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January 04, 1987|CRAIG MODDERNO

This isn't the good ol' Burt Reynolds that we have come to know and love. Yes, he looks like the same starkly handsome, wisecracking Reynolds--but there's an unusual hunger about him.

He has paraded his problems, medical and otherwise, on TV talk shows with a candor that is unusual for a star of his magnitude. And his career as a movie star is in some kind of chaos.

By his own admission, he's been his own worst enemy.

"I'm starting to lose my anger now," he related between breaks filming "Rent-A-Cop" in Chicago. "I was real angry for a while at people that were jumping ship. The worst press I've ever gotten in my life has been the past two years when I wasn't doing anything. I thought, 'Why are they picking on me? Why aren't they picking on Tom Cruise? I can't get a job. I'm sick.'

"Now that I'm working again, I realize you can't get angry at the press like they're the enemy, which the President is doing in the Iran situation," he went on. "I see Richard Pryor running around denying he has AIDS and I think you can't do that. Your life goes on. 'Just gain some weight, Richard, make some funny movies and go on with your life because there are millions of people in Middle America who don't know the rumors.'

"And I understand the pain and anger Richard is going through now more than anybody. Nobody can get to you if you're happy. Once I got back into being a working actor instead of being a movie star, I realized what Clint Eastwood's been trying to tell me for years: Life is too short for you not to do the projects you want to do with the people you like."

The test of Reynolds' desire to revive his career is . . . well, Cannon Films offered him a king's ransom to do "Cannonball Run III" and he turned it down.

He related: "That would destroy everything I'm trying to do to become an actor again and not a personality or a parody. I'm not battling my way back to the top either. I had a good run at the top, which I never expected to last as long as it did. Now I feel I've gotten better at my craft.

"I know a lot of people in this business think I'm a has-been, but I know the public will give me another chance. I've got a lot to prove to a lot of people."

What would it take to win back his fans' respect? "I need to make some good movies," said Reynolds with a knowing smile. "It's as simple as that."

After almost a three-year absence from the big silver screen, due in part to a severe inner-ear infection, Reynolds looks mighty like the Comeback Kid of the Year. Although the themes all sound awfully familiar, he's riding high hopes for his three films coming out this year:

"Heat," in which he plays a Las Vegas hit man, opens in this country in March. (It's opened in Paris, where Reynolds has received rave reviews. Said Tele magazine: "Besides the fact 'Heat' is a great suspense (film), Burt Reynolds gives a rare intensity and surprising melancholy to a thundering character.")

"Malone," just shot in Vancouver for summer release, casts him as an avenging angel for a scared family threatened by a right-wing military group.

"Rent-A-Cop," which finished filming in Chicago and now has moved to Rome for more scenes, is a possible Christmas release. It finds ex-cop Reynolds on the mean streets of Chicago trying to uncover police corruption involving a drug scandal.

Over a salad in his hotel restaurant in Vancouver, Reynolds is handed a list of his 42 films over which to reflect on his career. He looks them over--and points a finger at "Stroker Ace," 1983.

"That's where I lost them," he says of his fans with a hint of sadness.

Then along came "Cannonball Run II," "The Man Who Loved Women," "City Heat" and "Stick." Gone was his muscle at the box office. Gone was the respect and power that he once commanded in the industry.

Reynolds tries to explain how "Stroker Ace" happened. He wanted to fulfill a commitment to his longtime friend, director Hal Needham ("Smokey and the Bandit")--so he turned down the role in "Terms of Endearment" that eventually won Jack Nicholson the best supporting actor Oscar.

Screenwriter James L. Brooks told Reynolds during the filming of "Starting Over" that he was writing a role for him in his next picture, "Terms of Endearment," which Brooks would also direct. "When it came time to choose between 'Terms' and 'Stroker,' I chose the latter because I felt I owed Hal more than I did Jim. Nobody told me I could have probably done 'Terms' and Universal would have waited until I was finished before making 'Stroker.'

"I can't believe I did all those bad films in a row until I looked at the list," he says. "I made some movies there where I went to the well one too many times."

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