Book Review: Burt Reynolds on Screen by Wayne Byrne (Featuring Q&A with Author)


BOOK REVIEW

Title: Burt Reynolds on Screen
Author:  Wayne Byrne
Publisher: McFarland & Company Inc.
Released: December 19, 2019
Pages: 314
ISBN: 978-1476674988
Stars: 5

In 1972, Burt Reynolds became famous with his breakthrough role in Deliverance. The actor also posed as Cosmopolitan’s first-ever nude male centerfold in 1972, “marking a milestone in the sexual revolution.” From 1977 to 1982, Reynolds was Hollywood’s top box office-grossing movie star, appearing in the hits Smokey and the Bandit, The End, Hooper, The Cannonball Run, Sharky’s Machine, and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas among other notable films that made him a household name. Anyone who was watching movies in the 70s and early 80s knew who Burt Reynolds was and they were reminded again in the 90s through his hit television series Evening Shade and 1997 comeback film, Boogie Nights.

Burt Reynolds on Screen by Wayne Byrne is the definitive work of film criticism and long-form tribute to one of Hollywood’s most enduring and well-liked actors. It discusses, in-depth, “many films which haven’t been previously covered in critical, historical or aesthetic contexts of any great scope or consideration” and covers his most popular films as well as some of his “most interesting works which have been grossly overlooked or forgotten.” The book “analyzes Reynolds’ films and television series in chronological order, relating behind-the-scenes production information and discussing their respective places in history, while making sub textual allusions between the man and the characters he played.” It also features exclusive behind-the-scenes photos and many films’ stills in black and white.

Its Foreword was written by American cinematographer Nick McLean, Sr. who worked with Reynolds as his camera operator and director of photography on several movies as well as his television series B.L. Stryker and Evening Shade and went on to be DOP on the television series Cybill, Friends, and Joey among other well-known shows. Byrne has since written a book about him, too, entitled Nick McLean, Sr. Behind the Camera.

Cinematographer Nick McLean and author Wayne Byrne in Naas, Co. Kildare, March 2019


Burt Reynolds on Screen
features an Afterword by C. James Lewis, who, as well as being an actor who graduated from the Burt Reynolds Institute of Theater Training (BRITT), also worked as Burt’s stand-in, photo double and stunt double for many years. It’s this kind of insider knowledge as well as the author’s remarkable attention to detail that establishes the validity of this book.

Although you’re probably aware that Burton Leon Reynolds Jr. was best known for being an action star, you might not know that Reynolds was originally typecast as a Native American in many of his early films or that he gave successful performances in almost every genre of film from romantic comedy to satire to film noir.

Film historian Joe Baltake was quoted in the Introduction for his “astute estimation of the actor’s appeal”:

Burt Reynolds, in a nutshell, is the movie star who’s a pal…but there’s something else, something deeper, something sad that makes Reynolds’ playfulness and flippancy wrenching…In his eyes, we see Reynolds’ integrity. They’re what make him original in a business full of clones. We look at Reynolds and we see a man who’s believed in old movies, the American Dream and loyalty; we look in his eyes and we see how difficult it’s been. Today’s devoted film aficionados and even our critics can’t fully appreciate what Burt Reynolds represents. Yes, he’s out of joint. He may be too good for today’s movies. His secret with audiences is that he’s one of us.

Wayne Byrne grew up a child of the 80s and first saw Burt Reynolds in a trailer for the film Heat in 1988 when he was “roughly six years old.” He spoke to numerous friends and collaborators of Burt Reynolds for this book, and one word recurred more than most: generous. Many of them recall with wonder the actor’s resolutely giving nature – giving of his time, talent and experience; giving financially, emotionally and morally. These interviews are absolute gems for Reynolds’ fans, and one which particularly surprised and delighted me was with actress Rachel Ward, Burt’s co-star in Sharky’s Machine and the made-for-TV movie Johnson County War. I became a fan of Rachel’s when I saw her in Against All Odds and The Thorn Birds in the 80s. Rachel’s career might have never taken off without the influence of Reynolds who cast her in Sharky’s Machine which he also directed. Byrne also interviewed Bobby Goldsboro, Bill Bennett and Adam Rifkin, among other Hollywood producers and directors.

Reading this book completely reinforces what kind of man Reynolds was. Throughout his career as an actor and a director, he often worked with friends (Jerry Reed, Dom DeLuise, Charles Durning, stuntman turned director, Hal Needham, Nick McLean, Sr.) and was loyal, kind, good-natured and unfailingly generous which is something one doesn’t hear much these days about the movie stars of the 21st Century.

I considered myself to be a fan of Burt Reynolds to a moderate degree, but after reading this book, I fully understand his appeal as an actor and how very talented he really was. I find myself wanting to make a trip to our local video store to rent some of his most distinguished, memorable films and watch them (some for the first time) to experience the genius that Wayne Byrne has so reverently and respectfully reviewed in this exceptionally well-written book. However, if you are a big fan of Burt Reynolds, this book is a must-read, must-own treasure for your collection.

Nick McLean and Wayne Byrne

Q&A with Wayne Byrne


Wayne, why did you choose to write a book about Burt Reynolds for your second book?

My first book, The Cinema of Tom DiCillo: Include Me Out, was written out of absolute necessity. Tom is my favourite director and I really wanted a book on his career. I couldn’t buy one, so I wrote one. I never set out on a path to become a writer of books but working on that book and seeing it be published was the greatest thing to me. So, I wanted to write more, but the question was ‘what do I want to write about?’ I couldn’t ever imagine writing about a filmmaker, a film, or any art or artist, which I don’t adore. I’ve experienced that in shorter form when writing for magazines and newspapers and you are profiling someone you aren’t particularly interested in, or they aren’t particularly interesting, and it’s a drag; I definitely couldn’t imagine writing something in book-length on something or someone you aren’t in awe of. So, I thought, ‘okay, that’s my favourite director taken care of, how about my favourite actor?’

And I’m not really a “film star” kind of guy, as in I’m not usually overawed at film stars, I am usually much more interested in the people behind the scenes – directors, cinematographers, editors – those guys are the heroes of cinema, they craft what we experience. Which is all to say I have a very short list of ‘favourite’ actors, and in that I would include Burt Reynolds, Clint Eastwood, John Wayne, Dennis Hopper, Steve Buscemi, Groucho Marx, and maybe a few more. But at the very top of that list is Burt Reynolds. I guess I had more of an emotional connection to Burt. While Eastwood and Wayne can make you excited and rouse the senses with their heroic feats, they would rarely make you laugh or cry. Burt can rouse excitement and make you laugh and cry, sometimes all in the same film. I’ve been aware of Burt’s presence since I was very young, he has always been there, even when I wasn’t fully paying attention, and then when I began to pay attention I just fell in love with this absolutely compelling performer whose mere presence commands your attention.

I understand how you feel about not being able to write about someone or something that you’re not in awe of as it is very difficult! As a big fan of Tom DiCillo as well, I thank you again for writing such a fantastic book about his films! One can certainly tell from reading this book that you truly love Burt Reynolds. 

How hard was it to write a film synopsis for every film?

Plot synopses are always a grind, and there are a hundred-plus films covered in this book. They are the most laborious thing about writing on film, whether you are reviewing for a magazine, speaking on the radio, or writing in a book. I mean all you are doing is hammering out the plot and trying not to reveal too much or to simply explain the film to people. And that inevitably ends up happening, because in the case of a book like this, you know most of your readers have not seen every film in there, so you do have to offer a lot more than a brief overview; you want them to feel that they have a substantive enough idea of the film so that they can appreciate the author’s commentary and criticism. Although, admittedly, some of the films only needed a cursory account of the plot.

Did you watch every single movie and television series that Burt starred in? 

You could say I re-watched 99% of them all. I had already seen and owned them before the book began. There weren’t that many films that I had to track down specifically for this book. There were a small handful of films he did in the last few years of his life, in which he mainly provided a cameo, and I literally couldn’t get my hands on them to see them. In most cases, they hadn’t yet received official releases in theatres or on DVD. So those few are the only films with Burt that I haven’t watched. And for the TV shows, I went back and watched the ones he was the star or co-star of, which are the ones which have chapters devoted to them – Riverboat, Gunsmoke, Hawk, Dan August, B.L. Stryker, Evening Shade. But for my own sense of completion, I also watched the shows where he is in one episode, such as Route 66, M Squad, The Lawless Years, The Twilight Zone, The Lawless Years, Naked City.

Wow, that is truly impressive and a major commitment on your part, as well!

How long did it take you to write the book?

From signing the contract to publication, I would say that was a little less than two years. The writing took around fourteen months. It was a very intense time. I was working two jobs – librarian and journalist – and halfway through the Burt Reynolds book, I signed a contract for another book, which I began work on during this period. Then I went on a nationwide tour of Ireland with my subject, Nick McLean, appearing at events all over the country celebrating his career. Nick has a lot to do with Burt’s career as well, so it tied in nicely. So, I had all of this going on, plus interviews with directors, actors and friends of Burt’s, and re-watching every film and TV show again, sometimes repeatedly. They were the busiest two years I’ve ever experienced, and I loved it. I came out of it with two books and some wonderful friends.

How did you choose which quotes to use from Reynolds’ characters in each specific film?

They had to tickle me somehow, if they were funny or if they encapsulated some intrinsic characteristic of the film. One of my favourite quotes is from The Last Movie Star, “You were the one who loved me before anybody even knew my name,” because it is loaded with a sense of history and a lifetime of regret, tinged with the melancholy and wisdom of someone who experienced the zenith of fame, fortune, and adoration, that which came at the price of losing people who cared for them long before the stardom and stature. I also love the quote from A Bunch of Amateurs – “Richard III it is! – What’s that about again?” – because it speaks to the absurdity and irony of Burt’s humour. He was so playful. I don’t know anybody in today’s Hollywood who has such a mixture of beauty, humour, grace, volatility, masculinity, and humility all in one package.

You interviewed some very interesting people for this book. How did the interview with actress Rachel Ward come about?

I was lucky to get Rachel because she was hard enough to find. She didn’t have any social media, so I couldn’t make direct contact with her, and none of my Hollywood friends or acquaintances knew her personally anymore, so it seemed like a dead end. But then I remembered that she is now a producer and director, which means she must have a company listing. So, I found out the name of her production company and approached them. My letter eventually found its way to Rachel through that avenue and we arranged some Skype chats, which were fun. These things can be a little surreal at times, and one instance of that with Rachel was when we were chatting it was breakfast time over in Australia and at one stage in our conversation her husband came into view bringing her a cup of coffee. I’m just sitting there thinking, “That’s Bryan Brown from that movie F/X!” She is gorgeous and graceful and all the things you would expect of her. I know many people fell in love with her in Sharky’s Machine, and it’s very hard not to, though I think she was even more beautiful and brilliant in Johnson County War twenty years after Sharky’s Machine.

Your interview with Tempted director, Bill Bennett, was also quite fascinating because of his unusual method of filmmaking and what he asks his actors to do. Can you tell us a bit about that? 

Bill was a very intriguing guy to talk to. He made some really interesting Australian films throughout the eighties and nineties and then he made a Hollywood rom-com with Denis Leary and Sandra Bullock called Stolen Hearts (which is titled Two if by Sea in North America) which seems entirely random in the middle of his filmography, and then made another cool Aussie film called Kiss or Kill before doing Tempted. Anyway, he is the kind of filmmaker I love to talk to. Someone who has experienced both sides of the industry: the indie hustle and the studio system, and he has ideas on doing things differently, and one of those was to shoot his film using only improvisation. His “script” laid out scenarios and had a structure, but he wanted his actors to create their own dialogue based on the relationships which they built early in rehearsals. Given that he was working with a star of the old studio system in Burt, and with some hot, young up-and-comers, it was interesting to hear how they reacted to this method and how Bill made it all work. Tempted is a fiercely underrated film in the Burt canon, a very well-made contemporary noir.

Was Charles Durning, Reynolds’ most frequent co-star? Were they close friends in real life? 

Charles was certainly one of Burt’s most frequent co-stars. Then again, there were a few people who worked with Burt just as often. Burt and Charles had immense love and affection for each other, and I think you can see that throughout the work. It took on a bittersweet note in the later films when you see them as older men; you could see Charles wasn’t in the best of health in some of the films, but they still have an immense spark between them, amazing chemistry. My favourite story of their friendship was one Burt told about Charles being a brilliant dancer and dance teacher – which not a lot of people knew about – and one night at Burt’s house, during one of his famous shindigs, Fred Astaire and Charles Durning danced the night away. The way Burt described it; it was magical. They sounded like good nights at Burt’s place.

Many people may not know that Reynolds taught acting for many years. Can you tell us about what you know about that?

A lot of people that I spoke to for the book told me that, first and foremost, Burt was a teacher. At the height of his fame, in the midst of him being one of the world’s most famous film stars, he opened an acting institute in Florida and a dinner theatre. It became an apprenticeship program for many people who would go on to have great careers, and many established stars and Hollywood legends would grace his theatre stage or go and coach the students. Burt was hands-on in the early days, he would nurture and develop the talent, offer them a chance at acting in his films if they succeeded at the audition, of course, it wasn’t just handed to them. They had to work hard, and when they did, Burt offered them a chance at something great. I think Jim Lewis, who wrote my afterword is a great example; while he was at the acting program he ended up with roles in The Cannonball Run and Sharky’s Machine, which meant he got his union card, but Burt insisted he still go back and finish his apprenticeship. Jim then became Burt’s stunt man and stand-in, was offered even more substantial roles, and later became a camera assistant. And they remained close friends until Burt passed away. That’s an amazing career, and amazing life, all because of Burt. But Burt really gave himself to people, both onscreen and off.

What did you find out about Reynolds during your research that you didn’t already know as a fan of his work? 

The extent of his teaching work, and the sheer scope of his generosity. And that he made a really lovely album in 1973 called Ask Me What I Am. It’s now one of my favourite records, but I had never been able to find a copy of it until halfway through writing the book, and I ended up interviewing its producer, the legendary Bobby Goldsboro because of it. It went from something I had only ever heard about, to something I was digging deep into with Bobby.

I found Ask Me What I Am on Spotify so I’m happy to have a chance to listen to it. 

Reynolds died before your book was published. What do you wish you could have asked him if you’d had the chance?

I would have asked him if I could shake his hand.

What do you think Reynolds was most proud of in his career?

His students. I would imagine that seeing his students become successful actors and writers and directors was a great source of joy to him.

What do you think he regretted most? 

He has famously regretted several things publicly, such as his failed relationships with Dinah Shore and Sally Field, and he has also regretted not taking roles in big movies such as Star Wars and Terms of Endearment, but I think – and this is only me speculating – that his biggest regret may have been not having had the chance to enjoy a solid life with a family of his own, a life that he clearly yearned for. It is there all through his films, it is in his books, and it is on his musical album. Just when it looked like he had found that life with Loni and their adoptive son, Quinton, it was ruptured through the divorce; it is unfortunate that it ended the way it did and that all the upheaval was documented in a very messy and very public way. I think he must have been heartbroken to see it all come apart. But that’s only my observation; he may have said that he regretted something else entirely different. Perhaps not having had the chance to become the professional football player that he seemed destined to become. To have that taken away after an injury hurt him immensely. But then again, without that injury and his subsequent embrace of acting, he never would have become the greatest movie star in the world. 

What are your Top 5 favourite Burt Reynolds films?

I’m terrible at this question, which is one most interviewers ask of me. It depends on what day of the week it is, but today is Monday, so here goes, in no particular order…

Stick – Objectively speaking, it’s not exactly a classic film, but I’m not being objective, and I love it dearly. I think some of Nick McLean’s best cinematography is in there; I love the score; Burt nails the image of Elmore Leonard’s character of Ernest Stickley, and the villain Moke (played by Dar Robinson) is so menacing. Just a great 1980s action film. Candice Bergen and Burt make for a hot on-screen pairing.

White Lightning – Burt just as he was taking off into the stratosphere. He could be effortlessly charming and loveable while being mean and uncouth, as he is here as the iconic Gator McClusky. I love both this and its sequel Gator, which is a completely different film, it’s loud, brash, and big whereas White Lightning is taut, lean, gritty, and suspenseful. And Ned Beatty is a beast in it. I just gave you a two-for-one there: White Lightning and Gator. I’m feeling generous today.

Hustle – Now this is what you call a classic neo-noir. Directed by Robert Aldrich, who he worked with on the brilliant The Longest Yard, but this is a serious film, a great murder mystery with political intrigue and a sleazy journey into the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles. Aldrich’s visual style is superb, and Burt gives a brilliant performance as the fatalist, cynical, morally questionable anti-hero detective. As a neo-noir film, I much prefer this to the likes of The Long Goodbye and Body Heat, both of which tend to be much more lauded than this. Hustle needs to be rediscovered.

Stroker Ace – Most people, including Burt, didn’t think too fondly of this, but for me, it encapsulates that period where Burt had this great Saturday matinee thing going that I recall fondly and nostalgically, where it was all about silly gags, fast cars, wild stunts, and some beautiful women. It is totally lowbrow stuff, but it helps when you have Burt being Burt, Loni looking gorgeous, Hal Needham directing, and Nick McLean shooting it.

Starting Over – For when I’m feeling a little bit more sophisticated, I put away Stroker Ace and reach for Starting Over, which is a classy melodramatic comedy featuring Burt as a down-on-his-luck loser-in-love, cast aside by Candice Bergen and embraced by Jill Clayburgh. Burt is playing against type here, a comfortably middle-class and urbane writer, shorn of moustache and masculine virility, and he really fought to get this role, because nobody would believe that he could play such a churlish loner who couldn’t find love. Alan J. Pakula directed it, and erstwhile Ingmar Bergman and Woody Allen cinematographer Sven Niekvist shot it, which means it looks stunning. A beautiful, warm, funny, and tender work, featuring some of Burt’s finest acting.

And a bonus sixth film – Sharky’s Machine – because it’s Sharky’s Machine and needs no other reason.