His laugh is what I remember most. Burt Reynolds laughed like your kid sister — a full-bore, coyote-throated cackle.
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.”
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.