“Wayne deeply loves Burt’s work and he has put together a brilliant book on a true artist and great man. Burt would have loved Wayne’s heartfelt tribute to his career.”
– Nick McLean Sr. (Sharky’s Machine, The Goonies, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Friends)
Today it is a great pleasure to welcome Wayne Byrne back to my blog chatting about his latest venture, a book that is very close to his heart, Burt Reynolds on Screen. Many of us never get the opportunity to get such close access to our heroes but Wayne has been very lucky indeed. Wayne is an Irish writer and author but is also a librarian and a journalist for Hot Press Magazine.
Burt Reynolds on Screen will be published later this year with McFarland & Company. As the first critical overview of Reynolds’ work, it will be an absolute treat for all with an interest in filmography and of course in Reynolds’ work.
I really hope you enjoy this truly fascinating interview with the very passionate Wayne Byrne.
[ About the Book ]
In a prolific career spanning six decades, actor Burt Reynolds was a definitive American icon and one of the world’s most famous stars of film and television. As much a folk hero as a Hollywood celebrity, he began as a stuntman and bit player in B Westerns and TV shows before landing a starring role on NBC’s Riverboat (1959–1961). His breakthrough role in Deliverance (1971) made him famous and the sleeper hit Smokey and the Bandit (1977) made his name a household word.
This first critical overview of Reynolds’ work examines his complete filmography, featuring candid discussions with costars and collaborators, exclusive behind-the-scenes photos and a wealth of film stills.
Q & A with Wayne Byrne
What is it about Burt Reynolds that made you want to make this your next book?
When I finished my first book, The Cinema of Tom DiCillo: Include Me Out, I felt an immediate void. Not having a book to be working on was too much of a crash back to the reality of being unemployed. What else was I going to do with myself? That book had consumed my life for five years, I lived and breathed it, and then after the huge excitement of its release had subsided I found myself longing to continue this writer’s life. It sounds cheesy but I guess you could say I found my calling in life. I never set out to be a professional author, I simply wanted a book on my favourite director, Tom DiCillo, and it became clear that if I wanted that book on my shelf then I was going to have to write it myself. I did, and now that book sits proudly on my shelf and on the shelves of bookstores, libraries, and universities around the world. What a thrill that is. So I decided I wanted to write another book, and I immediately drew up a shortlist of subjects I’m passionate about that I wanted to explore. It was a very shortlist indeed, a couple of artists that I consider crucial to my love of cinema, and Burt Reynolds was at the top of that list. And then considering the fact there isn’t any serious written consideration of his body of work it made complete sense to me.
So this will be the first book on Burt Reynolds’ films?
Yes. There are books aplenty on his personal life, including his two autobiographies, and a few old books from the seventies, some of which are little more than PR exercises and tabloid-style pieces covering his lifestyle as a Hollywood playboy, and which are long out of print too. I have absolutely no interest in Burt’s private life or with whom he was romantically involved, I am interested only in the hundred-plus films he made, some of which are among my favourite films of all time. And being that there are no books on his actual work I decided Burt Reynolds was to be the subject of my next book and I was able to get a publishing deal based on my proposal. But there were challenges met that I didn’t anticipate, challenges that I never had to face with my first book.
What challenges were those?
Well, as I mentioned, my first book took five years, that’s the time from coming up with the idea to it being published. I wasn’t under contract until near the end of the book, as I sold the property when I finished it, so I was never under any temporal pressure to hurry up. If it meant I had to wait a few months to interview a major star, then I could wait. That book covers eight films, and I was lucky that my subject, Tom DiCillo, and all the main actors from each film were willing to get involved and offer me their time and memories of working on the films. The only one that ultimately didn’t work out is Brad Pitt. It was close, I almost interviewed him, but then things didn’t work out for various reasons. But in examining Burt Reynolds’ career, I was dealing not with eight films but with one-hundred-and-fifty screen credits, a colossal career in film and television covering six decades. This was going to be a huge undertaking and potentially a lot of work. And an additional challenge was that I now had a contractual timeframe to finish the book: one year.
That’s a huge amount to cover. It sounds like you were quick to get another publishing deal. Tell us about that.
Well part of my first publishing contract dictated that I had to offer the idea for my second book to that company. So I told them what I wanted to write about next – Burt Reynolds – and, as I expected, they declined because Burt didn’t fit their criteria of being an “important artist” in the realm of World Cinema. And that was just fine with me because there was a publisher that I knew I wanted to approach with the idea, given their amazing catalogue of film titles. That publisher is McFarland and the response I got from them was so amazing, it was the best response you could imagine getting from a potential publisher. They told me that they respected Burt as an artist, and not only that but that he was considered a cultural icon. “Yes!” I said, that is exactly how I felt. And then not only did they like my idea about writing on Burt’s movies, but they said “cover it all!” So they wanted me to cover everything, every one of his films, which was music to my ears. So I knew I had a publisher who knew what to do with this project and they were encouraging me to dig deep in covering his career comprehensively.
That is terrific. So how did you proceed, especially with such a massive catalogue?
Thankfully I owned the majority of Burt’s work on DVD and VHS and was able to immediately set out on my task of research by re-watching all of these films that I love but in the different context of analysing them for recurrent themes, for aesthetics, and from a critical and historical perspective. Some of the films are quite rare and in some cases impossible to obtain, but I managed to do it and now we have the most comprehensive overview of Burt Reynolds ever released.
Did you interview people from the films as you did on your first book?
Yes, I interviewed some amazing people like Rachel Ward, who went to have an amazing career after Burt made her his co-star in Sharky’s Machine; I also spoke to Bill Forsyth, the terrific Scottish director who had made Gregory’s Girls and Local Hero before doing Breaking In with Burt. And I was delighted I got to speak to the legendary singer, Bobby Goldsboro, who produced Burt’s album from 1973, Ask Me What I Am, which few people are familiar with. I spoke to these and many more, although approaching people for interviews is another part of “the challenge” that I mentioned.
Was it hard to get these people?
Not those guys, but there was some difficulty convincing others, and for different reasons. Burt’s life has been so scrutinised by the media – in particular the tabloid media – that many people, some of his friends and colleagues, are sceptical of anybody wanting to talk to them about him. Some automatically assume you may be digging around for dirt or they may question your intentions. But I only wanted to discuss the films and their working relationship with Burt. While I did interview some fantastic actors, directors, and friends, I also got turned down from a few people as well. I was lucky that some of those I did speak to trusted me enough to reveal things about Burt which were indeed personal, but not of a private or sensational nature.
His absolute devotion to the craft of acting. It was absolute. He was a teacher as much as he was a star, and you can really get an insight into that in the book’s afterword, which was provided to me by Burt’s dear friend and former stunt double and actor, Jimmy Lewis. Jim is a wonderful guy with the best Hollywood stories ever, he is a Vietnam veteran and former cop who later enrolled in Burt’s acting institute, which Burt opened at the height of his fame. Jim details a side of Burt that the world never got to see: this man who cared so much for the craft of acting that he would devote his time, money, and energy into giving young actors a platform of education and performance. Part of it was also Burt giving back to his community, such as when he opened the Burt Reynolds Dinner Theatre, which he saw as an opportunity to break the exclusive cultural barriers that exist in the theatre world by making it an affordable avenue to the arts for working class people. This was a playhouse where he brought major Hollywood stars to share the stage with his students, such as Jim, and at prices that the average blue collar person could afford. I love that he wanted to tear down that cultural barrier. There is so much snobbery and reverse-snobbery when it comes to certain areas of the arts; I love the idea of someone, especially my hero, saying that no art should be exclusive. I thoroughly believe that to be so true.
You say “reverse-snobbery”, what do you mean by that?
I have often heard it said, in cynical, sometimes mocking tones, “that’s too fancy for me”, or “oh, I just like simple oul things”, and that kind of stuff can be really irritating. As if there is some kind of virtue in making yourself out to be a simpleton or a philistine, instead of trusting your ability to understand something which is perhaps difficult or to experience something different. It’s a reaction I have seen not only applied to film, but other areas of culture, be it art, music, food, and so on. These things are not elite or exclusive, they are accessible to everyone; it can be cheaper to visit an arthouse theatre than it is to visit a multiplex, yet arthouse films might be seen to be the realm of the middle classes. It’s bad enough when we have to deal with classical snobbery; the reverse is no better, in doing so you end up supporting the notion that certain arts are indeed exclusively for others. Anybody should be able to embrace any form of art or culture without feeling it is designed for those outside of our own class system or that it is out of our realm of comprehension.
Is this a reaction that you have seen with Burt Reynolds?
There has been some bemusement after some people ask me what I’m writing about and I reply “Burt Reynolds”. When I ask “well, what have you seen?” the usual answer will be Smokey and the Bandit or they will mention The Cannonball Run pejoratively, or note the fact that he was seen to be this hyper-masculine being. There is a lot of misinterpretation of who he was and what he was about. But thankfully there have been some very supportive people. This whole idea of the cultural value of art and of an artist is something relevant to any discourse on Burt Reynolds, because looking at the tastes associated with certain social classes is important in assessing the reaction to his popularity and his persona.
A major aspect of his image was that of a Southern working class hero and he was duly celebrated as such, particularly a hero of the New South, a star that the average person felt a kinship with, and that can’t be said for many artists of Burt’s stature and success. He was entirely unpretentious and it may be that Burt was too traditional and unhip for seemingly more sophisticated tastes. Some snarky reviews going back the years would certainly suggest such was the case. But Burt was as sophisticated an artist as anyone you care to mention, he was just too classy to ever make anyone feel ineligible to enjoy his work, or any work. He knew that art can save people, give them direction and meaning in their lives, and that art should never be exclusive or discriminating to certain social classes. I applaud him for that.
Burt was a populist entertainer, he had an absolutely compelling presence and a natural charisma which just endeared him to so many; he was charming and sexy, he was tough but tender, he had it all and his biggest films touched tens of millions of people. For example, Smokey and the Bandit is one of the highest-grossing films of all time, but for a long time it was terribly unfashionable to champion it, much less-fashionable that it is to champion the only film to beat it as the box office in 1977, Star Wars. He aligned himself with Southern country culture and traditional values, far from the perceived urbane sophistication of some of his Hollywood peers. Nor did he appeal very much to East Coast cultural elitists, even though he worked with some of the most highly regarded writers and filmmakers of the twentieth century: Robert Aldrich, John Boorman, Bill Forsyth, Peter Bogdanovich, Robert Altman, Blake Edwards, Clint Eastwood, Don Siegel, Stanley Donen, Alan J. Pakula, Norman Jewison…the list goes on.
That’s an impressive list of people, and yet he never found the appropriate acclaim?
Many write him off because they associate him with the likes of Smokey and the Bandit and The Cannonball Run, or his portrayal in the tabloid media. He was always seen to be enjoying his celebrity status a bit too much for some people’s liking. There was no tragedy to exploit for sympathy, he just made movies, got rich, dated gorgeous women, and lived a charmed life. Then certain elements of the media cherished the chance to tear him down amidst his personal troubles later on. But I think his critics missed out on the wink and the nod, they completely misinterpreted his playful, satirical self-reflection as sincere cockiness. There’s a great video compiling his appearances on the Johnny Carson show, where we see that over time, as he grew increasingly popular at the box office, his was walk from behind the curtain to the stage became longer and more protracted; it started early on as a direct confident walk, then became a swagger, and then slowed right down to where he would stop midway to turn and relish the adoration of the audience. Again, he did this as a joke, and Carson got it. But to some, it may have seemed arrogant. But you would have to be somewhat blind to miss the humour in his strut.
From what I’m aware of, he really seemed to play himself on screen.
Yes, in some respects, and which is so hard to do, because you have to be absolutely assured of what it is that makes you appealing and to know how to parlay that into a written character and not have it affect the narrative so much as to take you out of the fantasy of fiction. Also, he brought a lot of his good-humoured nature that we saw on those talk shows to his film work, which may have contributed to the perception of him as a lightweight movie star, rather than a serious actor. But anyone who dismisses him as such haven’t taken the time to consider the absolute wealth of more sincere and weightier material he did throughout his career. And that is one of the reasons for my writing this book, to celebrate the body of work and give due time and consideration to every film he made. I’m not saying everything he made was good, it certainly wasn’t, but to assess an artist you have to look thoroughly through his entire work.
It certainly sounds like he meant a lot to you.
He does, and his films mean the world to me. It all comes back to the films, the man’s work. Sharky’s Machine, Stick, Hustle, White Lightning, W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings…these are just some of my favourite movies, and I could list many more but this would end up a much bigger piece. And you know what, Burt means even more to me now that I’ve become friends with people who were close to him, because I’ve been privy to great insights about the nature of Burt Reynolds the man behind the scenes, as well as the man in the scenes, which often reflected who he really was and the ideas he espoused, as well as his aspirations. It has been a hectic eighteen months getting this book together while working a full-time day job along with another media job, but I have come out of it with some very dear friends and another book on the way with one of those people…
That sounds exciting! Can you tell us about that?
Yes, my next book, which is coming out soon after the Burt Reynolds one, is a book I co-authored with Nick McLean, who is a legendary Hollywood cinematographer and cameraman whose work you have definitely seen, even if you don’t know his name. Nick has shot the likes of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Deer Hunter, Marathon Man, Being There, The Goonies, Short Circuit, loads and loads of major films, and then he was also the cinematographer of hugely successful TV shows, including Evening Shade, Cybill, and of course, Friends, for which he was nominated for multiple Emmy awards. Nick has had a truly amazing Hollywood career and our book is a funny and exciting journey behind the scenes on all of those films. He was a very close friend of Burt’s, having known him for forty years and shot many of his films and that’s how I met him, interviewing him for the Burt book. He ended up writing the foreword as well. It has been amazing to be able to go immediately into writing my third book with Nick. I still can’t believe it, and he has become a very dear friend. We had a wonderful time back in March when we did a tour of Ireland for a bunch of shows around the country in various theatres and cinemas, some of which were filmed, called “An Evening with Nick McLean”. We attended some screenings of his movies to do some Q&As, and we also did some shows discussing his career in-depth. There was a great display of love and support for Nick, queues of people waiting to get his autograph and a picture. We had a blast doing the radio interviews, filming the events, and travelling the country, but some of my favourite moments were in-between, when we were just hanging out at my house watching movies and having some beers. There were a couple of “pinch me” moments, such as sitting there watching Being There with Nick, the very man who shot these iconic images. It was a special time. And that wouldn’t have happened where it not for Burt Reynolds.
Wayne Byrne is the author of three books, all on the subject of Cinema. By day he is a librarian, by night he is a journalist for Hot Press magazine, and by weekend he is a lover of cheese and wine.
“Wayne Byrne’s book on the cinematic and television career of Burt Reynolds is both entertaining and highly informative: this is a brilliant, professional biography of a sometimes misunderstood and underrated talent. If you think you knew Reynolds and his oeuvre, think again. Burt Reynolds on Screen is a definitive work that deserves to be read.”
—Paul Farren, Film Ireland