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 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 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 fold-out business, and women all over the country got copies of it with which to 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 I 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 then 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."