Robin Williams

Burt Reynolds: Underappreciated by Critics, Beloved by Fans

The movie star, who died Thursday at age 82, never won an Oscar

Burt Reynolds, known for his gift of gab on-screen and off, didn't say a word during his greatest cinematic scene.

He didn't have to.

In 1972's "Deliverance," his weekend outdoors-man Lewis silently pulls his bow from a distant woodsy perch as two armed and ragged locals prepare to sexually assault his buddy Ed (Jon Voight). There's no panic, no rush even, as an unflinching Lewis waits for the perfect moment to let go, sending his arrow flying into one man's back, piercing the tension – and the hillbilly's heart.

The precision reflected the strongest work of an actor too often underappreciated by critics, but beloved by the fans who flocked to his films in the 1970s as he redefined movie macho. Reynolds died Thursday at age 82 as one of the last big-screen heroes, a throwback to the 1940s movie gods who became an icon of a more jaded era.

In "Sunset Boulevard," faded silent film star Norma Desmond famously declared, "I am big – it's the pictures that got smaller." At his best, Reynolds made the movies bigger by his mere presence.

That’s true for his grittiest 1970s roles – the jailbird quarterback in "The Longest Yard," the moonshiner bent on revenge in "White Lightning," the cynical doomed detective in the nouveau noir "Hustle."

The same also could be said for the popular car-chase comedies he elevated – most notably "Smokey and the Bandit" and "The Cannonball Run."

Fans enjoyed watching Reynolds, whose bushy mustache couldn't mask his infectious smile and laugh, have a good time – whether in the movies or on TV, where he doled out self-effacing quips to Johnny Carson, Merv Griffin and others.

Maybe Reynolds erred in giving fans too much of a good thing – the world could have lived without the two "Smokey" sequels and "Cannonball Run II." Perhaps his art would have been better served by skipping that infamous Cosmopolitan centerfold. Then there were Reynolds' tabloid-fodder romances with Dinah Shore (who was two decades his senior, causing a stir at the time), Sally Field (whose star threatened to eclipse his) and Loni Anderson (whom he divorced amid acrimony in 1993). 

The 1990s brought a career rebirth of sorts for Reynolds, thanks to his gentle TV comedy "Evening Shade," and his brilliant performance as aging 1970s porno filmmaker Jack Horner in "Boogie Nights." He succeed in making the sleaze-oozing Horner a pitiable figure.

The 1997 standout turn earned Reynolds his only Academy Award nomination. He lost the best supporting actor race to Robin Williams, who won for “Good Will Hunting.”

But it didn't matter. The man who made the movies bigger didn’t need Hollywood’s biggest award. Just being Burt Reynolds was enough.

Hester is Director of News Products and Projects at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.

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