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The Natural-Born Movie Star: Burt Reynolds, 1936-2018

The children of the 1970s will remember the laugh: Burt Reynolds' laugh. No movie star had ever laughed like that before. It was rambunctious and boyish, and a lot higher pitched than you'd expect from a broad-shouldered former football player with the narrow eyes and high forehead of Marlon Brando (a star to whom he was compared early in his career). "Hee-HEEEEE hee hee!" It was the laugh of a kid who couldn't stop himself from getting into trouble, but had such a gift of gab that no matter how much damage he did, he still talked his way back into favor. 

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His screen persona often fused the strong-silent jock-adventurer with the anti-establishment wiseass, a combination that had never been attempted in movies before, at least not to such staggering effect. In the '70s and early '80s, Burt (that's how you referred to him, as Burt) was the biggest movie star in existence. He moved up from  exploitation pictures like "Gator" and "White Lightning" to Southern-fried, car chase-driven blockbusters like "Hooper" and "Stroker Ace" and "Smokey and the Bandit" and "Cannonball Run" and their sequels. There was always a moment in one of these films where he'd tell off some sputtering authority figure or get away with breaking a rule, or a law, then throw his head back and let fly with that impish laugh: "Hee-HEEEEE hee hee!" As he cackled and got away with it, there was a good chance he'd be either chewing gum or wearing a cowboy hat, maybe both. 

Burt Reynolds was macho—so macho that he had to make fun of how macho he was, otherwise people would laugh at him instead of with him. (In his more self-serious projects, we sometimes laughed at him anyway.) His pants were tight. His boots were shiny. His belt buckles were shinier, and huge. His dark, bushy mustache—the most emblematic screen 'stache since Clark Gable, himself an evident influence on Reynolds' screen persona—made him funnier somehow, easier to love (clean-shaven, Burt could look mean). When he took off his shirt, he was so wooly that he looked like he was wearing a catcher's chest protector made out of carpet shag. 

His legendary Cosmopolitan centerfold—the first such coyly objectifying photo spread ever taken of a male star in a major publication, undertaken at the request of editor Helen Gurley Brown—was Burt Reynolds the matinee idol captured in one image. He was a hirsute god, flashing a come-hither look that was self-deprecating but not entirely joking, looking shyly away from the camera but also grinning because he knew it was still checking him out. He was naked, yet there was no doubt who was in control of the viewing experience. He kept his privates covered: one last secret, or present, for the ladies, or for anyone who wanted to fantasize about him. (The image was so sexually potent that, nearly forty years after its publication, Facebook locked down the accounts of people who posted it, perhaps because their algorithms couldn't glance at an image consisting of that much flesh and hair and not assume it was pornographic.) 

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The enduring cliche of great male movie stars is that women (and some men) want to have sex with them, and straight guys want to be their friend and go on adventures with them. The Florida-born ex-athlete turned movie star, who died this week at age 82, was so totally that guy in that whenever he stepped outside of the persona he'd defined as well as anyone, it always seemed surprising. 

He kept doing it again and again, whether he was playing righteous and self-destructive cops in love with call girls in "Hustle" and "Sharky's Machine," a stoic outdoorsman in "Deliverance," an aging thief (considerably older than he was at the time) in "Breaking In," a Western badass in "Navajo Jones," "The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing," a middle-aged porn director straining for artistic credibility in "Boogie Nights" (his first and only Oscar nomination), a light comic leading man in "Best Friends," "Paternity," "Starting Over," "Cop-and-a-Half" and "Rent-a-Cop," and an egoless ensemble member in "The Player," "Silent Movie," "The Dukes of Hazzard," "Mystery, Alaska," and "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (*But Were Afraid to Ask)." Burt played against type so many times that it seems fair to ask whether he ever really had a type, or if that was something he encouraged us to think because it made money for him, and gave him opportunities to do other things besides peel out down city streets and country roads while throwing his head back and laughing.

He did all he could to stretch himself, branching out from rough-and-tumble action and exploitation pictures into romantic comedies, indie films and bleak thrillers, to directing himself in movies that ranged from intriguing (1978's suicidal comedy "The End," 1981's brutal cop flick "Sharky's Machine") to dreadful (1985's "Stick") and even investing in nonprofit theatrical institutions, including the Maltz Jupiter Theater (later renamed the Burt Reynolds Jupiter Theater) and The Burt Reynolds Institute for Film & Theatre

He was always self-deprecating about his roots as an athlete—he played halfback for Florida State University's football team until two knee injuries and a car crash ended his prospects—and, perhaps as a result, he seemed to waver between mocking the idea that anybody could take a guy like him seriously and worrying that he wasn't being taken seriously enough. A part of him seemed irritated that he never became a critics' darling like his longtime friend Clint Eastwood, who mostly directed himself and honed a star persona that proved even more vivid and long-lived than Reynolds'. A maybe-apocryphal story says that when Reynolds sold "Sharky's Machine" to the studio, he summed it up as "Dirty Harry Goes to Atlanta." But, like everything else he'd gone through, he still found a use for his football experience, starring in two of the most original films ever made about the sport, "Semi-Tough" and "The Longest Yard."

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It's emblematic of Burt's simultaneously image-conscious and self-deprecating stardom that he usually wore toupees in his films, yet joked about them during talk show appearances, and occasionally in the movies themselves. 

One of his most striking performances came in his final starring role, as the title character in 2017's "The Last Movie Star." It's an indie film about a Burt Reynolds-like movie star attending a low-rent film festival that bites off more than it can chew, artistically speaking; but it's still a thoughtful enough meditation on stardom, and Burt's stardom especially, that it deserves a wide audience. It's here, finally, that Burt gives a performance as surprising, often unbearably raw, as the best by his idol and onetime lookalike, Marlon Brando. In some ways it's Burt's "Last Tango in Paris," except 30 years removed from the age range that Brando was in when he starred in that psychodrama. 

There is zero vanity in Burt's acting as he plays scenes opposite his younger self (occupying Jon Voight's spot in the canoe in "Deliverance" as well as the passenger seat of the Bandit's Trans Am, a spot previously occupied by his  partner for five years, Sally Field). And there's searing honesty in the way he lets us see his age and frailty. We see the character grieving over an old dog that he had to put to sleep, snapping at twenty-something festival volunteers who can't support him in the style to which he's become accustomed, contemplating inviting a streetwalker to his seedy motel room only to panic when he realizes he out of Viagra, and repeatedly falling and hurting himself. He looks frail and sunken, like a man nearing the end of a long, hard road. There's a scene in the film where a simple act, the hero crossing a hotel lobby to greet his companion, becomes as suspenseful as anything in the action pictures Reynolds made when he was younger. Would he make it? Would he fall? Would a fall kill him? 

That laugh was magic, but Burt Reynolds' gifts were no laughing matter.

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