stroker, I chose the latter because I felt I owed Hal more than I did Jim,” Reynolds explained (Needham also directed Smokey and the Bandit, Hooper, and The Cannonball Run). “Nobody told me I could have probably done Terms and Universal would have waited until I was finished before making Stroker.” The role went to Jack Nicholson, who took home the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in 1984.

2. HE POSED NUDE IN A 1972 ISSUE OF COSMOPOLITAN.

It may be common knowledge that Burt Reynolds posed naked in Cosmopolitan. What may be less known is that he regretted that decision. “I’m very embarrassed by it,” Reynolds told Piers Morgan. Editor Helen Gurley Brown asked Reynolds to do the photo shoot after the two appeared together on The Tonight Show. “I thought it would be a kick,” Reynolds said. The issue came out only a short time before Deliverance was released in theaters and all 1.6 million copies of the magazine sold out.

Despite the popularity of the spread, Reynolds came to believe that it may have distracted from the critical reception of Deliverance. “I thought it cost some actors in Deliverance an Academy Award,” Reynolds told Morgan. “I think it cost Jon [Voight]. I think it cost Ned Beatty, who certainly deserved an Oscar nomination. I think it hurt me, too.”

3. HE TURNED DOWN HIS OSCAR-NOMINATED ROLE IN BOOGIE NIGHTS. SEVEN TIMES.

Burt reynolds in 'Boogie Nights'
New Line Cinema

Paul Thomas Anderson was adamant that Burt Reynolds play iconoclastic porn producer Jack Horner in his 1997 masterpiece, Boogie Nights, despite Reynolds’s aversion to the material. Anderson asked seven times, and got seven passes from Reynolds. “One night—the eighth time—[Anderson] came to my hotel room,” Reynolds recalled. “And I said, ‘Look, you don’t get it.’ And I went a little berserk. And at the end of the tirade, he said, ‘If you can do that in the movie, you’ll get nominated for an Academy Award.’ And he was right.”

4. AN ON-SET STUNT CAUSED HIM A LIFE OF PAIN.

The 1980s weren’t always kind to Reynolds. "I can't believe I did all those bad films in a row until I looked at the list," he said. During the filming of 1984’s City Heat, Reynolds was struck in the face by a metal chair and shattered his jaw. He developed TMJ as a result of the injury and ended up losing 40 pounds due to his inability to eat solid food. The shocking weight loss fueled speculation that Reynolds had contracted AIDS, a rumor he spent years refuting. He also developed a severe drug dependency as a result of the chronic and debilitating pain he suffered from TMJ; at one point Reynolds was taking up to 50 Halcion sleeping pills a day.

Reynolds eventually kicked the pill addiction, but was not so lucky with the pain. He suffered daily from the decades-old injury for the rest of his life.

5. HE HAD AN IMPROMPTU PIE FIGHT WITH DOUBLE DARE HOST MARC SUMMERS ON THE TONIGHT SHOW.

Burt Reynolds had just finished up his segment as a guest on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno in 1994 and had shifted over to make way for the next guest, TV show host Marc Summers (Double Dare, Unwrapped). Reynolds became visibly irritated with Summers for, ostensibly, turning his back on him while he was speaking to Leno. Summers then made the comment to Reynolds, “I’m still married, by the way.” This jab precipitated a water fight between the two combatants: Reynolds dumped his mug on Summers’s lap, Summers retaliated, so on and so forth. The donnybrook culminated in a rather violent pie fight followed by a very awkward hug.

“This was not a bit,” Summers explained. “I didn’t know what to expect. He was going through a divorce with Loni Anderson at the time and he was angry ... He hugged me and said, ‘I only did that because I really like you.’ You wait to get on The Tonight Show your whole life. You’re sitting next to Burt Reynolds. He drops water on your crotch, then you get into a pie fight!”

6. HE PISSED OFF ELMORE LEONARD.

Reynolds was a longtime admirer of writer Elmore Leonard. After reading Leonard’s novel, Stick, Reynolds decided that he wanted to direct and star in the film version. Things did not go well.

After watching Reynolds’s first cut of the film, the studio pushed back its release date and forced him to re-shoot the second half of the movie, much to the actor/director’s dismay. “I turned in my cut of the picture and truly thought I had made a good film,” Reynolds told the Los Angeles Times. “Word got back to me quickly that the [studio] wanted a few changes … I gave up on the film. I didn't fight them. I let them get the best of me.”

The biggest blow came from Elmore Leonard. "Leonard saw the film the day he was interviewed for a Newsweek cover and told them he hated it,” Reynolds shared. “After his comment, every critic attacked the film and he wouldn't talk to me. When I re-shot the film, I was just going through the motions. I'm not proud of what I did, but I take responsibility for my actions. All I can say—and this is not in way of a defense—is if you liked the first part of Stick, that's what I was trying to achieve throughout.”

7. HE DABBLED IN THE NIGHTCLUB BUSINESS.

Burt Reynolds’s foray into the booming 1970s nightclub business was a short-lived one. He opened Burt’s Place in the late 1970s at the Omni International Hotel in downtown Atlanta. The club’s most notable feature was a stained glass dance floor that featured a rendering of Burt’s face and the words, “Burt’s Joint”—which was odd, considering that wasn’t even the name of the establishment. Burt’s Place/Joint closed after a year.

8. MARLON BRANDO WAS NOT A FAN OF REYNOLDS.

Coming up in the movie business, Burt Reynolds was a huge Marlon Brando fan. Brando did not share the sentiment. When Reynolds was being considered for the role of Michael Corleone in 1972’s The Godfather, Brando adamantly declared that if Reynolds was given the role, he would remove himself from the project. The rest is history.

Brando later said about Reynolds, “He is the epitome of something that makes me want to throw up … He is the epitome of everything that is disgusting about the thespian … He worships at the temple of his own narcissism.” Ouch! To be fair, in the same conversation, Brando admitted that he had never even met Reynolds.

9. HE RELEASED AN ALBUM.


Mercury/Phonogram

Hot off his success in Deliverance and his nude spread in Cosmo, a solo album seemed like the next, most Hollywood-appropriate course of action.

Reynolds released his debut record, “Ask Me What I Am,” in 1973 and somehow this gem seems to have evaded critics and fans alike. We do know that the album came with a double-sized poster of Reynolds in a blue jumpsuit and cowboy hat. You can listen to a track on YouTube, but if you must hear it in its entirety, it’s available on Amazon.

10. HE DIDN'T THINK DELIVERANCE COULD BE RE-MADE TODAY.

“They keep talking about a remake, but I don’t think you could find four actors crazy enough to do it,” Reynolds said. “Not by any stretch of the imagination were we white water experts. We’d quit for the day and come back and practice. We got to the point where we were more proficient, or at least we didn’t get tipped over all the time. I have to admit that, in spite of the danger, or maybe because of the danger, it was the most fun I ever had.”

Reynolds often said that Deliverance is the finest of all of his films.

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The Many Lives of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah"

Leonard Cohen in London in June 1974.
Leonard Cohen in London in June 1974.
Michael Putland/Getty Images

In the late 1970s, Leonard Cohen sat down to write a song about god, sex, love, and other mysteries of human existence that bring us to our knees for one reason or another. The legendary singer-songwriter, who was in his early forties at the time, knew how to write a hit: He had penned "Suzanne," "Bird on the Wire," "Lover, Lover, Lover," and dozens of other songs for both himself and other popular artists of the time. But from the very beginning, there was something different about what would become "Hallelujah"—a song that took five years and an estimated 80 drafts for Cohen to complete.

In the 35 years since it was originally released, "Hallelujah" has been covered by more than 300 other artists in virtually every genre. Willie Nelson, k.d. lang, Justin Timberlake, Bono, Brandi Carlile, Bon Jovi, Susan Boyle, Pentatonix, and Alexandra Burke—the 2008 winner of the UK version of The X Factor—are just a few of the individuals who have attempted to put their own stamp on the song. After Burke’s soulful version was downloaded 105,000 times in its first day, setting a new European record, “Hallelujah” soon became a staple of TV singing shows.

It's an impressive feat by any standard, but even more so when you consider that "Hallelujah"—one of the most critically acclaimed and frequently covered songs of the modern era—was originally stuck on side two of 1984’s Various Positions, an album that Cohen’s American record label deemed unfit for release.

“Leonard, we know you’re great,” Cohen recalled CBS Records boss Walter Yetnikoff telling him, “but we don’t know if you’re any good.”

 

Yetnikoff wasn’t totally off-base. With its synth-heavy ’80s production, Cohen’s version of “Hallelujah” doesn’t announce itself as the chill-inducing secular hymn it’s now understood to be. (Various Positions was finally released in America on the indie label Passport in 1985.) Part of why it took Cohen five years to write the song was that he couldn’t decide how much of the Old Testament stuff to include.

“It had references to the Bible in it, although these references became more and more remote as the song went from the beginning to the end,” Cohen said. “Finally I understood that it was not necessary to refer to the Bible anymore. And I rewrote this song; this is the ‘secular’ ‘Hallelujah.’”

The first two verses introduce King David—the skilled harp player and great uniter of Israel—and the Nazarite strongman Samson. In the scriptures, both David and Samson are adulterous poets whose ill-advised romances (with Bathsheba and Delilah, respectively) lead to some big problems.

In the third verse of his 1984 studio version, Cohen grapples with the question of spirituality. When he’s accused of taking the Lord’s name in vain, Cohen responds, hilariously, “What’s it to ya?” He insists there’s “a blaze of light in every word”—every perception of the divine, perhaps—and declares there to be no difference between “the holy or the broken Hallelujah.” Both have value.

“I wanted to push the Hallelujah deep into the secular world, into the ordinary world,” Cohen once said. “The Hallelujah, the David’s Hallelujah, was still a religious song. So I wanted to indicate that Hallelujah can come out of things that have nothing to do with religion.”

 

Amazingly, Cohen's original "Hallelujah" pales in comparison to Velvet Underground founder John Cale’s five-verse rendition for the 1991 Cohen tribute album I’m Your Fan. Cale had seen Cohen perform the song live, and when he asked the Canadian singer-songwriter to fax over the lyrics, he received 15 pages. “I went through and just picked out the cheeky verses,” Cale said.

Cale’s pared down piano-and-vocals arrangement inspired Jeff Buckley to record what is arguably the definitive “Hallelujah,” a haunting, seductive performance found on the late singer-songwriter’s one and only studio album, 1994’s Grace. Buckley’s death in 1997 only heightened the power of his recording, and within a few years, “Hallelujah” was everywhere. Cale’s version turned up in the 2001 animated film Shrek, and the soundtrack features an equally gorgeous version by Rufus Wainwright.

In 2009, after the song appeared in Zack Snyder's Watchmen, Cohen agreed with a critic who called for a moratorium on covers. “I think it’s a good song,” Cohen told The Guardian. “But too many people sing it.”

Except “Hallelujah” is a song that urges everyone to sing. That’s kind of the point. The title is from a compound Hebrew word comprising hallelu, to praise joyously, and yah, the name of god. As writer Alan Light explains in his 2013 book The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of "Hallelujah,” the word hallelujah was originally an imperative—a command to praise the Lord. In the Christian tradition, it’s less an imperative than an expression of joy: “Hallelujah!” Cohen seemingly plays on both meanings.

 

Cohen’s 1984 recording ends with a verse that begins, “I did my best / It wasn’t much.” It’s the humble shrug of a mortal man and the sly admission of an ambitious songwriter trying to capture the essence of humanity in a pop song. By the final lines, Cohen concedes “it all went wrong,” but promises to have nothing but gratitude and joy for everything he has experienced.

Putting aside all the biblical allusions and poetic language, “Hallelujah” is a pretty simple song about loving life despite—or because of—its harshness and disappointments. That message is even clearer in Cale’s five-verse rendition, the guidepost for all subsequent covers, which features the line, “Love is not a victory march.” Cale also adds in Cohen’s verse about sex, and how every breath can be a Hallelujah. Buckley, in particular, realized the carnal aspect of the song, calling his version “a Hallelujah to the orgasm.”

“Hallelujah” can be applied to virtually any situation. It’s great for weddings, funerals, TV talent shows, and cartoons about ogres. Although Cohen’s lyrics don’t exactly profess religious devotion, “Hallelujah” has become a popular Christmas song that’s sometimes rewritten with more pious lyrics. Agnostics and atheists can also find plenty to love about “Hallelujah.” It’s been covered more than 300 times because it’s a song for everyone.

When Cohen died on November 7, 2016, at the age of 82, renewed interest in “Hallelujah” vaulted Cohen's version of the song onto the Billboard Hot 100 for the first time. Despite its decades of pop culture ubiquity, it took more than 30 years and Cohen's passing for “Hallelujah”—the very essence of which is about finding beauty amid immense sadness and resolving to move forward—to officially become a hit song.

“There’s no solution to this mess,” Cohen once said, describing the human comedy at the heart of “Hallelujah. “The only moment that you can live here comfortably in these absolutely irreconcilable conflicts is in this moment when you embrace it all and you say 'Look, I don't understand a f***ing thing at all—Hallelujah! That's the only moment that we live here fully as human beings.”

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