'Fresh Air' Remembers Film Star Burt Reynolds

Sep 7, 2018
Originally published on September 12, 2018 9:54 am
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DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. TV and film star Burt Reynolds died yesterday in Jupiter, Fla., from a heart attack. He was 82. Reynolds appeared in a hundred films. Many, he joked, were so bad they were shown in prisons and on airplanes because no one could leave. Reynolds began acting in the '50s, but his career really took off when he became a regular on the TV talk show circuit in the '70s, cracking jokes with Johnny Carson and Merv Griffin. Among his films are "Deliverance," "The Longest Yard," "Smokey And The Bandit" and "Cannonball Run." In 2005, he got his only Oscar nomination for his role in the film "Boogie Nights."

Reynolds had a volatile temper and an eventful life. He was in a serious car accident that ended his college football career and suffered a shattered jaw in the '80s when he was hit with a chair doing a stunt for a movie. That led to an addiction to painkillers. Reynolds also had a series of Hollywood marriages and romances with Judy Carne, Dinah Shore, Sally Field and Loni Anderson.

Terry spoke to Burt Reynolds in 1994 when he'd written a memoir called "My Life." She asked him what it was like to grow up the son of a sheriff in a small Florida town.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

BURT REYNOLDS: Well, it's like being a preacher's son or a sheriff's son or whatever. I mean, you go one of two ways. You're either a little angel, or you're crazy. And I thought crazy was the best choice of the two. I was always in trouble. And I didn't want anybody to think that, you know, because I happened to be the son of that I could get away with things. And, boy, he let me know right away that I didn't.

TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: Did he punish you a lot when you were crazy?

REYNOLDS: Yes. I mean, he double punished. I mean, I was arrested once for fighting with about four guys. And they put us all in jail. And he came in and he said, your father's here; you can go home; your father's here; you can go home. Came to me and said, your father didn't show up. And I stayed there for four nights.

GROSS: (Laughter).

REYNOLDS: And he threw every drunk he arrested on top of me. I was always doing something that wasn't - you know, first of all, you have to understand that I don't respect anyone as much as I respect him. I don't - I never met a man in my life that I love more. But he was the kind of a man when he came in a room, all the oxygen left except for, you know, whatever he breathed. And he was 6-foot-4. And he was a very imposing, strong-willed man. And I spent most of my life - we have a saying in the South. No man is a man until his father tells him he isn't. And mine never did, which is why I was a little crazy until I was - well, till I had my son. Then I had to be an adult.

GROSS: I want to ask you about one of your most acclaimed films. And I'm thinking of "Deliverance." You were...

REYNOLDS: You could almost say only acclaimed film. But I was only in I think maybe two really acclaimed films, "Deliverance" and "The Longest Yard" and maybe "Starting Over" because it was nominated for an Emmy award, the picture was. But "Deliverance" was an extraordinary film in the sense that it was these four actors - I don't think you could get four actors who would do what we did.

GROSS: Well, you especially - you were almost killed...

REYNOLDS: Yes.

GROSS: ...In a waterfall scene. Why don't you describe the scene which apparently none of the stunt people even wanted to do?

REYNOLDS: No, they - well, they would be - they'd be - said, you know, you're too crazy. Go away. You know, and I was crazy. But we had a - we could stop the water. We had a dam that we had control over. And it was a place called Tallulah Gorge, which - Tallulah Bankhead actually was born there and was named after this gorge. And it was about 85 feet down. And they sent a dummy over. And Boorman looked at it - John Boorman, the director - and rightly so said, it looks like a dummy. And I said to Boorman, I can do that.

And so they put - they stopped the water, and I said, give me a spike, a mountain climbing spike. I went out in the middle of the river and drove the spike in, and I put a rope around it. And I said, now, when the water comes out, I'll - it'll come around me, see. And I'll put my hand up and wave, and that's when I'm going to let go so you can roll the cameras. And then I'll go down there. I'll hit that rock, and then I'll spin off to the left. And then I'll do a flip, and then I'll land down there. And they all went, right. You know, we've got four cameras. And I heard them letting the water go.

And I looked back, and coming at me was this tidal wave. And away I went. And I didn't go anywhere I told him I was going. I went wherever the water wanted me to go. But I - the first rock I hit, my tailbone cracked. Then I did turn a flip, which was what I said I would do, but I didn't do it on purpose. Then I landed in what they call a hydrofoil. Well, a hydrofoil - you can't swim out of it. You have to swim to the bottom, and then it kind of spits you out. And I had been told that. And I remembered it, thank God. And I went to the bottom.

What they don't tell you is that that spits you out like shooting a torpedo out of a submarine about 70 miles an hour. And I went over the falls a 30-some-year-old guy in the best shape of anybody and came up 150 yards down the river totally nude and about 78 years of age, could hardly walk and had hit every rock, you know, along the way going 70 miles an hour, it seemed. And they all thought I had drowned. I mean, they said, there's a nude old man limping this way. But we've got to concentrate on getting Burt out of this hole, you know?

GROSS: Well, what happened to all of your clothes? Were they shorn off by the rocks?

REYNOLDS: They just vanished. I mean, it was - that's how fast and how strong the water was. And the next day, I went to the rushes with everybody, very anxious to see my exciting stunt. And we looked at it. And I said to Boorman, how's it look? And he said, like a dummy going over the falls.

GROSS: Did it really look like that to you?

REYNOLDS: Not to me. It looked like a dummy but a different kind.

GROSS: (Laughter).

REYNOLDS: But it was an extraordinary stunt to me.

DAVIES: Burt Reynolds speaking with Terry Gross in 1994. Reynolds died yesterday. He was 82. Coming up, linguist Geoff Nunberg ponders the difference between lies and falsehoods. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.