Smokey and the Bandit—a film thought up and directed by Burt Reynolds's roommate/celebrated stuntman Hal Needham—combined the appeal of watching high speed chases with the appeal of watching Reynolds, Sally Field, and the comedic stylings of Jackie Gleason. It was the second highest-grossing movie of 1977, directly behind Star Wars. Here are some fast facts about the classic action comedy, which was released 40 years ago today.
1. IT WAS BASED ON A REAL COORS BANQUET BEER PROBLEM.
While Needham was in Georgia working as Reynolds' stunt double in Gator (1976), the driver captain on the set brought some Coors beer from California and brought a couple of cases to Needham's hotel room. After he noticed that the maid kept stealing the beers from the fridge, he remembered a TIME magazine article from 1974 about how Coors was unavailable east of the Mississippi River, because the beer was not pasteurized and needed constant refrigeration, and couldn't legally be sold outside of 11 western and southwestern U.S. states. Which made him realize that, "bootlegging Coors would make a good plotline for a movie."
2. BURT REYNOLDS'S FRIENDS BEGGED HIM NOT TO DO IT.
Needham—who had been living in Reynolds' pool house for 12 years (the two barely ran into each other due to their busy schedules)—presented his landlord and close friend with the script for Smokey and the Bandit, written on yellow legal pads. Reynolds told Needham that if he could get the money to shoot it, he'd star in it. The movie star's friends, according to Reynolds in his autobiography, "got down on their knees with tears in their eyes and begged me not to do it."
3. SALLY FIELD DID IT BECAUSE SHE WAS SEEN AS UGLY.
"I did Smokey and the Bandit because Sybil (1976) was coming out, and everyone said, 'Whoa, the work is extraordinary. It's really good work …' or something like that, '... but man is Sally Field ugly! Man!' And I thought, 'Oh God, okay,'" Sally Field explained of why she took the role of Carrie, a.k.a. "Frog." "And then Burt Reynolds, who was this really big box office star at the time, called me and said would I consider doing this, which I was completely flabbergasted that he would call me and do that. And there was no script. There was virtually no script. Since I wasn't a person that had come from the New York stage, and I came from this sort of weird unorthodox background, I wasn't one who stood on principle and said 'Hmm, there seems to be no script here.' So I just took a leap of faith, and thought, well, you know, 'If I play this character that Burt is supposed to think is attractive, maybe the world will think I'm attractive, and somebody else will hire me.' So I did it. And it was a great fun romp, journey, and certainly a good experience. And then it was all improv. It was almost entirely improvised."
4. NEEDHAM COULDN'T GET ALL THE CARS HE WANTED (AT LEAST FOR THE FIRST MOVIE).
Needham saw a picture of a Pontiac Trans Am in a magazine and thought up a product placement idea. He asked for six Trans Ams, but Pontiac would only agree to send four. Needham also asked for four Bonnevilles for Jackie Gleason's cars, but he only got two. By the time they shot the final scene, they had wiped out three Trans Ams and the fourth wouldn't start after all of the stunts, so another car was used to push it into the scene. For Smokey and the Bandit II (1980), Needham asked for and received 10 Trans Ams and 55 Bonnevilles with no trouble.
5. UNIVERSAL CUT THE BUDGET JUST AS PRODUCTION WAS ABOUT TO BEGIN.
Set with his $5.3 million budget, a studio "hatchet man" was sent to Atlanta to inform Needham his budget was cut by $1 million. With Reynolds making $1 million, Needham still had $3.3 million to make his film.
6. CARRIE'S ORIGINAL NAME WAS KATE.
In the original screenplay, Bandit's last name is LaRoue, Carrie's name was Kate, Cledus' was 'Bandit II', Big Enos and Little Enos were Kyle and Dickey, there was no Junior, Bandit's car was not a Trans Am, and the reward for making the run was a new truck, not $80,000.
Adding the Junior Justice character (Mike Henry) was Jackie Gleason's idea. "I can't be in the car alone," Gleason said. "Put someone in there with me to play off of."
7. THE STUDIO WANTED RICHARD BOONE TO PLAY SHERIFF BUFORD T. JUSTICE.
Reynolds wanted someone "a little crazier, a little more dangerous, and a lot funnier" than Richard Boone, so he suggested Gleason.
8. BUFORD T. JUSTICE WAS BASED ON SOMEONE REYNOLDS'S FATHER KNEW.
Reynolds' father was a Riviera Beach, Florida police chief, and he knew a Buford T. Justice type. One of the things the real Buford T. Justice said was "sumbitch." Reynolds told Gleason about the man's bastardization of "son of a bitch" and Gleason ran with it.
9. JACKIE GLEASON AD LIBBED.
10. GLEASON ENJOYED "HAMBURGERS" ON SET.
Gleason would often ask his assistant Mal for a "hamburger," which was code for a glass of bourbon.
11. REYNOLDS AND GLEASON WERE SUPPOSED TO SHARE MORE SCREEN TIME.
Variety reported that, "after shooting the first of what was intended to be a handful of scenes with Reynolds and Jackie Gleason on screen together, Reynolds demanded that the subsequent scenes be scrapped. Why? The question isn’t directly answered, or even indirectly addressed."
12. "EAST BOUND AND DOWN" WAS WRITTEN OVERNIGHT.
Jerry Reed (Cledus) also provided the hit song "East Bound and Down" for the film. After promising he would come up with a song, he didn't have one at the end of filming. After Needham asked him about it, Reed promised he would have something for him the following morning. Despite being out all night, Reed managed to sing his new song "East Bound and Down" for Needham the next day. When Needham didn't react right away, Reed said, "If you don't like it I can change it. "If you change one damn note, I'll f*ckin' kill you!" the director replied.
13. ALFRED HITCHCOCK WAS A BIG FAN OF THE FILM.
His daughter Patricia revealed that every Wednesday her father would screen films on the lot in his office. The last one he ever screened was Smokey and the Bandit, his favorite film of his last few years.