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January 04, 1987|CRAIG MODDERNO

The long fall from grace is remarkable because of the tall pedestal on which the public placed him. His charm once made Reynolds the darling of the TV talk-show circuit. His romances with Dinah Shore, Sally Field and now Loni Anderson countered his image as a carefree sex symbol, an image that Reynolds successfully parodied in "Cannonball Run" and "Smokey and the Bandit," called by Playboy as "the 'Gone With the Wind' of good-ol'-boy movies." From 1977 to 1981, Reynolds topped the Quigley Publications poll of movie exhibitors, who voted him the top box-office attraction in the country. Only Bing Crosby won the poll more consecutive years.

You understand, of course, that there's no need to conduct any benefit concerts for the Burt Reynolds Lunch Fund. He acknowledges getting $2 million for "Heat" and $3 million each for "Malone" and "Rent-A-Cop."

But his life is being complicated on several sides: He's being sued by director Dick Richards for $25 million for allegedly knocking him unconscious on the Las Vegas set of "Heat"; Sally Field took some shots at her ex-lover in Playboy; the public seems more interested in whether he has AIDS (he denies it repeatedly) than in his efforts to revitalize his career; Hollywood wisdom, which sees the box office as the bottom line on any actor, places his future in serious jeopardy if he doesn't get back in a car and crash it into something.

Reynolds appears healthy and fit. For a person whose life has been the definition of supermarket celebrity journalism the past decade, he maintains a benign mistrust of the press, yet projects a warmth and candor that is invariably endearing.

"I don't think 'Heat' and 'Malone' are the movies that are going to change my career," he says. "At least they are serious films, which people have told me I should have been doing for years. I don't know how good they are, but at least I'm taking the advice now of close friends and doing films that take me out of a car."

In his small two-room hotel suite in Vancouver, the only concession to star status is a tanning bed occupying most of the cramped living room. Reynolds' mind often seems elsewhere while discussing "Malone." It's easy to understand why, even though he is polite and professional and determined not to dwell on his problems.

The major problem this day is how fast he'll get the rewrites of tomorrow's scene, which happens to be the finale featuring Cliff Robertson. The pages will arrive at 10 p.m. and Reynolds and Robertson, who'd only done one previous scene together, will rehearse until midnight.

On the surface, "Malone" doesn't seem to be the type of unique character an actor waits patiently to play. It's an action-oriented role that has been patented by Eastwood and Charles Bronson.

"I was attracted to 'Malone' because I thought there was a chance the movie might be more than a guy running away from his past. Let's be honest. The movie is 'Shane.'

"I am an ex-CIA man whose car breaks down in a small town who then gets close to a family and attempts to battle a Lyndon LaRouche character played by Cliff. I'm not doing Clint in 'Pale Rider.' There's a little bit of Stallone from 'First Blood' in this, but I'm not playing the damaged-goods-guy Sly became in 'Rambo.' Just to show you how movies change, Gerard Depardieu and Christopher Lambert at one point were going to play 'Malone.' I wonder how this guy got rewritten into me."

Later, drinking a Virgin Mary in a Vancouver hotel bar, Reynolds, faced with the question of whether Hollywood maintains a mutual respect for his efforts, turned suddenly silent.

Earlier, he had related with pride the fact that director Sidney Lumet had chosen him to star in "Power." A severe inner-ear infection forced Reynolds to yield the role to Richard Gere.

"I had to campaign like hell to get 'Starting Over.' I remember that I was asked if I was mad I didn't get nominated for an Oscar with that film. Any answer I gave would have upset somebody and I came off as a sour-grapes loser. I should have just said, 'No, I wasn't angry because I don't like the looks of the little guy.'

"My perception of what Hollywood thinks of me is that I am potentially"--his voice drops to a near-whisper--"a good actor if I had the right material, but 'I'm not going to be the person who gives it to him.' I'm not bitter at anyone, I'm not angry at anyone. What I am is perplexed why people keep talking about me."

The source of Reynolds' perplexity is why the AIDS rumors haven't disappeared. The latest is a cover story in the Dec. 23 issue of the tabloid Globe: "Burt Reynolds Begs Court--Keep My Medical Records Secret."

As a major Hollywood star who has joked his way through many of his roles and been considered a joke by some of his peers as a result, Reynolds can find no humor in the two-year-long AIDS rumor.

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