Happy Birthday Bandit! Burt Reynolds Races the Law and Chases the Ladies in “White Lightning”

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Spoiler alert: Burt never actually hurls lightning bolts in “White Lightning.”

Kevin: “Gator McKlusky. He’s a booze-runnin’, motor-gunnin’, law-breakin’, love-makin’ rebel. He hits the screen like a bolt, a bolt of white lightning. Whether he’s racing the law, or chasing the ladies, Gator’s the fastest thing alive.” There is probably no other actor on the face of the earth who could have lived up to that billing than Burt Reynolds in his hairy chested prime, which is why the proud Florida native and former football star was one of the biggest box office draws in the world for most of the 1970s and early ‘80s. And if you live in Austin you may still have a chance to celebrate Burt’s 82nd birthday with an Alamo Drafthouse screening of “White Lightning,” in which Reynolds seeks to bring down a corrupt small-town Arkansas sheriff the only way he usually knew how: by driving really, really fast.

Not only is “White Lightning” a great showcase for Burt’s good ol’ boy macho charisma and one of the best of his ‘70s backwoods chase movies, it obviously counts Quentin Tarantino among its fans since the director re-used parts of its distinctive score for “Inglourious Basterds” decades later. It’s also from back in a time when you knew a Burt movie was going to be good based on the presence of Hal Needham in the credits, in this case as second-unit director, stunt coordinator, and stunt double for Reynolds (which put Needham in the hospital after one particularly spectacular car jump). Needham later graduated to director for “Smokey and the Bandit,” which Tough Guy Digest celebrated last year on its 25th anniversary along with the documentary “The Bandit,” which details the making of the film and the lifelong friendship between Reynolds and Needham.

Both those films, along with “White Lightning” and many others, demonstrate why Reynolds was such a popular star back then, because his unpretentiousness and willingness to do anything to entertain formed a connection with audiences that few stars have been able to match since. Because as you’ll see in our post from last year, even Burt just discussing his home décor style on the “Barbara Walters Show” is more entertaining than anything George Clooney has given us in the last 10 years:

(Originally posted May 27, 2017)

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Burt and Sally with friend/stuntman/”Smokey” director Hal Needham.

Kevin: You may have noticed a lot of celebrations on May 25th this week of the 40th anniversary of the release of “Star Wars.” Well that’s all fine and good, but as far as I’m concerned May 27th marks the anniversary of an equally entertaining, influential, and important cinematic masterpiece: “Smokey and the Bandit,” which came out this day 40 years ago and ended up beating out the likes of “The Spy Who Loved Me,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” and “Saturday Night Fever” at the box office. How exactly did a modestly budgeted film whose entire plot revolved around transporting Coors beer from Texas to Georgia become the second-highest-grossing film of 1977, spawn numerous sequels and spin-offs, and remain a beloved TV mainstay to this day? Two words: Burt Reynolds.

It may be hard for those of us who were born after a certain time to imagine, but yes for most of the ‘70s and early ‘80s Burt Reynolds was the biggest movie star in the world, bigger than Clint Eastwood, Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman, etc. If you mainly know Burt Reynolds from goofy pornstache caricatures like Norm MacDonald’s hilarious impression on “Saturday Night Live” …

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… you’d think that his appeal at the time is as ridiculous as the love of polyester suits, wood paneling, and key parties. But if you watch the 2016 documentary “The Bandit” you’ll realize that Burt Reynolds was a star because he connected with ordinary people in a way that few actors have before or since.

“The Bandit” revolves around the long-time friendship between Burt and the late legendary stuntman Hal Needham, who had been doubling the star in a number of dangerous and jaw-dropping stunts in movies like “White Lightning” and “Gator” before asking him to star in a chase movie he had written called “Smokey and the Bandit.” The doc also traces Burt’s childhood as the son of a small-town Florida sheriff, his injury-ended football career, and the early attempts by Hollywood to position him as the new Marlon Brando, at least in appearance.

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(Burt obviously still has a sizable chip on his shoulder over an incident where Brando refused to shake his hand or acknowledge him in a restaurant, which is why he has such obvious disdain for what he refers to as the “constipated school” of acting.)

This is one of the reasons why – as “The Bandit” makes clear – Burt was so popular: He was an unpretentious good ol’ boy who just wanted to entertain, whether it was starring in an acclaimed “important” film like “Deliverance” or posing nude in Cosmo and throwing cream pies at Johnny Carson.  He was one of the most in-demand guests for talk shows back then because crowds loved him, and he loved them back (As one person simply says, “Burt Reynolds made people happy”). His macho confidence, sense of humor, and embrace of his small-town Southern roots also helped his appeal in the derisively termed “flyover states,” which is why “Smokey and the Bandit” exploded at the box office once Universal was convinced to push the movie more in the South for, as Arkansas native Needham says, “the people we made it for.”

And it’s easy to see why it was such a crowd-pleasing hit: It’s still entertaining to this day. Burt and Jerry Reed make a fun team, Reynolds has a great lively chemistry with Sally Field (who he was falling for during filming), and nearly everything out of Jackie Gleason’s mouth is hilariously profane and inappropriate (this is back when someone in a PG-rated family movie could say “poontangin’ around with those theater show folk fags” and no one apparently batted an eye). Meanwhile the practical driving stunts are way more impressive than the CGI-enhanced action in any given “Fast and Furious” movie

Plus, Burt also appears to be an early pioneer of the pick-up-artist technique of “negging” when he makes fun of Sally Field’s legs, lowering her self-esteem just enough to succumb to his swaggering charms later.

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So today let’s pop open a Coors in honor of “Smokey and the Bandit” and Burt Reynolds, the last movie star who wore a mustache and cowboy hats unironically. And if you want to check out “The Bandit,” you can find it available at CMT.com.

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Post Script: “The Bandit” has a lot of great clips and anecdotes, especially from the equally charismatic and likable Needham (who later directed Burt in movies like “Hooper” and “Cannonball Run”), but the best moment involves a glimpse at Reynolds’ ‘70s bachelor pad that Needham temporarily moved into when he needed a place to stay (“temporarily” turning out to be 11 years). We get a glimpse of it at the beginning of this Barbara Walters interview, and Burt describing his love of mirrored ceilings, tile, and Indians may be among his greatest gifts to us as a performer:

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