His laugh is what I remember most. Burt Reynolds laughed like your kid sister — a full-bore, coyote-throated cackle.
I can still hear him on those old “Tonight Show” appearances, pounding the desk and clucking at some double-take from Johnny Carson or Dom DeLuise. That great laugh seems to echo across the landscape, in these first days after Reynolds’ death Thursday at age 82.
Early in his career, Reynolds wore skinny jeans, cowboy boots and a twinkling schoolboy smirk. That high-pitched laugh was his trick pitch, not fitting that beefcake visage, which was fortunate for all involved. How could America come to love a cocky, monkey-haired hunk who took himself too seriously?
It never would, not in that era of anti-heroes and fervid feminism, and Reynolds seemed to inherently understand that.
So he laughed at himself as much as he laughed at anything. Despite being an actor with significant dramatic chops, that laugh and his sense of mischief were his greatest gifts.
Wry and playful, he was funny in ways that were new to us, especially on those old episodes of “The Tonight Show.” Deadpan at times, cartoonish at others, he and DeLuise established a high bar for improv.
Hey, kids, want to “own” your upcoming talk show appearance? Study those clips of Reynolds, whose career was a masterclass in storytelling, physical humor and slivered wit.
Friends say he was difficult and complicated. “Lots of problems, lots of laughs,” one fellow actor remembered Thursday. Journalists who profiled him in later years say he worried over how he’d be remembered.
Well, his legacy is everywhere. Ellen DeGeneres does some of Reynolds’ same self-deprecating shtick, and you see signs of Reynolds in nearly everything Dwayne Johnson does. In the manner of Richard Pryor and Steve Martin, Reynolds carved a kind of comedy niche.
There are trace elements of him in the careers of George Clooney and Matthew McConaughey as well. Reynolds didn’t invent that sort of easy-going outlaw, he just perfected it.
And his sweeping career — in action movies, drama and comedies — has us thinking of Peter O’Toole’s great line from “My Favorite Year”: “I’m not an actor. I’m a movie star.”
In my humble estimation, most big stars don’t seem to have much fun anymore. What they mostly have are entourages and the grim expressions of hostages held at gunpoint.
What a rough life it must be.
Not in Reynolds’ case. He was a hellbent Florida kid with a cop for a father who never seemed to forget where he came from, even as he married actresses and lost — then regained — his fortune.
Mind you, his re-definition of the smoldering leading man came amid sweeping cultural changes in sexuality, male-female relationships and traditional notions of manhood.
Men-on-the-run was a theme of “Smokey and the Bandit” and “Deliverance,” after all, but never was there a hint of pushback. His go-with-the-flow approach was a big part of the appeal to many of the roles, including as convict/quarterback Paul “Wrecking” Crewe in “The Longest Yard.”
Burt Reynolds as Bo “Bandit” Darville in 1977’s “Smokey And The Bandit.”(Silver Screen Collection / Getty Images)
Burt Reynolds discusses a scene with director Paul Bogart during New York location shooting of the ABC series “Hawk” on May 27, 1966.(Joe Caneva / Associzated Press)
Singer Dinah Shore and Burt Reynolds appear together in Los Angeles on Nov. 5, 1971.(Harold Filan / Associated Press)
Burt Reynolds appears in a scene from the 1972 film “Deliverance.”(Warner Bros. / Warner Bros.)
From left, Ned Beatty, Jon Voight, Ronny Cox, Bill McKinney and Burt Reynolds appear in a scene from John Boorman’s survivalist drama “Deliverance.”(Warner Bros )
Burt Reynolds and Sally Field in "Smokey and the Bandit.”(Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images)
Burt Reynolds pinches the cheeks of comedian Dom DeLuise during a roast of Reynolds in Atlanta on Dec. 2, 1977.(Steve Helber / Associated Press)
Burt Reynolds polishes his Hollywood Walk of Fame star at its unveiling ceremony in Los Angeles on March 15, 1978.(Associated Press)
Burt Reynolds sits for a photo as he receives an award at UCLA in 1980.(Iris Schneider / Los Angeles Times)
“Boogie Nights” star Burt Reynolds holds his award for supporting actor in a motion picture at the Golden Globe Awards in Beverly Hills on Jan. 18, 1998.(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)
Burt Reynolds displays his Supporting Actor of the Year Award during the ShoWest Awards ceremony in Las Vegas on March 12, 1998.(Lennox McLendon / Associated Press)
Burt Reynolds fields media questions about the film "The Crew” at the Loews Miami Beach Hotel on Aug. 20, 2000.(Amy E. Conn / Associated Press)
Burt Reynolds is photographed by The Times on May 13, 2005, as he promotes his role in the film “The Longest Yard,” a remake of his 1974 film.(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)
Burt Reynolds joins Adam Sandler in the 2005 remake of “The Longest Yard."(Tracy Bennett / Associated Press)
Burt Reynolds at the Wizard World Chicago Comic-Con on Aug. 22, 2015.(Barry Brecheisen / Invision / Associated Press)
Burt Reynolds sits on a 1977 Pontiac Trans-Am at the world premiere of “The Bandit” during the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas, on March 12, 2016.(Jack Plunkett / Invision / Associated Press)
Burt Reynolds poses for a portrait as he promotes the movie “The Last Movie Star” in Beverly Hills on March 21, 2018.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Burt Reynolds sits for a portrait as he promotes his role in “The Last Movie Star” in Beverly Hills on March 21, 2018.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Reynolds’ re-definition of the smoldering leading man came amid sweeping cultural changes in male-female relationships and traditional notions of manhood.
Odd-couple pairings would come to define him. Just look at the contrasts: DeLuise as his longtime comic sidekick on the movie screen and all those spots with Carson; his romance with Dinah Shore, 20 years his senior and out of a different Hollywood era. Even apple-cheeked Sally Field seemed too goody-goody for the rogue stock car driver.
Those pairings helped to soften the swagger. Trust me, that 1972 “Cosmo” centerfold could’ve been his ruin were it not for his smirky, self-mocking tone. It was as if he said: “Feminism has come to this? Sign me up.”
Love and sex didn’t seem to be such pejoratives back then. Ironically, attempts to post the famous centerfold photo on Facebook on Thursday reportedly ran into the site’s standards-and-practices police.
How far we haven’t come. Reynolds certainly would’ve gotten a good talk show story out of that one.
Indeed, there was a sly comic sensibility to everything he did. He once recorded a song called, “Let’s Do Something Cheap and Superficial,” which seemed to mock the mores of the day and the heartthrob he was supposed to be.
“Though your hair is all in tangles,
And your makeup is a mess,
Most of what you’re drinking,
Is spilling down your dress…”
It makes you wonder: Is Hollywood success a product of talent or a keen and winning sensibility? Is it being bigger than life or in touch with real life?
Or maybe it’s all of those things: talent mixed with an easy charm; being bigger than life while staying true to your rural roots.
For six decades, Reynolds was a sturdy study in all those things. With a laugh too cool for words.