MOVIES : Burt Reynolds Does a Turn as an Old Man

Can this really be Burt Reynolds, skating shakily around a suburban roller rink in a $5.5-million picture for which he's being paid . . . Guild scale?

Is he cashing out his stardom? Has this fatherhood business (he and wife Loni Anderson are just adopting an infant) gone to his head? Is he slowing down?

His belly is decidedly convex; his tweed jacket, gray work pants and burgundy print shirt have seen better days; his hair, more gray than dark, is flat on the scalp, which peeps pinkly through. If all this were not enough, the superstar--noted for his hunky heroes--hugs the rink's safety rail as he holds a sotto voce conversation with a companion who is young and lithe and offers further proof that Reynolds is neither.

Reynolds has landed his first full-fledged "character" acting role in the just-finishing "Breaking In." It casts him as Ernie, a reclusive, decrepit 60-year-old veteran safecracker, and Casey Siemaszko ("Biloxi Blues," "Young Guns") as his apprentice. The subject of their mobile dialogue this day was the chock-full safe in the rink's basement.

"I'm sure everyone in Portland who has watched us film on the streets thinks I've completely fallen apart," Reynolds, 52, chuckled during a pause in shooting on the dark-toned male-bonding comedy. In fact, Reynolds' waistline has ballooned--he's up to 200 pounds, from his normal 170-175, specifically for the role.

But the rest of his look has been artificially achieved. His natural hair--which experts in such matters claim has long been augmented for the camera--has, this time around, been selectively thinned as well as grayed. And his facial droop and yellow teeth are prosthetics applied each morning.

All of which strikes Reynolds as deeply ironic, because "at this point, I thought I'd be spending 2 1/2 hours in the makeup chair trying to maintain some semblance of being a leading man.

"After you're in the spotlight for a long time, people, both men and women, are forever whispering names of surgeons in your ear, along with little exercises to shape up the turkey neck, the double chin, the sagging eye. I've been punched so much through the years, both playing (foot) ball and doing stunts, that my right eyelid sagged so badly my peripheral vision was affected. I had a little work done on it to get it back remotely where it belonged. "Of course, the first thing they did in the makeup chair for 'Breaking In' was give me sagging eyelids. Then they gave me a neck even a turkey wouldn't want."

It was, Reynolds admitted, "a bit depressing to see yourself looking worse by the minute . . . . It took me about a week to get comfortable with the makeup."

But now, having "always heard actors talk about hiding behind broken noses, glasses, different hair, fake teeth, etc., and loving it," and having "read about Olivier's fascination with the props and the character makeup, for the first time I know what they're talking about.

"I've spent an entire career--I don't know how many films I've done, somewhere between 40 and 50--I've spent all that time making the characters me. This is the first time I've done it the other way around."

Why is Reynolds doing it now? And why is he doing it in ACT III Production's modestly budgeted film, for Screen Actors Guild scale--$1,510.90 for a six-day location-shooting week?

One reason: Reynolds is a secret foreign film freak, and John Sayles' original screenplay of "Breaking In" is being directed by Bill Forsyth, 41, the Scot who's responsible for "Gregory's Girl," "Local Hero" and "Housekeeping." Screenwriter Sayles ("Return of the Secaucus Seven," "Matewan," the just-out "Eight Men Out"), who usually directs his own scripts, felt he didn't have the sense of humor needed to bring this one off.

Reynolds and Forsyth--or their respective publics--couldn't seem less alike. Yet this is probably the perfect time for them to collaborate--for the Florida good ol' boy to reach up, and for the subtle Glaswegian to reach down.

Reynolds, one of the film industry's most reliable box office name for 10 years, from "Deliverance" in 1972 to "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas" in 1982, has taken a nose dive in his career.

He turned down a change-of-pace role, eventually an Oscar-winning turn by Jack Nicholson, in "Terms of Endearment" in order to honor a commitment to do the dismal "Stroker Ace." Then he was effectively sidelined by illnesses for two years. Four potential comeback films--"Heat," "Malone," "Rent-a-Cop" and "Switching Channels"--failed to please critics (who spent more time on the suspicious fullness and darkness of Reynolds' coif than on his acting) or attract many fans.

As for Forsyth, the director's melancholy comedies have won critical kudos, but only a small (if devoted) following in the U.S.--the art-house crowd. Forsyth is the first to point out: "I can't get away with making $6- or $7-million movies (e.g., "Local Hero" and "Housekeeping") with the kind of audience that my past movies have reached. I've just got to find an audience--or retreat. And I'm quite happy to retreat, I'm happy to go back to Scotland and make smaller movies"--e.g., "Gregory's Girl." "But at the same time, 'Breaking In' seemed a comfortable experiment for me.

"Because," he explained, "although I say I'm trying to reach that audience or see how far that audience is from me, I don't think I'm going that far to get them. . . . You could read (the "Breaking In" script) very innocently as a kind of nice caper with nice characters. But underneath that there is so much compromise and so much duplicity and so much blackmail going on that it seemed to have lots of levels I could work on."

One of the levels that attracted Forsyth is the idea of an older man passing on a legacy--his professional skills, criminal and musty as they may be--to a younger man. This aspect of the script is mirrored in the daily working relationship between Reynolds and Casey Siemaszko, who said, "Just watching Burt work a script, I learned a lot.Like how to make a line work better, or how to make it funnier."

But how have Reynolds and Forsyth been getting on--and how has the former mega-star adjusted to working under low-budget conditions?

Both the director and the star suggest that theirs is a dream collaboration.

"He made the character more human," Forsyth said. "I know people put me down as a director who teases the humanity from situations, but to be honest with you, it's mostly the actors who do that. I'm so objective, so bleak in the way I assess characters that the actors play against me naturally. . . . Maybe the only talent I've got is allowing them to come to the surface when necessary."

According to Reynolds, Forsyth's way of doing that consists mainly of letting the actor "know you own the character." In contrast, "some directors believe they own all the characters in the script." But while Forsyth "wants you to find all the answers yourself," Reynolds stressed, "when you get into trouble as an actor and suddenly feel desperate, he's always right there to ride you through.

"Of course, that is my favorite kind of director. Boorman ("Deliverance") and Aldrich ("The Longest Yard") were that way, and they're among my absolute favorites. Norman Jewison ("Best Friends") also, though he is a bit more intellectual with his work, and Blake Edwards ("The Man Who Loved Women"). Alan Pakula ("Starting Over") is in some ways more similar to Bill Forsyth than any director I've worked with."

This litany of names (and the Reynolds films they evoke) is a reminder that despite his recent lackluster vehicles, despite two "Smokey and the Bandit" and two "Cannonball" movies, "this isn't the first time I've rolled up my sleeves and worked."

Like Forsyth, Reynolds seems split between underscoring and downplaying the "stretch" that "Breaking In" entails. He cites his parable-spouting outdoorsman in "Deliverance," his hurting divorce in "Starting Over," and even the "vain, flip" signature character of roughly 10 films as "stretches" in one sense or another. For his part, Forsyth insists that, departure though Reynolds' "Breaking In" role may be, "it's not a circus trick."

Reynolds also said that "modestly budgeted films are nothing new to me. 'Malone' and 'Heat' were as low- or lower-budgeted than this. . . . There aren't a lot of luxuries, but luxuries sometimes tend to get in the way."

One of the luxuries that Reynolds is doing without on "Breaking In" is the personal costumer who follows him from film to film. He is being dressed by the same costumer who is also taking care of Casey Siemaszko and supporting players Harry Carey, Albert Salmi and Matt Clark.

The crew, or those among them accustomed to sitting out down time in folding canvas "director's" chairs, may simply be getting a load off their feet in Reynolds' bus. Forsyth, out of egalitarian feeling for those crew people not provided with a chair, has banned all chairs, including one for himself, from the set of "Breaking In."

But producer Harry Gittes said he felt it wise to pay the attendant costs of the big black bus that Reynolds has refurbished as a dressing room, so that the star would have some "part of his working routine" on this film. "Instead of making him an island in the middle of all this," Gittes added, "the bus has become a gathering place for the crew."

Reynolds will soon be plunged into what he called the "very energetic world of television" as co-executive producer and star of six two-hour films. They will begin airing in early 1989 every three weeks on ABC, in alternation with a new Peter Falk-"Columbo" series and a Lou Gossett Jr. skein. The Reynolds component in this revival of the NBC "wheel" concept of the early 1970s, which alternated "Columbo" with Dennis Weaver's "McCloud" and Rock Hudson's "McMillan and Wife," will cast him as a private eye and will be "shot in my home county, Palm Beach County (Florida)."

Beyond that, he'd "love to do the kinds of things" that another Burt--Lancaster, who starred in Forsyth's "Local Hero"--"has done the last few years." But Reynolds said that all he knows for sure is that "right now I'm working with one of the finest film makers in our business, I've got a job waiting for me, and I'm married to a terrific woman. And after all I've been through, I know the single most important thing about myself. I am a survivor. That feels real good."

Reynolds took a long pause, at the end of which his mouth curled up mischievously.

"And, you know," he added, "through it all I never once let Robin Leach in my house. I think I deserve some points for that!"

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