We catch up with the star of Smokey and the Bandit, the subject of a fascinating CMT documentary.
After three years of putting his hammer to the anvil as blacksmith Quint Asper on Gunsmoke, Burt Reynolds graduated to movie superstardom — and scored his biggest hit in 1977 putting his pedal to the metal in Smokey and the Bandit. Filmmaker Jesse Moss offers a behind-the-scenes look at the making of that enduringly popular box office smash in The Bandit, a fascinating documentary (produced by Country Music Television, and set to air at 10 pm ET August 6) that had its world premiere in March at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas. That’s where we caught up with Burt to talk about Gunsmoke, movie stunt work, and the action-comedy that made him a Hollywood icon.
Cowboys & Indians: What’s your fondest memory about your days on Gunsmoke?
Burt Reynolds: The day I left the show. [Laughs.] No, seriously, I enjoyed being on Gunsmoke. But if it hadn’t been for Milburn Stone [who played Doc Adams on the show], this interview might not even be taking place.
C&I: How so?
Burt: Well, when I came back after doing a movie [during the summer hiatus], Milburn said, “Your movies are taking off — get out of here.” I said, “Don’t you like me?” He said, total gentleman that he was, “I love your work. But it’s time to think about your movie career.” I knew he was the smartest guy on the set — I always thought that. He was so wonderful. So I quit.
C&I: It was around that time you did the spaghetti western Navajo Joe for director Sergio Corbucci. There’s an amazing sequence in The Bandit that shows you doing your own stunt work during a scene in Navajo Joe where you’re bulldogging a guy right off his horse and rolling down a hill with him.
Burt: And the horse rolled with us, too. Yeah, that was a pretty amazing sequence, wasn’t it? [Laughs.] But, you know, they never were very big on using stunt doubles in those spaghetti westerns.
C&I: On the other hand, it’s probably a good thing that you had stunt drivers on Smokey and the Bandit.
Burt: Oh, yes.
C&I: In The Bandit, it’s clear that you, director Hal Needham, and everyone else involved with making Smokey and the Bandit had a great time while filming in Georgia. But were you ever afraid you were having too much fun?
Burt: You mean, “If you’re having too much fun during filming, the movie will turn out lousy,” or something like that? Yeah, I really did think that a couple of times. I thought, This is just too damn much fun. There’s got to be a bad ending to it. Yet, the movie made a fortune.
C&I: You all were under a lot of pressure while making it, weren’t you?
Burt: We were under pressure from the suits at the studio. They knew we were having a great time, and they weren’t too thrilled about that. What’s wonderful though — what’s shocking, really — is that after [Lawrence of Arabia director] David Lean saw it, he told Hal what everybody told him: what a great filmmaker he is. He said, “I love Smokey and the Bandit.”
C&I: Didn’t Orson Welles also like the movie a lot?
Burt: It was one of Orson’s favorite films. Alfred Hitchcock told me he liked it, too.
C&I: For many moviegoers in 1977, your character, the Bandit, represented a sort of modern-day cowboy hero — like the outlaw country music artists who were emerging at the time. In fact, you could say the Bandit was as much of a rebel as Easy Rider was.
Burt: I agree totally. And you want to hear something funny? I’ve had Yankees — staunch Yankees — tell me, “Smokey and the Bandit made me want to be a Southerner.” And I always tell them, “I know what you mean.”
C&I: And even now, whenever you remember the movie — you want to put the pedal to the metal on the drive home.
Burt: [Laughs.] And pick up a girl running away from her wedding along the way.
For more information on The Bandit, visit the CMT documentary’s web page. Photography: Courtesy CMT