Burt Reynolds interview: After six decades on screen, the former action man is over woulda, shouldas

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After 60 years in the movie business – five of them, from 1978 to 1982, as the top box-office star in the United States – Burt Reynolds might appear to be an open book, his every feat, foible, affair and chest hair chronicled so vividly that almost nothing about him could surprise you the way that naked Cosmopolitan centrefold did in 1972.

But The Last Movie Star, Adam Rifkin’s study on fading glory, lost love and regret, written especially for Reynolds, does just that. (The film, now on DirecTV, opened in US theatres on Friday.)

Reynolds lays his soul bare as Vic Edwards, an all-but-forgotten film icon given a lifetime achievement award by what he assumes to be a major Nashville festival that had previously honoured the likes of Robert De Niro. Instead, he’s saddled with shabby accommodations and a lippy, tattooed driver, Lil (Ariel Winter of Modern Family), for a grassroots gathering scraped together by some local fanboys. Vic is not amused.

But on his way back to the airport, he has a yearning to visit his hometown, Knoxville, Tennessee. And soon he’s walking – very slowly, with Lil reluctantly by his side – down memory lane.

“I heard he wouldn’t do it unless I did it, and that sort of swung me to the project,” Reynolds said of Rifkin. “But I liked it. It was very different than anything I’d done. There weren’t any cars or things jumping other cars or girls and stuff.”

Visiting New York from Valhalla, his estate in Jupiter, Florida, Reynolds, 82, arrived at the interview with an entourage before heading to a career retrospective at the Metrograph in downtown Manhattan. His body ravaged from stunt work, he made his way with help from a fancy cane. But he fired off a barrage of jokes, and that storied charisma was still there.

How much did Adam Rifkin get right about you in his script?

Well, I don’t know. I mean, I’ve been acting for 60 years now. I don’t know who the hell I am. But I think he did a real good job. We wanted the guy to be an Everyman who thinks he’s a movie star, but it’s over. There are these ups and downs where he realises he’s not a movie star anymore. So he just sort of wanders into the ghettos and streets and makes friends with a lot of down-and-outers, which is what he is.

Sweet but something of a rascal.

I think you have to be a little bit of a rascal, because people would be disappointed if I didn’t do that. [Chuckles] We’re only here for a little while, and you’ve got to have some fun, right? I don’t take myself seriously, and I think the ones that do, there’s some sickness with people like that. That’s why I live in Florida.

Vic butts heads with Ariel Winter’s Lil. What was she like to work with?

She started out trying to be tough. Her language was atrocious. I didn’t like it. So I took her around behind the wagon and said: ‘Ariel, I don’t know if you heard Anne Bancroft talk like that or who, but I can tell you Sally [Field] doesn’t. And you don’t have to. It doesn’t mean anything. But not only that, it throws me. I think I’m doing a scene with this girl, and you say the F-word and we don’t need it. And please try it a couple of days without it.’ Well, she didn’t do it anymore, and I was so proud of her.

What’s the difference being a movie star now and at the height of your career?

In the Seventies, [people in the industry] protected you a little more. ‘Where are you going tonight?’ ‘Well, I’m going to dinner with my lady.’ ‘Where?’ ‘I don’t want to tell you where.’ But I’d end up telling them where, and they’d end up being there, two tables away. Now you’re not protected, but if you learn how to laugh and have fun with it…

If I was as tough as I’m made out to be in movies, I wouldn’t have to worry. But I can’t beat my way out of a paper bag now. I’m too beat up. I haven’t had two hours of no pain for, gosh, I don’t know, honey, 20 years. Because it was always this macho crap that you’re full of, and I always thought, ‘Well hell, I could do that [stunt].’ And I could, except sometimes I didn’t quite make it.

Is there anyone now who reminds you of yourself back then?

George Clooney. He’s got a sparkle. And he just seems like a good guy, welcoming you to the set, which I always do. ‘We’re going to make a movie, and I don’t know if it’s going to be any good, but let’s have fun.’

You’ve said many times that Sally is the one who got away. Did you ever try getting her back?

I’d be afraid to ask her out because I think she’d laugh and hang up. Joanne Woodward got me my first agent, and we’re really close friends, and she said: ‘What in the hell’s the matter with you? Why don’t you go up to her house, get on your knees and ask her if you can’t be friends?’ And I said: ‘I can’t do that. What if she closes the door on me?’ And she said: ‘Well, I closed the door on Paul [Newman, her husband] twice, and he came back.’ But I couldn’t. All you’ve got left at that point is your pride. And I didn’t want to bash that in too much.

The film inserts your character into scenes from your own movies, like Smokey and the Bandit. It nods to your days as a sex symbol with your centrefold. What’s it like looking at that bearskin rug now?

You do stupid things. I wish I hadn’t done it, but I did it. And I rose above it, I guess. Or I didn’t, I don’t know. But I’m still here. [Sings a line from “I’m Still Here”.]

Now you teach a Friday night acting class in Florida.

It’s hysterical. [The age range] goes from 18 to 80, and the lady that’s 80 was a Follies girl, and she must have been a knockout because she’s still very sexy. I have more fun with her.

You still act in a handful of films each year. Why not slow down?

I don’t know why I think this, but maybe I’ve got my best work ahead. Maybe I’ll be putting my teeth in the glass, and maybe it will be a very different kind of role, but I want to do something where I’m not driving a car or a truck, where it’s real. Something that people wouldn’t expect me to do. Probably a man in search of himself.

And now you’re the subject of retrospectives. Do you enjoy basking in the adoration?

Sometimes it’s fun. But sometimes people surprise me with their anger. It’s almost like you want to say, ‘Well, if you think it’s that easy, why don’t you come do it, and I can sit where you’re sitting and ask you questions – dumb ones, but questions.’

You famously turned down blockbuster roles like James Bond and Han Solo to continue making action movies, some of which fizzled. Why?

I was good at it, for one thing. I felt good when I did a stunt, and if it was really dangerous – like if I got out on a horse or a bull that was rank, or jumped out of this building on a bag – I felt great.

Is there a role you regret not taking?

Yeah, I turned down so many films that Jack [Nicholson] did, and he was brilliant and I couldn’t have been as good. But the one I wish I’d done was Terms of Endearment.

Which movie are you proudest of?

I’m proud of Deliverance, because it was a very dangerous film to make, and they all said it couldn’t be done, and we did it. And Jon Voight and I are now like brothers.

And yet you’ve apparently never fully watched Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights, which earned you an Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe win.

I don’t like it. It was hard because it was a subject matter [the porn industry] that I find so disgusting. And I thought, ‘If I can pull this off, I’ll have done something that most people can’t do, and the actors that I respect and love will be proud of me.’ And I think I did. The picture was a big hit, but my folks couldn’t see it, and it was tough.

Are you still waiting for that Oscar?

God no, but something that the industry recognises as good work. You know, I’ve had the strangest career. I’m an old man, and for crying out loud, I’m still thinking, it’s just around the corner. There are certain actors, like Voight, who I love, and [now deceased] Brian Keith and Charlie Durning, God I loved him so much. It seems like I lose one a week now. So I want to do something, some work, that we can celebrate together.

You’ve still not met your own standard?

I just know that that’s not the one. I’ll know. And I’ll call you.

In a 2015 Vanity Fair profile, you spoke about having regrets.

I did, but I don’t have any regrets left.

© New York Times