Burt Reynolds, who reigned as Hollywood's wisecracking, good ol' boy box-office champ in the late 1970s and early '80s in movies such as "Smokey and the Bandit" and "The Cannonball Run" and made pop culture history as Cosmopolitan magazine's first nude male centerfold, has died. He was 82.
Reynolds died suddenly Thursday, according to his niece Nancy Lee Hess.
"My uncle was not just a movie icon; he was a generous, passionate and sensitive man, who was dedicated to his family, friends, fans and acting students," Hess said in a statement issued through Reynolds' agent.
"He has had health issues, however, this was totally unexpected. He was tough. Anyone who breaks their tail bone on a river and finishes the movie is tough. And that's who he was."
Neither Hess nor Reynolds' agent, Erik Kritzer, confirmed the actor's cause of death.
For five years in a row — 1978 through 1982 — Reynolds was the No. 1 box-office star, in movies such as "Hooper," "Starting Over," "The End," "Sharky's Machine" and "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas."
Dolly Parton, Reynolds' co-star in 1982's "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas," expressed her grief Thursday through a statement: "Oh, how sad I am today along with Burt's millions of fans around the world as we mourn one of our favorite leading men," she said.
His more-than-50-year career was well known for its peaks and valleys, as Reynolds was the first to concede.
"My career is not like a regular chart. ... Mine looks like a heart attack," he cracked in a 2001 interview with Canada's Globe and Mail. "I counsel scores of young actors because they know I've stepped in just about every land mine along the way I could."
Reynolds had been in Hollywood working in television and films for more than a decade before landing his breakout movie role in "Deliverance," the 1972 drama directed by John Boorman about four men whose weekend canoe trip down a treacherous river in backwoods Georgia takes an unexpectedly dark turn.
But by then, as Reynolds told the Los Angeles Times in 1972, he had decided to change his screen image "from standing around looking virile and mean" and instead "take the risks and be funny about it."
And it was the charming, lighter side of Reynolds, amply visible to the public during his frequent talk show appearances at the time, that turned him into a superstar.
The dark-haired, ruggedly handsome actor, with his trademark mustache and distinctively infectious laugh, went on to star in a string of films, including "White Lightning," "The Longest Yard," "At Long Last Love," "Lucky Lady," "Hustle," "Gator," "Nickelodeon" and "Semi-Tough."
"In most of his roles," Playboy magazine observed in 1979, "he portrays a kind of macho pixy who often doesn't take himself or even the film he's in very seriously."
That most notably applied to his role in "Smokey and the Bandit," the 1977 action comedy in which Reynolds, as the Coors beer-bootlegging Bandit opposite Jackie Gleason's pursuing redneck sheriff, looks directly into the camera at one point and smiles at the audience.
Leonard Maltin's "Movie Guide" says "Smokey and the Bandit" is "about as subtle as the Three Stooges." But audiences found the black Trans Am-driving Reynolds' car-chase movie irresistible, and it came in second only to "Star Wars" as the year's top-grossing film.
"I've become the No. 1 box-office star in the world not because of the movies but in spite of them," Reynolds told Playboy in 1979. "Critics told people they'd be fools to see the movies, but people went anyway."
As for his attraction to moviegoers, he said, "I think it's because I have the ability to make people happy and to have them say, 'I like him.' ... I like to play this character who's not quite all there, who steps down from his truck and scrapes the manure off his boots and who's always fighting for his dignity. He's anti-establishment, he's funny and he's somebody to cheer for — a hero."
Burton Leon Reynolds Jr., who was one-quarter Cherokee on his father's side, was born Feb. 11, 1936, at home in Lansing, Mich. A decade later, the family moved to Riviera Beach, Fla., where Burt Sr., a tough and strict World War II veteran, worked first as a general contractor and eventually became chief of police.
What saved him from himself, he said, was becoming a star athlete.
Known as a speedy fullback at Palm Beach High School, he earned a scholarship to Florida State University. But his dreams of playing professional football ended after he tore the cartilage in one of his knees during a game in 1955 and reinjured the knee in a near-fatal car accident later that year.
After recovering, Reynolds enrolled at what is now Palm Beach Community College where, at a professor's urging, he auditioned for a production of "Outward Bound" and wound up winning the 1956 Florida State Drama Award.
Reynolds was a struggling young New York actor before becoming a contract player at Universal in 1958.
He had his first brush with fame co-starring with Darren McGavin in "Riverboat," a 1959-61 TV adventure series. He went on to play the recurring role of half-Indian blacksmith Quint Asper in "Gunsmoke" from 1962 to 1965 before starring in two short-lived series of his own — the police dramas "Hawk" (1966) and "Dan August" (1970-71).
By the mid '60s, Reynolds also had begun landing starring roles in films such as "Navajo Joe," "100 Rifles," "Sam Whiskey," "Shark!," "Impasse" and "Skullduggery" — generally the kind of movies that, he'd joke, "they show in prisons and airplanes because nobody can leave."
"He is the only movie star who didn't come from a hit play or a big movie," former girlfriend Sally Field, who starred with Reynolds in "Smokey and the Bandit" and three other movies, told Variety in 1997. "He just came crawling along, clutching and punching and digging his way."
Field released a statement Thursday about her fond memories of Reynolds both on and off screen.
"There are times in your life that are so indelible, they never fade away. They stay alive, even 40 years later. My years with Burt never leave my mind," Field said. "He will be in my history and my heart, for as long as I live. Rest, Buddy."