To teach his son a lesson after he was caught fighting, Burt Reynolds‘ father locked him in jail for three days. “It was a rough three days,” the late actor once said. “Every time he arrested a drunk, he threw them on top of me.” The challenge of earning the love and respect of the people he cared about would always haunt Burt.
Throughout his life, he craved approval from his demanding father, the women he loved and from Hollywood itself. “He wanted to have it all — he wanted the fame and the respect, but only the fame came to him,” a friend exclusively shares with Closer.
Young Burt inherited his easy athleticism from his father, a military veteran who became chief of police in Riviera Beach, Florida. “He was a tough guy, old school, who wasn’t afraid to give Burt a whip when he needed it,” Jon Winokur, coauthor of Burt’s memoir But Enough About Me, tells Closer in the magazine’s latest issue, on newsstands now.
His father never hugged Burt or told him he loved him; he made his son work for his approval. “It was a Southern thing. Burt said you didn’t consider yourself a man until your father said you were a man,” Winokur explains. “And his father waited a really long time.”
Thanks to a teacher who put him in his first play, Burt set out to become a real actor, not just a stuntman. He moved to New York for drama lessons — Marilyn Monroe was a classmate — and met Joanne Woodward when he was doing summer stock.
By 1962, Burt was living in Los Angeles, where he beat out 300 other actors to win the role of Quint Asper on Gunsmoke. Over the next decade, he continued to rack up largely forgettable roles in TV and film, until Burt created his own break just by revealing his funny, charming, self-deprecating personality on late-night TV. “People ask me, ‘What was the biggest thing that boosted your career?’ I always say Johnny Carson,” said Burt, who became such a popular guest he was even offered his own talk show.
Burt turned it down. As a fledgling actor, he had often been compared in appearance to a young Marlon Brando, and he hungered for a similar stature. Unfortunately, Burt made missteps. He reportedly turned down lead roles in The Godfather, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and M*A*S*H, as well as an invitation to replace Sean Connery as James Bond.
In 1972, Burt finally won the nuanced role he’d longed for in the taut thriller Deliverance — but unfortunately, it premiered just after Burt caused a sensation by posing nude in Cosmopolitan magazine. “He said it was the worst mistake he ever made in his entire life,” confides Winokur. “He believed even though Deliverance was very successful, [the nude photo] hurt everybody’s chance of getting Academy Award recognition because it trivialized it.”
It would be another quarter-century before Burt finally earned an Oscar nomination for 1997’s Boogie Nights, but in the meantime, he became the most popular actor in the world in crowd-pleasing hits, including Smokey and the Bandit, Hooper and The Cannonball Run.
Burt shared his first kiss with Sally Field on screen while filming Smokey and the Bandit. By the time the film premiered in 1977, they were a couple. The pair not only shared passion and a sense of humor, but also a burning ambition to be viewed as great actors. Sally got there first. But when she won her first Oscar, for Norma Rae in 1980, Burt was not at her side because they’d had an argument. “It was bad timing,” Sally has said. “I didn’t ask him to go to the Oscars with me because I was mad.”
Their breakup wasn’t Burt’s only sorrow — he began to struggle with chronic pain caused by the many injuries he received doing his own stunts. Seeking relief, he began taking the insomnia medication Halcion after he hurt his jaw filming 1984’s City Heat and wound up addicted, swallowing up to 50 pills a day. “Doctors told me if I had taken one more, I would have died. It was that simple,” Burt once confessed.
Burt also weathered a contentious, drawn-out divorce from Loni Anderson, the mother of his only child, Quinton, and had to declare bankruptcy in 1996 due to years of lavish spending and poor investments. But it went against the star’s nature to dwell on his regrets. “There’s nothing I can do about things that weren’t happy or good,” he said. “Regrets are not healthy. It is best to try and let go of those things that can’t be changed.”
In his final years, Burt not only received an Oscar nomination, but he also found fresh happiness. He showered Quinton, now 32, with the love and approval his own father withheld. “Quinton is my greatest achievement,” Burt said of his cameraman son. “He did it all himself, and I’m so proud of him.” His niece, Nancy Lee Hess, who was a producer on the 2020 documentary I Am Burt Reynolds, looked up to him. “He was a generous, passionate and sensitive man,” she says, “who was dedicated to his family and friends.”
Lastly, Burt created a special place for himself back home in Florida, where he taught acting, visited with longtime friends and attended football games at Florida State University. “My life is very peaceful. Not at all like Hollywood,” he told Closer before his 2018 death at age 82. “I am simply having a wonderful time being in my hometown.”