Following a career that spanned 60 years, film and TV icon Burt Reynolds died on Thursday, leaving behind a rich cinematic legacy filled with charismatic scoundrels, white-knuckle car chases and a lot of folksy Southern charm.
While Reynolds has hundreds of acting credits to his name — appearing in dozens of TV shows before he ever nabbed a starring film role — a number of his roles left indelible marks on American pop culture, and proved, beyond a doubt, that his gruff charm alone was something Hollywood producers could bank on, especially through the ’70s and ’80s.
In celebration of the star’s long, storied and often underappreciated career, we’re taking a look back at some of Reynolds’ best, most memorable and endlessly entertaining roles and performances.
1. Bandit — Smokey and the Bandit (1977), Smokey and the Bandit II (1980)
When Reynolds sat down behind the wheel of his Pontiac Trans Am, he cemented his role in action cinema history as Bo “Bandit” Darville, a renegade race car driver tasked with transporting an illegal shipment of Coors beer across state lines from Texarkana, Texas to Atlanta, Georgia within 28 hours, all while being chased by Sheriff Buford T. Justice (Jackie Gleason), a.k.a. Smokey. Matters get complicated when Bandit decides to give a ride to Carrie (Sally Field), Smokey’s future daughter-in-law who is looking to flee from her soon-to-be-husband.
The film is really just an hour-long epic car chase stuffed with jokes and a begrudging romantic subplot all within the framework of a needlessly complicated bootlegging story, but it’s wall-to-wall fun, all handled by the deft hand of stuntman-turned-filmmaker Hal Needham in his directorial debut. Reynolds went on to play Bandit again in the much-less-beloved seuel, and even had a minor cameo as “the real Bandit” in 1983’s Smokey and the Bandit Part 3.
2. Dan August — Dan August (1970-1971)
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In this CBS cop drama, Reynolds starred as Police Lieutenant Dan August of the fictional California town of Santa Luisa, where he investigated brutal homicides in the idyllic community. While the series only lasted one 26-episode season — and was occasionally derided as a Columbo knockoff — Reynolds’ performance earned him his very first Golden Globe for Best TV Actor in a Drama in 1971.
3. Paul Crewe — The Longest Yard (1974)
In the beloved sports drama, Reynolds played disgraced former football superstar Paul Crewe who goes to prison after leading cops on a pursuit while joyriding in a stolen car. The prison’s sadistic, football-obsessed Warden Hazen (Eddie Albert) forces Crewe to form a sports team from the ranks of the structure’s hardened criminals to face off against the warden’s team, made up of prison guards. Transforming his fellow inmates into a functioning team instilled in them a spirit of hope and camaraderie which gets threatened when the warden tries to strong-arm Crewe into throwing the match by threatening to dismiss his promised pardon. It’s an inspirational sports drama at its core, but one that also tackles some hot button issues like prison reform and the complexity of human compassion.
The film was remade in 2005 with Adam Sandler starring as Crewe, and Reynolds playing an older convict and former college football star named Nate Scarborough, who helps coach Crewe’s ragtag team of convicts.
4. Lewis Medlock — Deliverance (1972)
Unlike many of the star’s most popular films — which featured exciting car chases and relied heavily on Reynolds’ signature charismatic swagger — Deliverance tells a much darker, more traumatizing tale of fear, sexual assault and murder set in the backwoods of the deep South.
The film follows Lewis Medlock (Reynolds) and his three friends (played by Ned Beatty, Ronny Cox and Jon Voight) who decide to go on a canoe trip down a river in a remote area of rural Georgia. They end up crossing paths with some deeply disturbing locals, leading to one of the most shocking (and controversial) scenes in movie history. To save his friends from torture and sexual assault, Medlock turns to his hunting bow, and things just get worse from there. While Reynolds didn’t get any Academy appreciation, Deliverance was nominated for a Best Picture, Best Director (John Boorman) and Best Film Editing Oscar.
5. Wood Newton — Evening Shade (1990 – 1994)
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Reynolds returned to series television for the popular CBS sitcom Evening Shade, in which he played Woodward “Wood” Newton, a retired NFL star who moves with his family to the small town of Evening Shade, Arkansas, where he gets a job coaching the high school’s notoriously terrible football team.
The show, which explored the themes of small town life versus a life of fame in the big city, was a perfect showcase for Reynolds’ inimitable charm and comedic talent. It also let Reynolds’ get behind the camera, directing 35 of the show’s 98 episodes. The role earned him his only Emmy Award in 1991, as well as his first Golden Globe Award in 1992.
6. J.J. McClure — The Cannonball Run (1981), Cannonball Run II (1984)
20th Century Fox
While you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who would put The Cannonball Run on the same tier as Reynolds’ other high-octane car chase films, his role as J.J. McClure is an example of why his charisma alone was enough to establish his status as a bonafide superstar.
The plot (as it were) basically just follows an insanely star-studded cast of crazy, car-racing maniacs who try to pull off the infamous, illegal cross-country race from which the film gets its name. While time doesn’t necessarily look kindly on the plot, story or overall quality of the movie itself, it’s definitely fun (and rare) to see a cast featuring the likes of Reynolds, Roger Moore, Farrah Fawcett, Jackie Chan, Dom DeLuise, Peter Fonda, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. Nearly the entire roster returned for Cannonball Run II a few years later, which was basically the same movie again, but worse.
7. Jack Horner — Boogie Nights (1997)
New Line Cinema
Paul Thomas Anderson’s acclaimed drama — which is set in the pornographic film industry during the late ’70s through to the early ’80s — sees Reynolds star as Jack Horner, the suave adult film producer, who “discovers” Mark Wahlberg’s Eddie Adams (who later goes by the moniker, Dirk Diggler). As Dirk’s career in porn begins to take off, Horner finds himself increasingly disillusioned and displaced in this ever-changing and increasingly disturbing business.
While Reynolds famously did not work well with Anderson and reportedly hated the movie when he saw it upon release, the film featured one of the most nuanced, evocative and heartbreaking performances of the actor’s long career, earning him both a Golden Globe Award and his only Oscar nomination.
8. Charlie B. Barkin — All Dogs Go To Heaven (1989)
While it may seem odd to include an animated film when reflecting on Reynolds’ most iconic roles, his voice performance as Charlie B. Barkin is truly commendable. As we’ve seen in numerous animated films, voice acting can either make or break a movie. Needless to say, pulling off a good performance with just your voice is no easy feat.
Reynolds stars as Charlie, a roguish but lovable German shepherd who, after getting hit by a car and killed, goes to Heaven. He manages to return to earth to get revenge on the evil dog that got him killed. However, he’s informed by an angel that he must perform a good deed in his second chance at life or he’ll go to hell when he dies again. Admittedly, it’s got its fair share of dark, upsetting and needlessly violent moments, but Reynolds was the perfect choice to play the main anti-hero who discovers his heart of gold.
9. Gator McKlusky — White Lightning (1973), Gator (1976)
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In the action-adventure White Lightning, Reynolds played a moonshine bootlegger Robert “Gator” McKlusky, who is serving time in a prison in Arkansas. When McKlusky finds out his little brother had been killed by Sheriff J.C. Connors (Ned Beatty), he agrees to go undercover for the FBI inside a moonshining operation (overseen by Conners). Like so many of Reynolds films, White Lightning ends up putting the star in a massive, show-stealing car chase, marking one of the first in a long series of high-octane vehicle-centered action films to be led by the actor, set in the South.
While White Lightning was directed by Joe Sargent, Reynolds himself stepped up to helm the film’s lackluster (yet still wildly entertaining) sequel, Gator, in what would be his directorial feature film debut.
Reynolds died on Thursday after suffering a heart attack at his home in Florida. He was rushed to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead. He was 82. For more on Reynolds’ life and legacy, check out the video below.
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