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Shades of Burt Reynolds.

There's a lot of emotion bottled up inside good old boy Burt Reynolds. Curiously, the emotion is probably the reason he's such an accomplished light comedian. At 55, back on top with his hit TV series "Evening Shade," Reynolds no longer masquerades as simply the wittiest cracker ever to slide behind the wheel of a car. He's more apt to hit home with a sharpish comment now. He's less hesitant to show his dark side, or at least his shaded side.

He recalls the time when he was the butt of every other below-the-belt remark that Joan Rivers made. Why didn't he ever answer back? He finally came out with, "I don't fight with female impersonators." Nuff said.

Mostly, though, he grins and bears it. He says, "I found myself getting an award recently. I looked out at the crowd and it was full of people who had declared me 'graveyard dead,' as my father used to say. I could have stood there and been like Norman Maine in A Star is Born. I didn't do that. I just accepted the award, said something funny, and walked away."

It took a deep crisis of health and spirit several years ago to help Reynolds recognize and liberate some of that emotion inside him. A stunt went awry on the set of his 1984 film City Heat and he suffered a jaw joint disorder that immobilized him for two years.

"You can't get your health back unless you make up your mind you want it," he says. "I was lying down, vegetating, while these jokes and rumors circulated." The most sensational rumor leapt from his weight loss (he was down to 150) to the incorrect conclusion that he had AIDS.

"one day," he recalls, "I said to my wife, who was extraordinary during this period, "I'm choosing to get well.' I was sick as a dog. I couldn't go five feet without bumping into something. I went from doctor to doctor and finally found one who stuck with me until I got well. I couldn't get well until I made up my mind to. I'd lost faith in a lot of things--God, family, friends. I slowly came to the decision that I wanted those things back in my life."

Today, Reynolds' life is happier and better balanced than in the days when he was America's top box office star five years in a row, 1978-82. He and Loni Anderson are the parents of a thriving three-year-old adopted boy, Quinton. Reynolds won an Emmy last season for best comedy performance in his CBS show, "Evening Shade," which he also co-produces and co-directs. He's weighing offers for feature films to be made during the show's next hiatus. And he has scored a massive grassroots hit with his one-man show, "An Evening with Burt Reynolds."

Burt Reynolds' office, adjoining the "Evening Shade" set, is dominated by an antique juke box that generally plays traditional jazz. The walls are covered like an Italian restaurant, with autographed pictures of stars.

Reynolds himself is dressed informally in jacket and jeans over cowboy boots. He wolfs a tuna sandwich and then tapers off with a bag of popcorn. He tells stories like nobody's business, but he's a sharp listener too.

Reynolds can put himself across one-on-one as well as anyone, and his 23-city tour of his live show proved he can do it with crowds too. "Frank Sinatra tries to make his concerts seem like they're happening in a saloon, and I tried to make the auditorium where I played into a living room," he says.

Reynolds is fond of citing the old Southern saying that no man is a man until his father tells him he is. "Mine didn't tell me until I was 49," he says. When he was growing up in Palm Beach, Florida, jokes were Reynolds' only safe way out of a curious bind: he idolized his father, the upright local chief of police, yet he resented his old man's lack of demonstrated love for him.

He says, "Some people, like me, spend their whole lives trying to find an adult they respect, a surrogate father, to tell them, 'You don't have to drive 125. You've got a black belt in sarcasm, what are you fighting for?'

"I had a relationship with my father not unlike a lot of men my age. He came from pioneer stock--men who didn't believe in hugging and weren't very good at 'I love you.' Today, when I say, 'I love you, Dad,' he goes, 'Mmmmrrwwrrrfff.' He's 90 and it's a bit late to change.

"He never mistreated me and he was the most honest man I ever knew. To say he was strict would be very much an understatement. My mother was quiet and understated and also had difficulty showing that kind of thing. It was not an Italian family. But I thought it was. I was a very strange kid. I was completely rebellious, being the chief's son. I was always in trouble. What saved me from myself was that there no drugs then. And I got to be a star athlete and that took me to college."

Reynolds tells two stories about his father's approach to life. "I was nine, and he's just been made chief. His salary was $5,000 a year. The previous chief had been on the take for the local numbers racket, bolita. This guy came in and handed my father a bag with $15,000 in it, saying, 'You know what this is for.' My dad dragged him onto the steps of his office, where I happened to be, and made this guy eat the money. He kept throwing up dollars, but he finally consumed most of it. Now, there's something heroic in that kind of honesty. I can't see some Yuppie parent doing that."

The other story about Reynolds senior shows the dark side of such rigidity. "I sassed my mother once when my father was there. I think I said, 'Oh, yeah?' I was 16. I went right through the closet door. I landed among all the clothes. 'Oh, my God, Burt, I think you killed him!' my mother said. Dad said, 'No, he's just asleep.'"

Reynolds was a runaway at 14 and a madman behind the wheel. But he straightened himself out on the football field, winning a scholarship to Florida State. He was an All-Southern Conference halfback until a knee injury sidelined him. He left school to become a dishwasher in New York while he tried to break into the acting business. He was known as "Buddy" Reynolds in those days.

Eventually in California he became a contract player at Universal, rising to second banana on "Riverboat" in 1959-60. He played a half-breed blacksmith for three years on "Gunsmoke" (he's actually a quarter Cherokee on his father's side). His breakthrough followed Johnny Carson's discovery that Reynolds was one actor who would tell it like it is, as long as it was funny.

"I went on 'The Tonight Show' and I didn't say, like everybody else, 'The movie is great, Mexico is great, having the sh-- is great.' I wasn't any different than I am off-camera, but it was the first time a leading man had dared to call his movie a turkey. Then the Cosmo thing sent 'em into orbit." That is, he posed for Cosmopolitan magazine's April, 1972, centerfold wearing just a cigar.

He backed up this celebrity with a solid performance in Deliverance and went on, via Smokey and the Bandit, The Longest Yard, Semi-Tough, and many other macho movies, to earn a fortune that has been estimated at $100 million. Starting Over and The End were his major attempts at playing parts that weren't "wisecracking --holes" as he puts it, but they weren't hits. "My image was such that there was no way I could be thought of as someone living in a loft in Greenwich Village who could act everybody else off the screen. I've met some of the actors who have that mystique. I find after sparring with them a little that the mystique is all bull. They'd love to have a good time--I just don't think they know how."

Reynolds regrets taking to little advantage of the leverage he once had in Hollywood. He praises Kevin Costner as a man who has used his power wisely. "When I had the power, I said, 'Where's the location? Jamaica? I'll do it.' I wasn't about challenging myself as an actor or challenging the wrongs of the world. I was just having a wonderful time. A lot of people resist that. You're supposed to suffer a little. That's why, when I finally did start suffering, it met with such glee by some people."

Typically, Reynolds deflects his anger by telling a joke. "I always tell young actors that there are going to be times when they'll call on that anger, and it'll be powerful. I don't often display it. The last time I remember was when I did a 'Candid Camera' for Dom DeLouise.

"The setup was to bring in a college journalist to observe an interview with me. The mark was told that I was a perfectly ageeable fellow except when asked personal questions. Then I was likely to get violent. So the mark is in there observing, and suddenly the interviewer is called away. He gives the clipboard with all his questions to the mark and tells him to continue. Of course, the questions are personal.

"Everybody was struck by how well I could portray a killer. There were four different marks. I had three breakaway chairs that I used on them. One girl started to cry, and I couldn't continue. Another one, a guy six-foot-five, said, 'I treat my dog better than this!'"

Reynolds describes his sense of humor as "dark, very dark." He's proud his son seems to have picked it up from him. "On Sunday, I got up late, about 10. It's my one day to sleep in. I went into the kitchen and there was Quinton. 'Dad!' he says. 'Dad, what are you doing up? It's still daylight.

"Quinton goes to day school now twice a week. It's the first time he had to say the blessing for lunch. You know, 'God is great, God is good...' The other day I was giving him and a friend of his a ride back from school. I gave them a snack of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. The other boy said, 'Wait! We gotta say, "God is good, God is great." Quinton said, 'It's only a sandwich.'"

Such remarks often find their way into "Evening Shade" scripts. How? "I run and tell the writers immediately," says the proud father. Before Quinton, Reynolds had been trying to adopt children for 20 years, he says. "I had a terrible time as a single parent pulling it off, because of my image as a self-absorbed womanizer. Once Loni and I got married, it all came together." After being a couple for six years, Reynolds and Anderson finally married in 1988. Anderson says, "Burt has always wanted to be a father, through his first marriage (to actress Judy Carne, 1963-66) and all of his relationship."

The character of Coach Wood Newton is a father because Reynolds wanted in that way. The warm father-children relationship on the show is a reflection of what goes on at home. Reynolds says, "Quinton and I kiss on the mouth. He says 'I love you,' unsolicited, and I say it to him. He's so secure. When I took him for first day of preschool, I saw a lot of kids clinging to their parents. Quinton has this cocky little walk. He just waved and said, 'So long, Dad.' He's a kid who really knows he's loved.

"My own father, I hand Quinton to him, and he hugs and kisses the boy, and I wonder, what's wrong with this picture?"

You get Reynolds, you get his sense of humor. It tends toward blackness. "In order not to go insane from the things that have been written about me," he says, "I have to adopt a certain don't-give-a-sh--attitude. The only way out is to say something mildly amusing.

"I was written off, washed-up, finished, through. Other actors we can name have had three or four or five pictures in a row that didn't make money. When I had three, it was a colossal event. Eventually, the only place left where I had any real power was sitcoms--because I'd never done one. It turns out to be truly the most fun of all.

"I used to have people come up to me in airports and say, 'I always said you were really nice.' I wanted to say to them, 'You mean there were people arguing?'

"Now I get a wonderful, warm feeling from people who come up to me saying how happy they are for me. Not for my career, for my life. I really love that, and I do thank them."
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Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Mills, Bart
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Mar 1, 1992
Words:2169
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