Join us as we Live Tweet the enduringly popular Burt Reynolds comedy Dec. 26.
Throughout a storied showbiz career that spanned seven decades, Burt Reynolds rode tall in a wide range of westerns, beginning with his attention-grabbing 1962-65 stint as “half-breed” Quint Asper on Gunsmoke. He would later add to his resume with starring or co-starring roles in the cult-fave Spaghetti Western Navajo Joe (1966), the 1969 westerns 100 Rifles and Sam Whiskey, The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing (1973), Johnson County War (a 2002 TV-movie co-scripted by Lonesome Dove author Larry McMurtry), Hard Ground (2003), and other projects.
And lest we forget: Reynolds, who claimed Cherokee roots, portrayed the first Native American lead character in a contemporary TV drama when he starred in the short-lived ABC series Hawk (1966).
Despite these and other notable credits, however, Reynolds — who passed away Sept. 6 at age 82 in Jupiter, Florida — arguably made his biggest and most enduring impact by playing a modern-day outlaw: Bo “Bandit” Darville, the pedal-to-the-metal protagonist of Smokey and the Bandit, the phenomenally popular mashup of cartoonish frivolity and vehicular misadventure. We will be Live Tweeting — with the hashtag #ciBandit — when director Hal Neeham’s 1977 comedy airs at 8 pm ET/7 pm CT Wednesday, Dec. 26, on Turner Classic Movies.
What’s it all about? Bandit, a swaggering prankster and maverick trucker, wagers that he can transport contraband beer from Texas to Georgia in record time. While a faithful friend (Jerry Reed) does much of the actual driving in a lager-stocked 18-wheeler, Bandit darts about in a souped-up Trans Am, on the lookout for any “Smokey” (i.e., highway cop) who might impede their progress. Complications arise when Bandit arouses the ire of an especially grizzly Smokey, Sheriff Buford T. Justice (Jackie Gleason), by picking up a perky hitchhiker (Sally Field) who just happens to be the runaway fiancée of the sheriff’s dim-bulb son (Mike Henry).
Initially dismissed as a freakish regional hit at Deep South drive-ins, Smokey and the Bandit gradually proved equally popular in major metropolitan markets, and wound up in the record books as the second-highest-grossing film (right behind Star Wars) of 1977. Some attributed its success to its subversive allure as fantasy fulfillment: Bandit repeatedly outsmarts and humiliates Sheriff Justice and all other law-enforcement officials who dare to impinge on what he views as his God-given right to ignore any posted speed limit. (Some academic somewhere doubtless has earned a doctorate by explaining why so many pop tunes and popcorn flicks of the ’70s equated driving over 55 with all-American rebelliousness.) Most other observers, however, credit the movie’s appeal – for contemporary viewers as well as ’70s ticketbuyers -- to the once-in-a-lifetime matching of player and character.
Midway through the movie, Reynolds recalled in a 2003 C&I interview, “There’s a moment when Sally asks me, ‘What is it that you do best?’ And I say, ‘Show off.’ And she says, ‘Yeah, you do that well.’ At the time we made the film, I thought to myself, ‘If I can get that line out and they still like me – “they” being the audience – we’re home free.’ Because basically, that’s who [Bandit] was, what he was all about.”
The line got big laughs, indicating just how much the audience really, really liked Bandit. And, of course, the actor who played him.
When I asked him about his enduring linkage to Bandit in 2003, more than a generation after he first played the cocky trucker, Reynolds addressed the mixed blessing with typically self-effacing humor.
“I’m very flattered,” he said, “by how some people still respond to that character. I still have guys in Trans Ams pull up to me at stoplights and yell, ‘Dammit! You’re the reason I got this thing!’
“But I also remember a while back, when I was offering an acting seminar in Florida, that I was afraid they’d go over to the auto-racetrack looking for me, instead of the theater. And even when they did show up at the right place, I felt I should tell them: ‘Those of you who are wearing your racing gloves – take them off, we’re not going to need them, we’re going to talk about other things.’”
Gosh. Sounds like something Bandit himself might say, doesn’t it?
Note: Turner Classic Movies will present Smokey and the Bandit as part of a Wednesday-Thursday retrospective commemorating Burt Reynolds. Other movies airing as part of tribute include: Deliverance (10 pm ET/9pm CT), The Longest Yard (12 am ET/11 pm CT), Hooper (2:15 am ET/1:15 am CT), Smokey and the Bandit II (4:15 am ET/3:15 am CT), and Best Friends (6 am ET/5am CT).