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Burt Reynolds Invented the Athlete–Movie Star and Changed Movies

The late star of several ’70s hit films created a template for the athletic, slick-talking leading man that persists today

Burt Reynolds holding onto a rock in the water in ‘Deliverance’ Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

Without Burt Reynolds, there is no Bruce Willis. No Chris Hemsworth. No the Rock. No Vin Diesel. Maybe no Tom Cruise. Reynolds, who died after a heart attack at 82 years old Thursday, modernized movie stardom in a particular way. He was an athlete, but not muscle-bound. He wasn’t exactly funny, but he was always cracking wise. He was handsome, but he was losing his hair. He wasn’t classically trained, hardly a theater rat, not even necessarily a great lover of films. He was born in Michigan and raised in Missouri, Georgia, and Florida. He was from all over, and so he seemed like someone you’d seen before.

But Reynolds had a quality—an ease on camera, a comfort saying ridiculous things, and a physical ability to credibly fight bad guys and win a prison football game. It made him sui generis, and then inspired generations of male actors who wanted to top-line films. Because of Burt Reynolds, the jock became the Hollywood prototype. Across a 60-year career, Reynolds starred in major hits like Smokey and the Bandit, Deliverance, The Longest Yard, and Semi-Tough, in all of which he flashed a strutting, powerful, winking charm. And those roles all required a kind of athletic prowess, either behind the wheel, holding a crossbow, or throwing a touchdown. It’s no surprise he was an athlete.

After a knee injury cut short his career as a tailback at Florida State, Reynolds was nudged into trying out for a play while taking classes at junior college. Soon he was a working actor, and he moved to New York. Within months he was trying out for films. He wavered on moving to Hollywood for years, discouraged by the unmistakable comparisons to Marlon Brando, given his defined jawline, mischievous handsomeness, and strapping physique. But when he finally cracked through in late 1960s, he became a fixture almost immediately, thanks to the success of Deliverance, arguably the best film he ever made. Reynolds mostly made lowdown crime flicks or wry comedies. (The titles of his movies often had his character’s name in them: Stick, Smokey and the Bandit, Gator, Stroker Ace, etc.) But he had a soft spot for auteurs. Peter Bogdanovich memorably cast him twice as a song-and-dance man and then as a silent film star in At Long Last Love and Nickelodeon. He’s graceful in these movies, and winning too, more ballet dancer than third-down back. It’s partly why Paul Thomas Anderson famously plucked him for Boogie Nights, his last truly great role, one in which he brought his weightiness and wolfish charm to Jack Horner, the paterfamilias of a San Fernando Valley porn family.

As is customary, Reynolds’s star faded as time went on, as the movies got worse. But Hollywood took the template he set and ran with it—the wisecracks got more groan-worthy, the muscles more inflated, the parts more ridiculous. Willis, Arnold, Van Damme, et al. You can see Burt in Marvel superheroes, in Fast and Furious car chasers, and in “difficult men” TV stars. Burt wasn’t the best actor of his generation, but he forged a historic career by seeing the open seam and bursting through it.