The rest of the world knew him as the wise-cracking, self-deprecating, anti-authority movie star who played roles that championed the common man outfoxing the rich and powerful.
But we in the car world liked him most for his starring roles in car-centric ‘70s hits such as “Cannonball Run,” “Smokey and the Bandit,” and “Hooper.”
Burt Reynolds passed away Thursday from cardiac arrest at 82, his publicist said.
In “Smokey and the Bandit” he famously drove that black Pontiac Trans-Am, looking for smokies while running “blocker” for truck-driving sidekick Jerry Reed as Cledus “Snowman” Snow. Reynolds' Trans Am cleared the highways from Texarkana to Atlanta so The Snowman could deliver that 18-wheeler full of illegal Coors.
Along the way he rescued runaway bride Sally Field, whose jilted would-be father-in-law Jackie Gleason took chase -- and the movie was on. It was a magnificently simple plot executed magnificently -- and audiences loved it. From muscle cars to CB radios to Southern Justice, every all-American touchpoint was touched, with Reynolds the perfect leading man for the job.
Next came "The Cannonball Run." At a time when America was shackled with a 55-mph speed limit, and high gas prices and clogged-up EGR valves were sucking all the fun out of any kind of driving, The Cannonball was the perfect antidote. Reynolds starred as JR McLure with his sidekick Dom DeLuise as Victor Prinzi in the cross-country road race based on the real-life race of the same name dreamed up by automotive journalist Brock Yates.
Reynolds and DeLuise drove an ambulance, just as real-life Cannonballer and director Hal Needham -- along with Yates -- did in the real thing. Reynolds and DeLuise were one of seven driving teams featured in the movie, teams that ranged from Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. dressed as Catholic priests in a Ferrari 308 GTS, to Terry Bradshaw and Mel Tillis driving a Winston Cup car. The idea was to get from Connecticut to California first.
Simple and almost guaranteed fun.
And finally, there was "Hooper," a movie that might have been loosely based on Reynolds’ friend and oftentimes-director Hal Needham. Reynolds played the hard-livin’ but aging stuntman Hooper, who was looking for one more big stunt to pull. He found it in a crazy jump of yet another Trans-Am, this time a red red one, that he would fly over some big, messy crash scene to save the movie.
Who can remember the exact plot? But Jan Micheal Vincent , the younger stuntman, had to do the driving while Hooper operated a suite of crucial but never-fully-explained gauges and dials in the car. It worked of course, and Hooper went on to extended fame.
There was also the poorly-received Stroker Ace, where Reynolds played a NASCAR driver who clashed with his fried-chicken sponsor. And he even had a part in the seminal racing movie “Driven," where he played a Frank Williams-like character.
In real life, Needham and Reynolds co-owned the NASCAR Winston Cup team Mach 1 Racing. From 1981 to '89 their No. 33 Skoal Bandit car, with Harry Gant driving, won nine races and 13 poles and barely missed winning the 1984 Cup title.
Burt Reynolds brought joy to audiences around the world, and his gum-chewing, wise-cracking, good ole boy characters made it seem like you really could get away with whatever you thought you should try. In that he gave hope to all of us who weren't as handsome, as confident and who weren't in a movie. So wherever you are, raise a cold can of Coors to Burt Reynolds, the great blocker in the sky.
Mark Vaughn is west coast editor for Autoweek, an affiliate of Automotive News.