Who says there are no second acts in American lives? Burt Reynolds had three of them.
Reynolds, who died Thursday at the age of 82, was, at the apex of his career, synonymous with a certain kind of hirsute and louche Seventies sexiness: the mustache, the Trans Am with the T-top, the marriage to definitive blonde bombshell Loni Anderson, the 1972 Cosmopolitan centerfold reclining naked on a bearskin rug with a cigarette.
(He was the first man ever photographed naked for a national magazine in the United States; “I really wish I hadn’t done that,” he said in a 2016 interview at South by Southwest.)
He started in Western serials in the Sixties and made a name for himself in Deliverance — and then wisely turned down the opportunity to play James Bond, which rivals the casting of Nick Nolte as Han Solo in the annals of Hollywood What-ifs. He made light action movies and goofy comedies, and did wonders for Pontiac in Smokey and the Bandit, where he played one half of a two-man smuggling operation opposite chicken-pickin’ guitar virtuoso Jerry Reed.
By the 1980s, he had become a caricature and began a series of self-parodic payday projects beginning with Cannonball Run. Like butterfly collars and other relics of the Seventies, he went of out fashion. And, like flares and disco (and, among the less discerning, Jimmy Carter’s reputation), he came back into fashion. He was a workhorse and often was the best thing about some pretty bad movies: The 1997 film Striptease is mostly and justly forgotten, except for the image of Reynolds’s debauched congressman squishing around in a cowboy hat and boots, covered in Vaseline from head to toe. He was good with bad material and great with good material, winning a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination for his hilarious and horrifying turn as porn mogul Jack Horner in Boogie Nights, a role for which stars ranging from Harvey Keitel to Warren Beatty and Bill Murray had been in consideration. There was something inevitable about that: If you’re in the market for Seventies sleaze, how could you improve on Burt Reynolds?
But he brought his A game to the bad stuff, too: Why anybody would make a film version of Dukes of Hazzard, as Jay Chandrasekhar did in 2005, is unknowable, but Reynolds more than filled Sorrell Booke’s white suit as Boss Hogg.
Early in his career, he found a friend and a collaborator in Dom Deluise, with whom he developed a Hope-and-Crosby partnership launched by the black comedy The End, in which he played a suicidal real-estate salesman confined to a mental institution, where he enlists the aid of Deluise’s psychopathic murderer in several failed attempts to end his own life. He ends up in the ocean, fearful of drowning, and begins a negotiation with God: “Save me, and I swear I’ll be a better father. I’ll be a better man. I’ll be a better everything. All I ask is that you make me a better swimmer!” And he promises that he’ll stop trying to kill himself. He makes it to the shore, recommitted to making the most out of what remains of his life. The film ends with Dom Deluise chasing him down the beach with a knife.
That comical counsel against despair is relevant to the third act of Reynolds’s public life, in which he kept working, beaten down by age as he was, shockingly frail-looking, diminished, nothing like the man on the bearskin rug titillating the readership (readership may not be exactly the right word) of Cosmopolitan. He kept his sense of humor — about himself, above all — and ended his cinematic career on a sweet high note in the not-quite-autobiographical The Last Movie Star, in which he plays a broken-down Hollywood titan who endures a partly humiliating and partly uplifting ordeal when he accepts an invitation to accept an award at a tiny, insignificant film festival — the first actor to ever actually show up for it. He was cast in Quentin Tarantino’s upcoming Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which tells the story of the Manson murders.
Here is an unlikely comparison: At the end of his life, Burt Reynolds reminded me a little bit of the sainted Pope John Paul II, who was an actor in his early life. Reynolds just kept working. He was very old, and in poor health, and he declined in the full view of the public, subject to the public’s habitual cruelty, against which he made no defense other than his own wry self-deprecation. He preached no sermons and invoked no higher power. He did not put himself forward as an example. He just kept going — working. Maybe he thought he needed to: He wasn’t very rich — he was a poor manager of money — but he wasn’t broke, either. Maybe he enjoyed it. Maybe he didn’t want to sit around all day waiting to die.
Time and age may have stripped Reynolds of some of his bravado and virility, but simple endurance is a manly virtue, too, one that is undervalued at the moment. Maybe that will come back into fashion, too.