In the 1970s, Burt Reynolds was a man who needed no introduction—the mustachioed macho star of Deliverance, The Longest Yard, Smokey and the Bandit, and Semi-Tough was the starriest of Hollywood stars, dominating the box office and the talk show circuit with ease. For the last two decades, however, the aging Reynolds has been largely forgotten; he hasn’t starred in anything relevant since 1998 when he was in Boogie Nights, a film he loathed.
Director Adam Rifkin wanted to change that, so he wrote a film called Dog Years, about an aging, forgotten movie star trying to cope with growing old and living with regret. The character, Vic Edwards, travels to Nashville to be honored at a festival, only to find it is nothing more than a bunch of film geeks screening his old movies in a bar. Edwards then sets off on a journey into his past, aided reluctantly by the sister of the festival organizer, played by Modern Family’s Ariel Winter. The film, which just debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival, was written with only one star in mind, Rifkin says. If Reynolds had rejected the script, Rifkin would not have made the film.
“Burt Reynolds has always been my hero. He is, to me, the personification of the term movie star. He had a larger-then-life persona. I still love Burt Reynolds so much I wanted to give something back to Burt for all that he’s given to me,” Rifkin says.
Reynolds, who is sitting next to the director in a Tribeca Film Festival interview room, interrupts, sotto voce, to ask with perfect comic timing, “When are you going to do it?”
Despite a cane that underlines the amount of pain this former stuntman deals with, Reynolds still exudes the casual charm that made him a legend four decades ago.
Paste: Were you wary when you initially got this script from some guy you don’t know?
Reynolds: You don’t usually know the writers, unless they’re friends and then they’re sending bad scripts. But this was terrific and then I liked Adam immediately. He has a terrific way with actors, and he likes actors, which is rare, and he’s kind, which is important to me.
Paste: What was it about the script that struck you?
Burt Reynolds: It’ s very different for me—I didn’t beat anybody up, and nobody beat me up. Plus, it was fun yet it ended with a two-handkerchief ending, which I’ve never done before. It was sweet. I liked the idea of doing something new.
Paste: Adam talked about how he wrote the script eight years ago, but the financing fell through on several occasions. He praised you for being so gracious each time—did you feel it incumbent on you to reassure him?
Reynolds: There was a time in my career where if I said yes, the money was there. But now it’s different. It’s a wake-up call. I don’t have the power I had. But it only takes a couple of hit pictures.
Paste: You went from your early 70s into your 80s while waiting for the film to come together. Did those intervening years give you more insight into Vic’s character, into the idea of reflecting back on your life.
Reynolds: Yes, I think so. I grew into the part. I was too handsome and young for it back then. I have grown old, but it’s wonderful—I like growing old. Still, if it took any longer I’d be a character actor.
Paste: The movie blurs the line between fiction and reality, showing a young Vic Edwards by using scenes of your public appearances, like an interview with David Frost and a Tonight Show appearance, plus your famous Cosmopolitan centerfold. Were there any that you didn’t want to see again or any clips that you were happy to revisit?
Reynolds: There are always interviews you do where you think, “Kill that man” about yourself, but there are also some where you are proud of yourself, where you didn’t realize you handled it well.
I always had luck with the Tonight Show. Johnny was my friend, and that was rare because Johnny was a very private person. One time he had a party at his house, which was very rare for him. Ed [McMahon] got a little soused, and he was a Marine and a big guy. And he started in on me for some reason. He started getting really nasty, and I was either going to have to fight this ex-Marine idiot or I was going to have to just run. And I said, “To hell with it—let’s duke it out.” And I got up and Johnny suddenly appeared and said, “Ed, go home.” And Ed said, “Okay Johnny.” He knew where his bread was buttered.
Dog Years also uses movie magic to have Vic Edwards imagine he’s talking to a younger version of himself, placing you in scenes from your old movies, talking to yourself. Was that hard?
Reynolds: It wasn’t hard because I talk to myself a lot. And I don’t always have me to look at. I didn’t here—I had Brian, the producer, who did the lines off camera.
Paste: Is he as good-looking as you were when you were young?
Reynolds: Not nearly. [Reynolds pauses for the laugh, then continues, thoughtfully.] You have this persona. When I look at it, my persona is very arrogant. He’s funny, but he’s arrogant. For some reason, people know it’s for fun. I’ve never had anyone come up to me and say, “You’re an arrogant jerk.” I’m expecting it at any time. I think they know I’m having a good time. And I’m sending myself up.
Paste: Was it hard to find right tone, sending up your persona, then shifting and going for pathos?
Reynolds: I left it up to Adam and trusted him totally. You have to—I’m hanging out there by my ass, wondering if it’s going to work.
Paste: There’s a scene where Vic Edwards visits his college football field and is flooded with memories, including how an injury forced him out of the game. You also played college football till you suffered an injury. If someone had said to you at age 18, you can have this movie star career or you can have Jim Brown’s football career, followed by a mediocre acting career, which would you have chosen?
Reynolds: I would have chosen Jim Brown. Most people didn’t realize what football was for me, what it meant to me. I loved going onto that field for the scene.
Paste: Was there any scene that made you nervous beforehand, especially given that this was a more emotional role than what you usually tackle?
Reynolds: No. I don’t get that way. I probably should, but I don’t.
Paste:: Were there any scenes that resonated for you right now given where you and your character are in your lives?
Reynolds: Yes, there was.
Paste:: Which one?
Reynolds: I’m not going to tell you. There were a couple that hit me right in the gut. I was watching my own movie at the screening, and I was crying. I felt like an idiot.
Stuart Miller has written about television for the Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, The Guardian, The New York Times and others.