Thirty years later, he's still holding the line

Burt REYNOLDS made headlines recently when he "slapped" a CBS assistant producer at the New York premiere of his latest movie, "The Longest Yard," after the man admitted to the actor that he'd seen neither the 1974 original nor the new one. Reynolds' publicist quickly issued a statement that the actor had "playfully tapped [the producer] on the cheek.... He was just kidding."

Eleven days before the "slap heard around the world," Reynolds, 69, couldn't have been more charming during an interview, doing impressions of Gregory Peck and Bette Davis while discussing his role as Coach Nate Scarborough -- a former Heisman Trophy winner, now petitionary inmate -- who coaches a prison football team and scores a touchdown at a crucial moment.

Adam Sandler plays the role Reynolds originated 31 years ago -- washed-up NFL quarterback Paul Crewe, who was sent to prison after stealing and destroying his girlfriend's car. The 1974 version of the film was directed by one of Reynolds' favorite directors, Robert Aldrich.

During the 1970s, Reynolds was a box office champ, thanks to such films as 1972's "Deliverance," "The Longest Yard," the 1977 comedy "Smokey and the Bandit" -- the second-highest-grossing film of that year behind "Star Wars" -- and the 1979 romantic comedy "Starting Over." Though he had career ups and downs in the 1980s, his stock rose considerably in the '90s with his Golden Globe award-winning role in the CBS sitcom "Evening Shade" and his Oscar-nominated turn as a porn producer in Paul Thomas Anderson's 1997 hit, "Boogie Nights."

Besides "The Longest Yard," Reynolds will be seen in August in the feature version of the TV series "The Dukes of Hazzard" as the corrupt, idiotic Boss Hogg.

How did you get involved in this version of "Longest Yard"?

Adam called me and said, "What do you want to do?" I told him I didn't want to do a cameo, I will only do the picture if I play. And he said, "You play." I said, "And I score." He didn't hesitate. He said, "You got it." He was very generous.

What was it like to get on the field again?

That was fun. I was like Walter Mitty -- just for a fleeting second [I was young].

Did you go into training for the scene where you score the touchdown?

Yeah, I worked out pretty hard, but even if you are working out and you go out and see those guys [the ex-football players and wrestlers in the cast] you think, "I can't catch up."

Did your young costars come and talk to you while filming "The Longest Yard"?

A lot, a lot.

Did they seek advice about acting, movies?

Not so much about acting but about surviving, the one thing they don't give you an award for.

Surviving is getting up off the mat, which athletes understand. You make that analogy to football players -- they get off the ground and go on. As an actor, the first thing that's going to happen is rejection, rejection and rejection and then bang.

The difference is that you go from being sort of stepped on to being thought of as better than you really are. That's a very heady, strange feeling.

Who were your mentors?

I had the best mentors in the world -- I had Jimmy Stewart and Hank Fonda.

Gregory Peck used to be my neighbor. I used to see him when I would get my paper. I'd say, "Good morning, Mr. Peck." And he'd say, "Good ... morning ... Burt." I would say, "I'd like to stay and chat, but I only have five hours." He would laugh.

Then I had some bad influences, guys who would get me into trouble. Like [Robert] Mitchum. You couldn't keep up with him, and if you did, you died! He didn't sleep.

Sounds like things have come full circle for you.

I felt I would never get to the stage where I would be treated like Mr. Stewart, but what is very rewarding to me is the respect I have.

The only thing good about getting old -- the only thing good about getting old -- is that they think something sage is going to come out of your mouth.

Was it odd to see Adam Sandler playing the part you originated?

It was the only time in my whole career I paused a second when they said "Paul Crewe." I said, "Yes," and then Adam said, "Yes." We looked at each other and laughed.

You also play the outrageous Boss Hogg in "The Dukes of Hazzard."

I will either get the award for overacting of the century or people are going to go, "He's great." Because you have to play it full out. It is the only way you can do it. I felt, "Just go for it." I had a great time.

Do you have any other projects set for release?

Yeah, I have five or six. I just do a lot of things because they are interesting parts with young directors and actors.

The critics have never been particularly kind to you, so the "Boogie Nights" experience must have been a great validation.

What was funny was when I went back for the New York Critics award, there were a lot of people in there who had sliced and diced me [in reviews].

I circulated around the room, and I was talking to Andrew Sarris and other critics and each one of them whispered in my ear, "I am a big fan." I said, "You can say it out loud. It's not going to make you stupid." I think they were afraid their IQ was going to drop 80 points if they said they liked me.

-- Susan King

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