The Con Game That Got Rough
It was murder down on the field when Burt Reynolds and some pros filmed a story about a prison grudge match
By Edwin Shrake
Issue date: September 30, 1974
Burt Reynolds remembers a cocktail party he went to eight years ago in a New York apartment that looked kind of like the King Farouk suite at a four-star hotel, full of jewels, furs, carpets, paintings, dressy women and silver ice buckets with foil bottle necks sticking out. His friend Don Meredith took Reynolds there from Yankee Stadium in a rented limousine along with several other Dallas Cowboys who had played the New York Giants that afternoon in the last game of the season.
While the players pulled off their overcoats for the maid at the door, word bounded through the place that a number of Dallas Cowboys had arrived. A tall woman who had more ice on her fingers than she did in her drink approached Meredith and smiled.
"You must be Lee Roy Jordan," the woman said.
"Yes ma'am," said Meredith. "I love to hit people and knock 'em down. I sock 'em good, I really do. I purely love it."
"Which one is Don Meredith?" the woman said.
"Bless your heart, he's the cute rascal right behind me," said Meredith. "You ought to get to know him a lot better. There's nothing but pearls comes out of his mouth."
The woman bore in on Reynolds and pressed him toward the wall, telling him he looked like a tremendously physical person, not quite as big as she had expected, maybe, but terribly physical nevertheless, and it was a thrilling experience for her to meet a famous quarterback.
"It was incredible to me," Reynolds remembers. "Almost nobody at that party knew who I was, but this woman heard me identified as Don Meredith, and so here she came with all this cleavage and diamonds. I had a lot of fun holding court, pretending to be Meredith, talking about Freudian interpretations of football, anything else I could have fun with, and people gathered around and took it all in. I thought: So this is what it's like."
These days, certainly, nobody could confuse Burt Reynolds with Don Meredith or anyone else. Since that night on Sutton Place, Reynolds has become the No. 4 male movie star at the box office in America, host at the Academy Awards, a constant visitor on TV talk shows and the first Cosmopolitan magazine male nude centerfold. In fact, he has also become a quarterback -- on film, at least -- in a new movie called The Longest Yard. In The Longest Yard, Reynolds plays a former pro football star who is kicked out of the league for shaving points, does a demolition derby on his nasty-minded girlfriend and winds up serving time in a state prison. It is Reynolds' bad luck that the warden (Eddie Albert) is a demented football freak who has recruited a semipro team from among the prison guards. The warden forces Reynolds to organize the inmates to play one game against the guards, and then orders Reynolds to be sure the inmates lose, just so they won't get any wrong ideas about who is in charge of the prison.
It may require a considerable stretching of the imagination to believe all this, but one thing that is definitely credible is Reynolds' performance. He runs with the ball like a halfback, which is what he used to be, and when he gets tackled by Ray Nitschke he falls down like all those other mortals Nitschke used to destroy for the benefit of the Green Bay Packers. The football game takes up 40 minutes of the two-hour film. Shooting the game occupied the movie company for five weeks, six days a week, and laid out several players, including old Viking Joe Kapp, with fairly serious injuries.
"We worked hard to make the game real," Reynolds says. "Nitschke might have worked a little too hard. He hit me with a couple of shots that made me feel like I'd exploded. I tried not to let anybody know how much they hurt. We have some semipros from Savannah in the film who were out to knock my head off, but I was pretty well protected. They did get Kapp, though. Joe Kapp invented the work macho. I wouldn't fight him with an ax. But these guys wanted to go home and tell their wives and girlfriends they had crushed an NFL star, and then they hit Kapp late and knocked him out of the film.
"A strange thing started happening. A look at the faces in the huddle, and this wasn't a movie anymore. It wasn't even a game, it was a battle. The convict team lived and slept together, and so did the guards. Behind the walls a a maximum-security prison [the movie was shot at the Georgia State prison in Reidsville] one has a tendency to walk a little closer to one's buddies -- the Deliverance syndrome, I call it. All day long the black jerseys wouldn't speak to the white jerseys. Once I threw a pass and some guy gave me a cheap shot, and our whole bench emptied and ran out on the field to take up for me. Meredith had told me how it was when a team developed a sense of loyalty, and here it was happening to us.
"There are a few little things in the game on film that don't look right, and I wish they weren't in there, but it can't be helped. For example, when I call a play in the huddle I might say 'Split left on two.' Well, 'Split left on two' is not a play, as some big black dude who sat behind me at the Houston preview kept pointing out. But if we showed me calling the whole play -- like 32 XY East Tight End Hook, wide Z pattern, and all that -- we'd take up so much time we'd lose the whole audience. Some of the plays I called in the huddle were made up on the spot, like a tackle eligible pass I threw to Ernie Wheelwright. Occasionally, I'd run with the ball when Robert Aldrich [the director] wasn't expecting it. Aldrich would give me hell, and I'd say I lost my head. But I knew it was terribly important for me to get my jock knocked off to make the film work."
There is one sequence in which Reynolds rolls out, cuts back and dives over the line for a touchdown. The sequence was shot several times. "Aldrich called me one night," says Al Ruddy, the film's producer, "and he said everything was going great except that Burt was going to be three inches shorter because he kept coming down right on top of his helmet."
Reynolds grew up around West Palm Beach, where his father was chief of police. At his present house, on a hill above the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles, Reynolds has a couple of football trophies that show me he was an all-state fullback and most valuable player in the North-South Florida high school all-star game of 1955. "If I hadn't been a jock, I never would have finished high school," Reynolds says. "I was having a severe identity crisis. We didn't have any dope then, but if we had, I would've been into it. I'd try anything twice. I lived in what I thought was Rivera Beach, didn't know for years it was spelled Riviera. The kids from that section were called mullets and greaseballs. I tried to play football, basketball, everything. One day I scored a touchdown, and they didn't call me mullet anymore. Every day after that, I thought if I don't score they'll call me mullet again. That was my incentive to go to school. And girls. In the early '50s the jocks got the girl. Now it tears up my brother, who is a coach, to see some 220-pound high school kid with a guitar on his back, two joints in his pocket and a girl in each hand. The kid will say, 'Why should I get killed playing football when it's easier to get what I want this way?'"
As a freshman at Florida State, Reynolds started at halfback in a half dozen varsity games. In his sophomore year he suffered a knee injury, dropped out of school and went to New York to hang around for a while. The following season he returned to Florida State, but it wasn't the same. "I had only one good wheel, and I was exactly one step slower," he says. "The hold would open and I'd see myself going through it, but I wouldn't get there. So I quit school and went back to New York again."
In New York, Reynolds found himself in the company of actors a great deal. "I don't know why," he says. "I had no eyes to be an actor. I didn't know what they were talking about most of the time. Somebody asked me if I'd ever read The Catcher in the Rye. Hell, I was 21 years old, and I had never read any book at all. So I read The Catcher in the Rye, and I thought, hey, this is good. That book got me interested in reading, changed my life. I was running around with Rip Torn, who's one of the best actors in the world and a very physical guy. I'd play basketball with him a the 'Y,' and he'd wipe me out. He had tremendous drive that he used in his acting. I had no place to put my drive.
"For a TV show names Frontiers of Faith there was a bit that called for a guy to be thrown throught a window. I did it and got paid something like $132. I thought it was terrific. After that I did a lot of TV. When a script called for a guy to get thrown through a window or down the stairs, I got the part. There were no stunt men because TV was live. I'd say my three lines and get knocked down. As the years went by I began getting knocked down less and talking more.
Reynolds moved to Hollywood as an actor and stunt man. The story is that he still does all his own stunts, which is not exactly true. Reynolds does his own fight scenes and certain other action, but no leading man is allowed to be thrown off motorcycles or crash automobiles into lampposts. The usual rule is that any time an actor is required to leave his feet, or there is any impact, a stunt double is brought in. A leading man like Reynolds is a valuable piece of meat to the studios. You do not hurl a valuable piece of meat off a roof.
What you hurl is someone like Frank Orsatti, who is a stunt man and one of a number of people who have doubled for Reynolds over the years and sometimes wound up in the hospital as a result of their efforts. "Burt likes guys he knows will go to the limit," Orsatti says. "He always wants to be closely involved in the physical stuff, even if the studio won't let him actually take the part. In The Longest Yard, I might have been killed if Glenn Wilder [another stunt man] and Burt hadn't been standing by to safety for me." Orsatti performed what his trade calls a "fire gag," wrapping himself in tape, rubber, asbestos and clay and being set aflame. More than the necessary amount of lighter fluid had been applied. Orsatti went off like a bomb. Reynolds and Wilder helped extinguish him three times before Orsatti could be rescued from the fire.
Thinking perhaps of Orsatti and his own days as a stunt man, Reynolds says "I'm always afraid somebody is going to tap me on the shoulder and say that from now on I'll get paid what I'm worth, which is about $3.50 an hour. I mean, nobody's worth what they pay me. That's part of the reason I try to get involved in my own stunts. It's not a question of macho. You get up in the morning and somebody powders your face at 6 a.m., somebody else dresses you, somebody else moves you to a spot. By 11, it's time to fall off a building and you feel you have to do it."
Reynolds' bright, easy conversation as The Tonight Show host was a revelation to those who thought of him, if they thought of him at all, as an actor who played cops or Indians and took off his shirt a lot. ("Cops and Indians don't get to tell many jokes," he says.) But plenty of people went to see Deliverance, the 1972 film about the adventures of four men who journey down a wild river in canoes. In the movie ads, there was Reynolds -- pectorals displayed, as usual, biceps prominent, fierce dark gaze -- and one might have thought, well, I know what he's going to do: swing across the river on a vine, strangle an alligator, etc. Instead, his performance as an intelligent man tormented by his own sense of machismo came across powerfully and boosted Reynolds' career onto a different level.
Until Deliverance, Reynolds had never really considered himself as an actor but as a former football player and stunt man who had turned his looks, athletic ability and gift for repartee into a good living. He had been around show business for a long time. He has done about 12 movies and nearly 250 television shows, not counting game shows or talk shows. "If you worked once a week, which is almost impossible, it would take 10 years to do that much television," says Al Ruddy, whose last production before The Longest Yard was The Godfather. "Give Burt credit. He's carried his career on his back and he's become a major, major star.
"When we started Deliverance, I was afraid Jon Voight would blow me off the screen," Reynolds says. "The director, John Boorman, kept telling me I didn't know how good I was, but I didn't believe it. Then one night Voight, a guy I'd become good friends with, asked me how I was going to handle things after the picture was released. He said Deliverance was going to do for me what Midnight Cowboy did for him. I told Jon I'd been hearing that bull for years, I didn't need to hear it from him. He said no, he could smell it, it was true. So I started believing it, and it happened. Since Deliverance, I've made some pictures the critics called turkeys, but I've never made a picture that didn't make money. And I'm coming closer to combining the guy on The Tonight Show with the actor I want to be."
During the Deliverance period, Reynolds also appeared in the famous Cosmopolitan photograph. It had been predicted that the photo would make Reynolds into a joke, but instead it pointed up the comedy in the whole nude foldout business, and women all over the country got copies of it with which they razz their husbands and feed their fantasies. "I did it to take a great swing at Playboy, Reynolds says. "I felt I had the sense of humor to bring it off. After the magazine came out, I was fully prepared to get in an elevator with a bunch of guys and either have to be funny or fight my way out. But men seem to recognize the humor in it faster than the women. Of course, there are always guys who love to show off by calling you a movie-star faggot, but most guys just laugh and kid me about it.
"The day the magazine came out I was booked as host on Tonight, a calculated move. For the opening monologue, I told the writers to think of me as Don Rickles doing a routine on Burt Reynolds, and to use every terrible, rotten joke on me they could think of. By the time I'd finished that monologue, there was nothing left for people to say. I'd said it all. And I've still got my savers -- one-liners that I use. Like maybe get on a plane and a guy whistles at me and I say 'Thanks, the flowers were beautiful.' I was in a restaurant one night, and the violinist looked down at me and said 'You wouldn't be anything if it hadn't been for that magazine picture.' So I told him he ought to pose for one, and then he could be playing at Carnegie Hall." Before the filming of The Longest Yard, the cast (including Nitschke and such pro players as Pervis Atkins, Mike Henry, Sonny Sixkiller, Ray Ogden and Pat Studstill) went into training for three weeks. Reynolds worked out on his own, running and doing exercises, and the soaking in the big whirlpool bath in a wing of his house he calls the Ego Room, where he displays photographs and the old football trophies. On the wall in the Ego Room is an autographed picture of Don Meredith taken around the time of that Sutton Place cocktail party so long ago. "Now at parties, the same things happen to me that were happening to Meredith in those days," Reynolds says. "The funny thing is, cocktail parties make me nervous."