HOLLYWOOD - It's the kind of place where the food is so organic that you order a salad and the house dressing is peanut butter laced with safflower oil and herbs. The tables surround a shady patio, and the waitress wears a T-shirt and shorts, an attractive combination not lost upon Burt Reynolds. He listens to the description of today's entree (something involving eggs and tomato sauce) as if it were a specialty of selected Moroccan bordellos.
This time, however, Reynolds chooses the lamb chops. This is, he says, his first interview in six months; he's about given up on the press. "About a year ago," he says, "I started writing letters to movie critics. I couldn't understand why I was being reviewed instead of my films. They kept talking about the new 'Burt Reynolds pictures,' as if you couldn't tell one from another.
"The reviews on the film were brutal," Reynolds recalled. "Ninety per cent of them were savage. I started to wonder what these guys were after. A lot of the critics said things like, how dare Burt Reynolds sing a Cole Porter song? Well let me tell you something: I can sing as well as Fred Astaire can act.
A pause, to light a thin black cigar. "Of course," he grinned, "I dance like Larry Csonka. But I began to get a little perspective on what it is I do. I spent a long time playing the third Indian from the left, and all the time I knew that I'd be best in things that weren't serious. I think I can play Burt Reynolds better than anyone in town. But then they say I'm not trying. It's hard to make acting look easy. There are two or three young actors around - I won't mention any names - who if I see them staring painfully at the rug in one more picture, I'm gonna puke.
"But then when I'm in a halfway successful movie, it irritates the hell out of the critics in New York, because they'd like to kill my pictures if they could. So maybe I'm pretty good in the movie. Then they use all these words like I'm 'surprisingly' good, or 'shockingly enough,' I'm good. It's like I crawled out from under a magazine and they're surprised I can act.
Another pause. "Well," he said, philosophically, "if you're going to be attacked, it's better to be attacked by some pseudo-intellectual faggot than by Joe Frazier...".
The lamb chops arrived, flanked by iced tea and a salad drenched in peanut butter. Reynolds stirred his tea and said he had nothing against being in "Burt Reynolds movies," mind you. He was leaving the next day for Savannah, Ga., in fact, to star in "Gator," which will also be the first movie he directs.
"I play a former moonshiner who's an FBI type," he explained, "and I get into this relationship with a girl, played by Lauren Hutton. I'm a guy who thinks a Martini is an Italian boxer, and she's a very modern lady who wants to be Barbara Walters. We make love, and I, being a male chauvinist pig, think that means a commitment. All she thinks is that I'm the best thing around. That causes no end of problems...
As he talks, Reynolds seems more serious than I expected. I'd met him before, at about the time when his Cosmopolitan centerfold had launched a thousand one-liners, and he'd seemed cocky, happy-go-lucky, effortlessly engaging. Now he seemed more introspective and a lot more analytical about his career. I asked him why.
"I think it's partly that I'm about to direct for the first time," he said. "That's a big responsibility, and the details obsess me. And, also, I no longer feel I have to do the Tonight Show every time I open my mouth. Twenty years ago, I told myself I'd rather direct than act, and it's taken me this long. "You lose your passion in acting. You make too many mistakes. Maybe that's why I make so many movies; if you don't like this one, another one's opening on Tuesday. But then I spent six months of my life on 'At Long Last Love,' a picture nobody saw. I enjoyed making it, I learned from it, I grew, but that's too much time out of my life.
Since then, he's finished "Lucky Lady," a Stanley Donen film about rum running, which also stars Liza Minnelli and Gene Hackman. "It's the first time in my life," he said, "I've ever been in bed with two Academy Award winners at the same time." And he's finished a movie named "Hustle," which was such a secret it wasn't even announced in the trade papers.
"It had to be that way," he said. "My co-star was Catherine Deneuve. And we made it just at the time when I was breaking up with Dinah Shore. The gossip columns would have had a field day, claiming that Catherine was stealing me away from the American Flag. When actually it was no such thing. Dinah and I had a wonderful four years, and then it ended.
"The nice thing about working with Deneuve was that she'd only seen one of my films, the best one, 'Deliverance.' She didn't know about all the Burt Reynolds B.S. over here. I went to Paris and talked her into making 'Hustle' because she though I was funny. I laughed her into it.
"Now she wants to tour America to promote it. I couldn't take it. Touring with Deneuve! She's beautiful inside and outside, and she smells good, too. When we were making the picture, studio executives would go eight blocks out of their way just to look at her. I'm not sure my heart could stand a tour with Catherine Deneuve. I'd take along a physician - except he couldn't stand it, either...Now then. This was a little of the old Reynolds, easy and charming, and I wondered to myself why we make such demands on performers in this country. Burt Reynolds is an original, an actor with a personality that comes over in a clear, funny, sexy way not a million miles removed from what Cary Grant had. So why do we demand great serious dramatic accomplishments from him?
And yet now he seems to demand them of himself. "I got a check in the mail the other day," he said. "It was part of the profit-sharing for a film I made called 'The Longest Yard.' So far it's made $57,000,000. The check was for $700,000.
"You know something? I'd trade three or four checks like that for another picture like 'Deliverance.' That was a good movie, a movie that will be remembered. Sometimes I'm surprised people even know who I am. I'll get out of a car and there'll be this commotion like there's some big shot there, and I'm looking around to see who it is. 'Who's here?' I ask. I think maybe it's John Wayne..."