Why the British loved Burt Reynolds

Burt Reynolds was the American icon that all young British men wanted to be. Us Brits took to him like the quirky celluloid father we never had. Here's why...

It is almost impossible to describe the impact of Smokey and the Bandit on British cinemagoers and, by the 1980s, video library members.

At that time CB Radio seemed to be the province of cement lorry drivers talking about ‘smoky bears’ and ‘roadblocks’ – i.e. they saw a Vauxhall Chevette Police Panda in a Little Chef car park. Alternatively, the waveband would frequently be by the sort of motorist who harboured the delusion that approximately 38 flashing amber lights would improve the look of his Ford Cortina 1.6 XL Mk. III.

But, Smokey starred a Pontiac Firebird Trans Am (or four), was filmed on the open roads of Georgia, had the music of the great Jerry Reed – and a central performance from an actor who made his light comedy seem effortless. Burt Reynolds.

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Burt Reynolds was one of this select band of film stars who graduated from the small screen via a winning combination of timing, looks and immense talent. Older readers may recall him portraying police Lieutenants in Hawk driving a Pontiac and as Dan August:

During the 1960s he also starred in a number of B-features, and it was Deliverance of 1972 that marked his breakthrough role in cinema. However, although the film heavily features an  International Harvester Scout 800 it is more famed for its banjo playing than its motor cars.

Five years later, it was Smokey and the Bandit that crystallised the Reynolds screen persona; a gleefully insouciant Southern gentleman. It also marked the first time Hal Needham directed him and looking at the picture today, what is notable is the extensively ad-libbed dialogue and how  Bo "Bandit" Darville would have been quite insufferable if a lesser actor played him.

Amongst the Trans Ams (1976 models with doctored appearances to give them a 1977 look), Jackie Gleason’s amazing over-acting and the automotive mayhem, Reynolds gives a performance of quite awesome charm.

Of Reynolds’s subsequent collaborations with Needham, The Cannonball Run of 1981 merits a brief mention; even if Reynold's Dodge Tradesman Ambulance gives a better performance than other members of the stellar cast. The Tradesman offers more emotion than Sammy David Jr.

He made films of far greater interest to motor enthusiasts and cinema aficionados alike; 1974’s The Mean Machine (aka The Longest Yard) in which he crashed a Citroen SM, or the too seldom revived W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings of 1975.

The latter was set in 1957 and featured Reynolds as a confidence trickster with a passion for the (fictitious) 1955 “Golden Anniversary" Oldsmobile Rocket 88. Moments such as these serve as an antidote to the Bandit sequels, which fell prey to the age-old rule of diminishing returns. Cannonball Run II, which was released (or escaped) in 1984 is still a testament to human endurance.

By the early 1980s, the actor was in danger of being stereotyped, his priceless double act with Clint Eastwood in City Heat providing an example of an undimmed ability. In 1997 Reynolds was deservedly Oscar-nominated for his role as Jack Horner in Boogie Nights.

Burt Reynolds died on September 6th, 2018, leaving a legacy of memories for generations of UK filmgoers. To us Brits, he symbolised all that was good about the U.S.A. Here was a man who broke the rules and brought laughter to a grey and damp nation suffering at the hands of feeble Governments.

Driving our Mini Mayfairs and Austin Allegros through damp summer weather towards the local cinema, purely to witness Burt and his charm, his work felt less like a movie, and more like a personal message from the man whom teenage boys wanted to be.

Our equivalent? We didn't have one. Reynolds was a true one-off. When he popped across the Atlantic to film British comedy A Bunch of Amateurs, we were beyond excited. His popularity in Britain never waivered and, now, we mourn his loss with the same gutwrenching sadness suffered by those in his home nation.

We tried to sum up a video to show just one reason why he was a hero to car fanatics around the world. This clip highlights his charm perfectly:

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