There was a moment during the enjoyably bad Dwayne Johnson film “Rampage” that stood out for me. In an early scene space canisters with a serum crash to Earth and one lands in the Everglades, becoming devoured by an alligator that eventually grows gargantuan and tears apart Chicago. I joked with friends how proud I was to see a local performer in a major motion picture.
As dismissive as I was, that mention of pride was actually rooted in the career of Burt Reynolds, who passed away Thursday at the age of 82 following a heart attack. Reynolds was, for this local South Florida resident, a transformative individual in regards to my interest in Hollywood. Before Burt, my regard for our cultural diversions was distancing, partly because I lived so far away from Hollywood — the real one, in California.
Movies and TV held my interest more than the celebrities. My desire to learn how magicians crafted their tricks extended to film, wanting to learn how these dreams were made for screens. Then I began to note those elements of our culture that were directly connected to my region. First, it was my mother introducing me to the novels of John D. MacDonald, and his protagonist Travis McGee. It was a revelation that a popular fictional character could live on a houseboat just minutes from my own home.
We ate one night at the restaurant called The Barefoot Mailman, named after the legendary postal figures of the 1800s from our area. I learned there had been a film by that name and became intrigued; Hollywood actually touched our region?! I eventually made other discoveries. “Flipper” was filmed down here, and “Creature From The Black Lagoon” had large segments shot in the northern counties. And of course there was the classic Bogart vehicle, “Key Largo”.
Then, with the arrival of cable TV, I learned of the alpha-thespian, Burt Reynolds. He was always portrayed as a rugged, aloof, and fun-loving rake. Playing football (as he did for real at Florida State), running moonshine, and boating in various tributaries between gathering fatales all held a lot of appeal to this pre-teen. Learning this movie star was actually a Florida resident — his family moved to Palm Beach County when he was a child — sealed my interest in entertainment. Hollywood became a tangible object in my backyard.
Reynolds had an enduring career that seemed to rise up on my radar in cycles, and he always maintained that status as “one of ours”. It was not long after learning of him that he exploded into an international figure, with “Smokey And The Bandit”. While I previously was drawn to his Southern escapades “White Lightning”, and its sequel “Gator” (which he directed) it appeared in “Bandit” that he had essentially turned pro.
His collaborations with stuntman-turned-director Hal Needham fed into my curiosity and into the making of films. The improvisational nature of their titles gave a peek into the creative process. His role in “Hooper” was especially seductive to me because he played a stuntman, and numerous scenes were actually about the creation of movie scenes. I watched it voraciously every time it came on HBO.
As Reynolds rose into the celebrity firmament he remained a steadfast Floridian. He opened theaters to train up-and-coming actors as well as bringing in celebrities to perform. His dinner theater in Jupiter, near his hometown, was a fixture in South Florida. His restaurant, Burt & Jacks in Fort Lauderdale, was a longtime respected, upscale destination. And he continued to work.
One role that struck me was in a mostly reviled title. “Striptease” was based on the novel I had previously read by Miami Herald columnist Carl Hiaasen. The the movie was considered a bomb, which only appealed to my affection for bad cinema. But Reynolds populated the role of the debauched Congressman David Dilbeck in enjoyable fashion. Burt would continue to please me with surprisingly welcome appearances.
He was a gravitational force in “Boogie Nights”. He popped up as a stern judge and father in the devotional hockey film “Mystery Alaska”. And then sealing his career with me, he became a plot point in the delirious animated spy-spoof “Archer” television show. In season 3, the titular spy has a plot in the Louisiana swamps and talks rhapsodically about those same early films I was drawn to — “Lightning” and “Gator”. The next season Reynolds appeared as himself, he and Archer bonding to hilarious effect. The episode was drolly entitled “The Man From Jupiter”.
Hollywood lost a true celebrity royal, and we fans lost a true icon. Burt Reynolds was numerous things — a leading man, a superstar, a sex symbol and a force in the industry. And during all of that, in a decades-long career, he always remained a Floridian.
Brad Slager, a Fort Lauderdale freelance writer, wrote this story exclusively for Sunshine State News. He writes on politics and the entertainment industry and his stories appear in such publications as RedState and The Federalist.
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