Burt Reynolds: Lived His Best Life, Dead at 82

A celebrity who was formative to a generation

For those born in the 70s and early 80s, there are a handful of people whose names immediately bring a smile. Burt Reynolds was at the top of that list. 
 
There is - was? - something about Burt Reynolds and I'm not the only one to feel it; he was masculine without the toxicity, attractive without perfection, kind and funny without being weak, and let's be honest: the man oozed virility in ways my then 11 year-old brain could not identify or name but that linger to this day in my love of hairy-chested men. 

I may have said too much. 
 
I've seen his groundbreaking nude pictorial in Cosmopolitan magazine in 1972 - it sold over one million copies, so it's likely you have as well. While guest hosting The Tonight Show for the vacationing Johnny Carson (a coveted gig that alone tells you the breadth and depth of Burt's personality) he interviewed another icon, Helen Gurley Brown, the long-running editor of the magazine. She joked that he should pose nude for the publication, and Burt, being the sort of person I like to imagine would simply say "Fuck it; let's go," to even the worst thought out (and thereby most fun) plans, said just that. 

 

 

While Burt was willing to appear on the now infamous bearskin rug, he came to hate the image, feeling it harmed his chances of being nominated for serious acting awards later. Considering his impressive resume but low-award count, he was probably correct; while he was eventually nominated for an Oscar for Boogie Nights, and received an Emmy for his role on Evening Shade, many of his amazing performances were underappreciated or ignored by white men with voting ballots, including one for his incredible turn in Deliverance
 
Movies and television celebrities from the 70s and 80s held a special kind of allure for us, although we couldn't name then what we can identify now. It is this: they lived real lives - not fabricated, social-savvy, highly curated sound-bite "shareable" segments to be meted out and scheduled on HootSuite by media teams to a frothing public glued to a handheld screen. Yes, there have been exploitative and exaggerated constructed narratives created by agents and handlers since biblical times (you KNOW if Twitter existed then Jesus would be RAKED for hanging with sex workers and UGH - TAX COLLECTORS). But the real lives of celebrities were vastly unknown and and that's something we will never see again. There was room to imagine what they were like. Was Burt Reynolds a overtly political man? I have no idea, blessedly, owing to the fact that Twitter didn't exist in his glory days. I was able to think of him based solely on the characters he played and they few images offered from red carpets: a man with a mischievous smile, a quick word, and a glorious mustache. That's all I needed. (It's still all I need.) 
 
Some people are locked in our minds in glory; a reference to Burt brings visions of virility and humour, his cocky but never arrogant personality as it shone in Smoky and the Bandit, or The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, or even some time later in Evening Shade. We don't think stars age; and this shields them from inevitable death, when in reality we are aging and dying right alongside them. Is it self-protectionist that we preserve them in the ember of memory? How old was Burt Reynolds, I asked. He was 82. But that can't be true. That's old - that's a good life. I close my eyes and say his name aloud and I think of him with Dolly, or with Sally, or with Loni. His body is lean and tight and lithe and athletic and he is virile and cheeky and charming. He is not gray and he is not weathered or ill and he is certainly not dead. 
 
Nostalgia is a dangerous thing; a pinch can bring comfort, but excess consumption brings on a weighted sadness that will pin you down and suffocate you while whispering sweet words in your ear. It's a heady mixture and when our childhood icons die we risk over-imbibing. Burt Reynolds was flawed - as we all are - but he seemed to enjoyed a life well-lived. What else can we ask for?
 
Today, when I drive my sensible sedan, wearing comfortable pants and a hoodie, driving at a reasonable speed, I will be wishing there was a cowboy hat atop my head, and that my shirt was popped half open, and that a warm wind was rushing in through the open windows of my too-fast car. 

 

IMAGE SOURCE: VIA RASTAR/UNIVERSAL PICTURES

Jeni Marinucci is a freelance writer with two children. She has a guilty conscience, a love for humour, and a questionable home-haircut. After her children were old enough to make their own sandwiches, she returned to University to complete her B.A. in English Literature—a designation which has provided her with an extensive library and crushing student loans. When no teaching college wanted her, she had to choose between taking orders through a drive-thru window or from an editor. She chose the latter. Her neighbours wish she would cut her lawn. Jeni blogs at highlyirritable and can be found on Twitter at @highlyirritable.