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 girl friend 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 a couple of shots that made me feel like I'd exploded. I tried not to let anybody know how much they hurt. We had 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 word macho. I wouldn't fight him with an ax. But these guys wanted to go home and tell their wives and girl friends they had crushed an NFL star, and they hit Kapp late and knocked him out of the film.
"A strange thing started happening. I'd 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 at 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 of 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 the 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 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 grease-balls. I tried to play football, basketball, everything. One day I scored a touchdown, and they didn't call me mullet any more. 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 jock 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 half a 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 hole 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 at 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 named Frontiers of Faith there was a bit that called for a guy to be thrown through 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."