Burt Reynolds has no intention of going gentle into that good night.
The actor, still rakishly handsome at 82, is holding court in a Beverly Hills hotel suite with his manager and longtime makeup artist. Across the hotel hallway, another suite remains a flurry of cameras, aides and activity after a video interview with The Hollywood Reporter, but in here, Reynolds is sitting regally in a red brocade armchair and sipping Southern-style sweet iced tea from a glass tumbler.
Reynolds is hot off a press tour promoting his latest movie, Adam Rifkin’s The Last Movie Star, which we’re releasing this week. The film is about an aging icon, forced to confront the fact that his glory days are behind him. Most press tours are staid affairs, full of step-and-repeat photo shoots and canned questions met with canned answers. But Burt Reynolds doesn’t seem to give a fuck, and he’s been upending the game. The octogenarian star says what he wants, when he wants. He’s been making headlines in interview after interview with his refreshing and unusual candor—proclaiming his love for ex-girlfriend Sally Field, calling former co-star Kathleen Turner overrated, describing how a fan sent him pubic hair, and joking that he once slept with Jack Nicholson.
We sat down with Reynolds to talk about the recent tour, his long history with President Donald Trump, acting lessons from Spencer Tracy, and a fully nude 1970s Hollywood party. Reynolds’ manager, Todd Vittum, occasionally chimed in with context and background.
It seems like you’ve been having a lot of fun on this press tour.
I always try.
Do you have any sense of how much news you’ve been making?
I maybe don’t want to know.
No, it’s all good. It’s been wonderfully off the cuff. Was that a purposeful choice?
I don’t know. What was it?
It just seems like you’re having fun.
I always do. I don’t know how to do it any other way. If they ask you formally a question that’s not something you want to talk about, you can’t throw up on them and you can’t make them laugh, because they’re already serious about their work. So you just go ‘Anything else’? And then they go from there.
So, you’ve probably done more than 100 press tours through the years—
Oh, I’m afraid I did maybe 500.
How do you get through all of them?
Well, you don’t treat them like they’re the 500th interview. You treat them like they’re the first.
There’ve been stories of different things through this tour. The fan who in the '70s sent you pubic hair. Is that the craziest thing you’ve been sent over the years?
Oh, I’ve been sent some things we can’t even talk about.
But then we must.
No, we can’t.
What kind of things?
Like dead animals?
You were sent a dead alligator?
Well, he was alive when they shipped him. But he didn’t make it.
And was that alligator from a fan or, um, a non-fan?
It was some guys who thought it was funny because I played football at Florida State and our big rival is the Gators. So they sent me a gator, thinking it would be funny. But it was funnier because it was a dead gator. [Reynolds laughs]
When was that?
Burt’s manager Todd Vittum interjects, “I think it was when the movie Gator came out.” Yeah, must have been.
Can you tell me a little bit about the acting class you teach in Florida?
I love to teach. I teach every Friday night.
Who are the students?
They range from 80 years of age to 16, 17, and they’re a very talented bunch and I’m proud of the fact that the ones that want to are working, so that’s great. Vittum interjects that three of the students attended the premiere of the film.
What’s the process like for them to get into the class? It must be very competitive.
Yeah, it is. They audition for people like your friend here, Todd, and then if they can get past him and a couple of other people, then they come to me and audition, and then I accept them.
How many people are in the class?
Vittum interjects: “About 40. There’s like an approved group of about 40 and it ranges from usually a small class is a dozen and sometimes you’re up to 30. It depends. Mr. Reynolds’ schedule is so busy and it’s tough sometimes getting it to gel but a good friend of his takes it when he’s not here… Three of his students are studying in New York with Wynn Handman, and that’s the gentlemen that taught Mr. Reynolds probably the most valuable lesson about acting you ever had—”
Don’t act. Behave.
What does “Don’t act, behave,” mean to you? I don’t want anyone to ever look at me and say, ‘He’s acting.’
You want to look like you’re on Candid Camera, and that’s the best acting.
How do you mentally train yourself to do that?
I had a hard time at first, but now I’ve been doing it so long, I’m like an old dog. You throw a bone, he goes and gets it automatically. I’m like that. I’ve been very lucky. I’ve worked with some wonderful actors and the man that taught me "don’t act, just behave" was my idol, Spencer Tracy.
Do you remember where you were when he said it?
I remember exactly. I was—My dressing room was here, and across from me were four dressing rooms that they made into one, and that was his. And when he would come out, I would go out and follow along with him. One time he went like that [Reynolds motions] and I was walking along with him.
He said, “Are you an actor?” And I said “The jury’s still out.”
And he said, “Well, don’t let them catch you acting,” which is great way to put it.
Why was he your idol?
What was it about him that you admired so much?
I loved his style of dignity and class, and I have never been able to catch him acting. It’s like somebody just snuck a camera in. There’s no doubt in my mind he’s the best actor in the world.
Are there any actors working today who you really see behaving, not acting, in the Spencer Tracy way?
Of the men?
I wouldn’t, I don’t know that many of the young actors.
Vittum interjects: “You said George Clooney at one point.”
I think George Clooney is special. He hasn’t hit his zenith yet, but he’s going to. He’s just a couple of roles away from being the best actor in town.
And is there anyone where you’re watching and it seems like they’re trying to act?
Yeah, I don’t want to tell you their names. But I see that all the time. There goes one now. [Reynolds motions at the television in the center of the room.]
Tell me about your relationship with President Trump. You’ve known him for a very long time, going back to football.
I’ve been very lucky in that sense. I’ve sat in the room, the little round room—[Vittum laughs and interjects “the Oval Office”]—with four different presidents and had a wonderful visit with all of them. Jimmy Carter was my favorite because he had such humanity and he was such a sweet man. That doesn’t help you be a good president, but it keeps you different from the rest of them.
So you were friends with Trump in the 1980s?
How did you guys meet?
He had a party and invited me. I was very flattered.
What he didn’t know was in the summertime, we used to sneak into the little beach house which went underneath the road and came up inside the house, because the house was all boarded up. And we had parties and we took up the little radio and danced, maybe 12 or 13 or 14 kids. [The house Reynolds is referencing is Palm Beach’s Mar-a-Lago. Long before Mar-a-Lago was Trump’s Winter White House, it was owned by Florida heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post.]
This is when you were a kid?
Sixteen, seventeen. Yeah, I was a kid.
My father was the chief of police, so that made it interesting. Well I mean, if he caught me [sneaking into Mar-a-Lago], he’d have thrown me in jail.
Did he ever catch you?
Yes, and he did throw me in jail. Threw me in jail and everybody that he caught, especially the really drunk ones, he threw on top of me so that I had to not only sweat it out but beat a couple guys away from me. But it helped me to not sneak into Mar-a-Lago anymore.
And that’s what you had been caught for?
And you were co-owner of the United States Football League (USFL) team the Tampa Bay Bandits when you tussled with Trump, right?
This was when Trump owned the New Jersey Generals, before the USFL ceased operations in 1985.
Well, actually, what took us down was Trump because he tried to take us up against the NFL and that is the toughest group of people to go up against anywhere. I begged him not to do it but he’s a rather stubborn man and it was the finish of our group.
I’m sorry it ended like that.
Me too. I loved being an owner because the boys were treated like men and I wanted them to be treated like more than just men. Gentlemen, you know.
The way Trump managed that football league is what took it down?
That’s what took us down the tubes.
Does that history make you worry about the country at all?
About him as president? I’m worried that we’re going to get into something that—you know, China’s barking at us and a couple of other countries and there’s no question that we could just bomb them off a map, but I don’t want America to be known as that. I want it to be what it’s been for me growing up all my life, as we’ve been the savior for a lot of countries.
Do you trust Trump’s judgment after the football debacle?
I don’t know, I hate to say it but I’m worried about it.
Do you worry he might go against North Korea like he did the NFL?
I think he’ll do a lot of things that we’re all going to go ‘Holy cow.’ America doesn’t want to go to war anymore. I don’t want to lose another young man or woman in a war. It’s totally unnecessary and when we’re the toughest country, you don’t have to. You just have to speak a little louder.
What were the parties like at Mar-a-Lago when you went?
Oh, they were great. We were playing “Shake, Rattle, and Roll,” and things like that on the radio and dancing.
How about the Trump Mar-a-Lago parties?
Very stiff. Staid, kind of.
What’s the craziest party you’ve ever been to?
I can’t tell you about that one.
Vittum interjects: “That was out here, right?”
“That was a Hollywood party, right?”
But there was one specific Hollywood party that you clearly remember as the craziest?
There’s a lot of them, but there was one that was even more than the rest. You know, when you arrive and everybody’s nude, you should just turn around and run.
Everyone was nude when you arrived?
I was late.
I’m guessing this was the '70s?
No it wasn’t in the hills, it was Beverly Hills. But it was just crazy. It was that time when drugs were everywhere. I’ve never been into drugs because I was an athlete. Also, I thought if you ever want to watch somebody turn into a complete ass, hand them drugs.
Were you wearing clothes when you arrived?
I was wearing them when I came and when I left.
What was LA like in the '70s?
It was a little crazy and kind of being born again. Hollywood gets reborn every 20 years, you know?
Back in the time of Spencer Tracy and Myrna Loy, it was at its best. Then it got taken over by a bunch of young people that didn’t know how to handle it, but they thought they did, especially when they were high. Now it’s kind of like this. It’s a little boring but it’s better than being stoned.
Is there any one role in your body of work that you’ve felt the closest to?
I just did a film, I think it’s probably closer to me than anything.
Can you tell me about how The Last Movie Star is close to you?
Well, when you’re an actor, you always think, This is the last work I’ll ever do.
Even at the height of everything?
Of course. Especially then. You think somebody’s going to come in and tap you on the shoulder and say, ‘We caught you. Get out.’ Truthfully, people say this, but it’s not true, but I swear it’s true with me. I don’t care if it happens or doesn’t happen. I only care that I’m working. And we’re the most overpaid people on the planet, so that’s great.
What did you relate to in this role?
It’s very close to me because he wrote it for me. [Writer/director Adam Rifkin] says that, and I believe him. It’s a sweet role and the character has a hard time with phony people and I think it’s a good part.
Vittum interjects: “Well he’s a former college football star who became a stuntman who then became an actor, started on TV, and then moved on to become the world’s no. 1 box office star for six years.”
Is there anything you’re afraid of?
Yeah, I’m afraid of totally screwing up this interview. But nothing else. Not many things scare me.
Has it always been that way?
Yeah it has. Football didn’t scare me, I loved it. I was good at it but I got hurt.
What’s the greatest work of art you’ve ever seen? Film, painting, literature, anything. What spoke to you the most?
There were things that Brando did early on. Street Car, certainly. He was brilliant, and it was a work of art.
What about it was a work of art?
It was just truth. It was truth. He was full of truth. I thought he must have surprised the actors and the director because he would constantly do things that were not scripted and I loved that. But as he got older and he got richer, he got lazy and fat and tragic.
This interview was edited and condensed for length and clarity.