Three years ago, the Palm Beach Post called Burt Reynolds the “the most famous person to come out of Palm Beach.”
Indeed, it would be difficult to dispute the statement.
Reynolds was the No. 1 male box office draw for a record five consecutive years from 1978 to 1982. His hits: “Deliverance,” “The Longest Yard,” “Smokey and the Bandit,” “Semi-Tough,” “Starting Over” and “Cannonball Run.” The films capitalized on his handsome, good-ol’-boy persona.
But years before Reynolds courted the Oscar with a best supporting actor nomination for 1997’s “Boogie Nights,” Reynolds, who died at Jupiter Medical Center on Thursday at 82, was already making a name for himself in Florida.
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After the Lansing, Michigan-born Reynolds moved with his family at age 10 to Riviera Beach in Palm Beach County in 1946, where his father, Burt Sr., served as police chief, Reynolds became a football star. He started on the team in the 10th grade at Palm Beach High School (now Dreyfoos School of the Arts).
There, Reynolds, a fullback, earned First Team All State and All Southern honors and won a football scholarship to Florida State University in Tallahassee, where he played halfback and eyed a pro career.
“The entire FSU family is saddened to learn we have lost our good friend Burt Reynolds. We will miss him dearly,” FSU President John Thrasher said Thursday afternoon.
A knee injury in the first game of his sophomore year, followed shortly by a car accident in which he lost his spleen and injured his other knee, cut short Reynolds’ football career. But Reynolds didn’t give up.
“I was playing with one leg; I’d had a terrific freshman year,” Reynolds said in a 2007 interview about his last FSU football experience that is posted to YouTube.
But he soon realized he was fighting a losing battle. “I’m not the ballplayer I was and I’d hate to see the hole open and I’m a step slower,” he told his roommates, teammates and coaches. “I said to them, ‘I’m going to go off to Hollywood and become a movie star.’ And instead of laughing hysterically and saying ‘get a job,’ which they should have, they said, ‘Call us when you do.’”
At 20, Reynolds gave up football and left FSU in 1956. Future gridiron efforts would be contained to his film roles in “The Longest Yard” and “Semi-Tough” a couple of decades later. In 1982, Reynolds became a co-owner of the Tampa Bay Bandits, a charter member of the United States Football League. Steve Spurrier, the former head football coach of the University of Florida, coached the team, which took its name, in part, from “Smokey and the Bandit.”
Reynolds’ father encouraged him to continue his schooling so he took classes at Palm Beach Junior College. There, his English professor, Watson B. Duncan III, became a mentor after he heard Reynolds read Shakespeare aloud in class. Duncan convinced the benched jock with an affinity for the Bard to try out for a play he was producing at the school.
The acting bug bit when Duncan cast him as the lead in “Outward Bound.” This proved fortuitous for both professor and student. Reynolds won the 1956 Florida State Drama Award for his performance, which led him to accept a scholarship to the Hyde Park Playhouse, a summer stock theater in New York where he met actress Joanne Woodward, who helped him find an agent.
Reynolds took on theater roles, landed parts in TV shows like “Gunsmoke” and began working in film.
Years later, in his 1994 autobiography, “My Life,” Reynolds called Duncan “the most influential person” in his life. Reynolds cast Duncan as the press secretary to the governor in his 1976 movie, “Gator,” which marked Reynolds’ directorial debut.
“Gator” took place on the Okefenokee Swamp on the Florida-Georgia border. Some of his other movies, like “Angel Baby” in which Reynolds made his film debut in 1961, “The Longest Yard” in 1974, and “Semi-Tough” in 1977, were filmed in Coral Gables, Palm Beach and Miami, respectively.
“Smokey and the Bandit II,” in 1980, was largely filmed at Reynolds’ Jupiter ranch in northern Palm Beach County. Reynolds directed himself in “Stick,” based on the Elmore Leonard novel, in 1984. He shot scenes in Miami, Fort Lauderdale and the Everglades.
“Striptease,” a 1996 movie based on Miami Herald columnist Carl Hiaasen’s novel, saw Reynolds playing a congressman who gets entangled with a stripper at the fictional Eager Beaver strip club in Miami.
Three years later, in 1999, Gov. Jeb Bush appointed Reynolds to the Florida Film Commission to promote movie making in the state. One of his first efforts was to film his part as a retired mobster, alongside Richard Dreyfuss and Seymour Cassel in the comedy, “The Crew,” in South Florida in the summer of 1999.
Scenes for “The Crew,” written by Miami native Barry Fanaro, were filmed in practically every hot spot in South Florida: Ocean Drive, Joe’s Stone Crab, the Port of Miami, an Art Deco Burger King on South Beach’s Fifth Street and Sunny Isles’ Rascal House.
Florida, Reynolds said in a 1996 Miami Herald feature story, helped define the man’s man he played in roles like 1981’s gritty cop drama, “Sharky’s Machine,” one of Reynolds’ best films.
“In the South, we have a saying: No man is a man until his father tells him. And if he doesn’t tell you, you search and search for somebody who is a man’s man to tell you. But, by then, you’re grown up,” Reynolds said. “My father didn’t tell me I was a man until I was 48. It was then, and only then, that I started to realize that you don’t have to get in fistfights all the time and do all that stuff you do as a teenager that I was still doing.”
Reynolds began to tone down some of his tougher characters, playing the sensitive divorcee in “Starting Over” alongside Candice Bergen and Jill Clayburgh in 1979, which generated some Oscar talk. He also played the singing sheriff alongside Dolly Parton’s madam in the 1982 musical, “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.”
On Thursday, Parton released a statement. “Oh how sad I am today along with Burt‘s millions of fans around the world as we mourn one of our favorite leading men. I know we will always remember his funny laugh, that mischievous sparkle in his eyes, and his quirky sense of humor. You will always be my favorite sheriff, rest in peace my little buddy and I will always love you.”
Reynolds staged plenty of musicals at The Burt Reynolds Jupiter Dinner Theater, which opened in 1978.
For its nearly 20-year run, the theater, which Reynolds dubbed “the miracle at the truck stop,” drew scores of celebrities to its stage. Among them: Carol Burnett, Martin Sheen, Charles Durning, Stockard Channing, his longtime paramour Sally Field, and, yes, Reynolds.
Reynolds also had a Burt Reynolds and Friends Museum in Jupiter, near Burt Reynolds Park, that housed some of his movie memorabilia, such as the canoe from “Deliverance,” and his Golden Globes for “Boogie Nights” and television’s “Evening Shade.”
Burt and Jack’s, a Fort Lauderdale waterfront restaurant named for the actor and its proprietor Jack Jackson, operated for 18 years at Berth 23 of Port Everglades after opening in 1984. The restaurant proved an instant hit with its jackets-suggested dress code and steep prices. Reviewers “likened dinner at Burt and Jack’s to dining on a luxury cruise ship,” the Miami Herald reported at its 2002 closing.
In 1990, Reynolds let state park officials use his private six-seat helicopter so biologists could complete environmental projects at Jonathan Dickinson State Park in Martin County, which served as a backdrop for “Smokey and the Bandit II” and several episodes of Reynolds’ TV detective series, “B.L. Stryker.’
“I love Florida,” Reynolds told UPI at the time. “I will do anything to help the environment so my son will be able to enjoy it as well.”