Burt Reynolds: The Last Interview
Strangely misplaced in Hollywood lore despite being one of the biggest box office draws of all time, the screen legend gave a rambling but nostalgic interview shortly before he died.
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Burt Reynolds was a college football star who got hurt, took some literature and acting classes while convalescing, went to New York to do off-Broadway plays and wound up in Hollywood doing low-end stunt work. Whenever they needed somebody to throw through a window or down some stairs, he was the guy. Soon a few speaking lines were sprinkled in among the pratfalls.
“As the years went by, I started talking more and being thrown down less,” he said.
Reynolds did a bunch of television shows, notably “Gunsmoke” and “Hawk,” as well as low-budget or spaghetti Westerns. With his blunt, hyper-masculine features and self-deprecating manner, he became a favorite on the talk-show circuit and turned down the roles of James Bond and Hawkeye Pierce in “M*A*S*H.”
For about a dozen years starting with 1972’s “Deliverance,” Reynolds was indisputably the biggest movie star in the world, known for car chase comedies like “Smokey and the Bandit” and “The Cannonball Run,” but also meatier stuff, romantic comedies, crime dramas, even directing and producing some of them.
Then came the usual decline with age and underwhelming projects. He went back to TV with “Evening Shade,” stayed busy with supporting parts in indie movies including a resurgence (and Oscar nomination) for “Boogie Nights,” and returned to his hometown of Jupiter, Fla., to run the Burt Reynolds Dinner Theater and accompanying acting school. Now known as the Maltz Jupiter Theatre, it remained his home base until his death in 2018, instructing entire generations of young actors.
Just days before his passing, Reynolds gave a lengthy interview to writer/director Rick Pamplin, which has now been turned into the feature documentary, “Burt Reynolds: The Last Interview.”
Ostensibly the interview was supposed to be 15 minutes and focus on how to obtain financing for independent films. Reynolds wasn’t very warm to the subject, giving vague answers about including some “commercial” elements in the script, but he was happy to talk about his career, approach to acting and advice for young people starting out.
Pamplin also layers in interviews with people in Palm Beach County who knew or worked with Reynolds through the theater or film commission. We also get some typically hyper observations from filmmaker Quentin Tarantino, including the anecdote that he was named after Reynolds’ “Gunsmoke” character, “half-breed” Indian Quint Asper.
Reynolds was set to play George Spahn in Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” and had already been through table reads and rehearsals with the rest of the cast when he suddenly fell ill and died. (Bruce Dern took over the part.) Tarantino also clears up some confusion held by many that Brat Pitt’s character, stuntman Cliff Booth, was based on Reynolds.
One nice bit: Reynolds advised Tarantino that Pitt was “too pretty” to be a real Hollywood stuntman circa 1969, and advised him to add a line of dialogue to address the issue.
Physically frail in the later years of his life, the portrait of Reynolds that we get in “The Last Interview” is a bit rambling and fuzzy around the edges, but warm-hearted and nostalgic. He’s a guy who never expected to be a big star and understood his time in the spotlight would be fleeting.
Reynolds got clobbered by a real chair instead of a prop one while filming “City Heat” with Clint Eastwood, leading to chronic jaw pain and weight loss that sparked persistent rumors during the 1980s that he had AIDS. There were also messy tabloid stories about his personal life, and a regrettable TV interview about his split with wife Loni Anderson. Never a fan of interviews, he did even fewer during his last quarter-century.
As an interviewer, Pamplin gets in some good questions that result in interesting, heartfelt answers — even if they aren’t always about the subject at hand. Reynolds come across as extremely effacing and polite, subtly steering the conversation in the way he’d rather it go. Some of Pamplin’s prompts cross the line from cordial to outright fawning, such as his repeated observation that Reynolds is tied with John Wayne as the most popular actor of all time.
(Cary Grant, Harrison Ford, Tom Hanks and a host of others might beg to differ.)
Maybe it was a technique to get a reluctant subject to open up, but the film would’ve been better served editing some of that puffery out.
But the heart of the movie is Reynolds, sitting there for almost an hour opening up intimately about his life and career. He tells a fascinating story about a childhood experience where he accompanied his father, the chief of police of Riviera Beach, on a middle of the night arrest. It’s a tale worthy of a scene in a movie.
There’s also solid insight about acting for the screen. “I don’t teach acting, I teach behavior,” Reynolds says of his approach. He also liked to “get off the page” when filming, aka not strictly adhere to the text of the script. He’d always tell the director he’d get back on the page if asked, and felt establishing that trust led to some of his best work.
Plenty of little anecdotes and showbiz stories are interspersed here and there, such as Reynolds’ observation that frequent action star Charlton Heston was “the most uncoordinated man in the world.”
And we get a lovely paean to Watson B. Duncan III, the junior college professor who first encouraged a busted-up jock to try reading some lines of Shakespeare. Reynolds later gave him a small part in “Gator,” the first film he directed.
Like a lot of popular movie stars, Burt Reynolds never really got his due as an actor. “Burt Reynolds: The Last Interview” gives him a nice send-off, and reminds us of a rare and special film career.
The film is scheduled for rollout on video platforms in June.