10 Surprising Facts About Burt Reynolds

Universal Pictures
Universal Pictures

If your first memory of Burton Leon Reynolds is from the 1993 film Cop and a Half, then you’re probably too young to remember—or even realize—that Burt Reynolds was once Hollywood's biggest movie star. To put it in perspective: Every year from 1973 to 1984, Reynolds was listed as one of Quigley’s “Top 10 Money Makers,” and held the top spot on the annual poll from 1978 to 1982 (the only other person to boast a record five consecutive years at the top of the list is Bing Crosby, back in the 1940s).

After a serious knee injury and subsequent car accident ended a promising football career at Florida State University, Reynolds found his way into acting. He got his start in a series of television roles, including a regular gig on the western series Riverboat, then hit the big screen big time with his breakout role in John Boorman’s 1972 backwoods classic, Deliverance.

Reynolds followed Deliverance up with such hits as Smokey and The Bandit (a film Playboy called “the Gone with the Wind of good-ol’-boy movies”), Semi-Tough, The Cannonball Run, and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. Though he hit a bit of a rough patch for a few years, all of that changed when Reynolds agreed to star in Boogie Nights, Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1997 ode to pornography, which earned the actor a Golden Globe award, a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination, and one of the biggest comebacks of the decade. Here are 10 things you may not have known about the mustachioed Hollywood icon, who passed away on September 6, 2018 at the age of 82.

1. HE TURNED DOWN SOME MAJOR ROLES.

Over the course of a near-60-year career, one is bound to pass on some prime roles. And Reynolds turned down a lot, including (by his own admission in the video above) Han Solo in Star Wars, R.P. McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Edward Lewis in Pretty Woman, and John McClane in Die Hard. Although he doesn't regret that final one: “I don’t regret turning down anything Bruce Willis did,” Reynolds told Piers Morgan.

More notably, and perhaps more regrettably, Reynolds turned down a chance to play James Bond in 1969. As Reynolds explained it: “In my infinite wisdom, I said to [producer] Cubby Broccoli, ‘An American can’t play James Bond. It just can’t be done.’ And they really tried to talk me into it. It was a 10-minute discussion. Finally they left. Every night, I wake up in a cold sweat.”

The role Reynolds laments turning down the most, however, is a role that was written specifically with him in mind. When director James L. Brooks approached him about playing Garrett Breedlove in 1983’s Terms of Endearment, Reynolds balked, instead taking a role in Hal Needham’s Stroker Ace. “When it came time to choose between Terms and Stroker, I chose the latter because I felt I owed Hal more than I did Jim,” Reynolds explained (Needham also directed Smokey and the Bandit, Hooper, and The Cannonball Run). “Nobody told me I could have probably done Terms and Universal would have waited until I was finished before making Stroker.” The role went to Jack Nicholson, who took home the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in 1984.

2. HE POSED NUDE IN A 1972 ISSUE OF COSMOPOLITAN.

It may be common knowledge that Burt Reynolds posed naked in Cosmopolitan. What may be less known is that he regretted that decision. “I’m very embarrassed by it,” Reynolds told Piers Morgan. Editor Helen Gurley Brown asked Reynolds to do the photo shoot after the two appeared together on The Tonight Show. “I thought it would be a kick,” Reynolds said. The issue came out only a short time before Deliverance was released in theaters and all 1.6 million copies of the magazine sold out.

Despite the popularity of the spread, Reynolds came to believe that it may have distracted from the critical reception of Deliverance. “I thought it cost some actors in Deliverance an Academy Award,” Reynolds told Morgan. “I think it cost Jon [Voight]. I think it cost Ned Beatty, who certainly deserved an Oscar nomination. I think it hurt me, too.”

3. HE TURNED DOWN HIS OSCAR-NOMINATED ROLE IN BOOGIE NIGHTS. SEVEN TIMES.

Burt reynolds in 'Boogie Nights'
New Line Cinema

Paul Thomas Anderson was adamant that Burt Reynolds play iconoclastic porn producer Jack Horner in his 1997 masterpiece, Boogie Nights, despite Reynolds’s aversion to the material. Anderson asked seven times, and got seven passes from Reynolds. “One night—the eighth time—[Anderson] came to my hotel room,” Reynolds recalled. “And I said, ‘Look, you don’t get it.’ And I went a little berserk. And at the end of the tirade, he said, ‘If you can do that in the movie, you’ll get nominated for an Academy Award.’ And he was right.”

4. AN ON-SET STUNT CAUSED HIM A LIFE OF PAIN.

The 1980s weren’t always kind to Reynolds. "I can't believe I did all those bad films in a row until I looked at the list," he said. During the filming of 1984’s City Heat, Reynolds was struck in the face by a metal chair and shattered his jaw. He developed TMJ as a result of the injury and ended up losing 40 pounds due to his inability to eat solid food. The shocking weight loss fueled speculation that Reynolds had contracted AIDS, a rumor he spent years refuting. He also developed a severe drug dependency as a result of the chronic and debilitating pain he suffered from TMJ; at one point Reynolds was taking up to 50 Halcion sleeping pills a day.

Reynolds eventually kicked the pill addiction, but was not so lucky with the pain. He suffered daily from the decades-old injury for the rest of his life.

5. HE HAD AN IMPROMPTU PIE FIGHT WITH DOUBLE DARE HOST MARC SUMMERS ON THE TONIGHT SHOW.

Burt Reynolds had just finished up his segment as a guest on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno in 1994 and had shifted over to make way for the next guest, TV show host Marc Summers (Double Dare, Unwrapped). Reynolds became visibly irritated with Summers for, ostensibly, turning his back on him while he was speaking to Leno. Summers then made the comment to Reynolds, “I’m still married, by the way.” This jab precipitated a water fight between the two combatants: Reynolds dumped his mug on Summers’s lap, Summers retaliated, so on and so forth. The donnybrook culminated in a rather violent pie fight followed by a very awkward hug.

“This was not a bit,” Summers explained. “I didn’t know what to expect. He was going through a divorce with Loni Anderson at the time and he was angry ... He hugged me and said, ‘I only did that because I really like you.’ You wait to get on The Tonight Show your whole life. You’re sitting next to Burt Reynolds. He drops water on your crotch, then you get into a pie fight!”

6. HE PISSED OFF ELMORE LEONARD.

Reynolds was a longtime admirer of writer Elmore Leonard. After reading Leonard’s novel, Stick, Reynolds decided that he wanted to direct and star in the film version. Things did not go well.

After watching Reynolds’s first cut of the film, the studio pushed back its release date and forced him to re-shoot the second half of the movie, much to the actor/director’s dismay. “I turned in my cut of the picture and truly thought I had made a good film,” Reynolds told the Los Angeles Times. “Word got back to me quickly that the [studio] wanted a few changes … I gave up on the film. I didn't fight them. I let them get the best of me.”

The biggest blow came from Elmore Leonard. "Leonard saw the film the day he was interviewed for a Newsweek cover and told them he hated it,” Reynolds shared. “After his comment, every critic attacked the film and he wouldn't talk to me. When I re-shot the film, I was just going through the motions. I'm not proud of what I did, but I take responsibility for my actions. All I can say—and this is not in way of a defense—is if you liked the first part of Stick, that's what I was trying to achieve throughout.”

7. HE DABBLED IN THE NIGHTCLUB BUSINESS.

Burt Reynolds’s foray into the booming 1970s nightclub business was a short-lived one. He opened Burt’s Place in the late 1970s at the Omni International Hotel in downtown Atlanta. The club’s most notable feature was a stained glass dance floor that featured a rendering of Burt’s face and the words, “Burt’s Joint”—which was odd, considering that wasn’t even the name of the establishment. Burt’s Place/Joint closed after a year.

8. MARLON BRANDO WAS NOT A FAN OF REYNOLDS.

Coming up in the movie business, Burt Reynolds was a huge Marlon Brando fan. Brando did not share the sentiment. When Reynolds was being considered for the role of Michael Corleone in 1972’s The Godfather, Brando adamantly declared that if Reynolds was given the role, he would remove himself from the project. The rest is history.

Brando later said about Reynolds, “He is the epitome of something that makes me want to throw up … He is the epitome of everything that is disgusting about the thespian … He worships at the temple of his own narcissism.” Ouch! To be fair, in the same conversation, Brando admitted that he had never even met Reynolds.

9. HE RELEASED AN ALBUM.


Mercury/Phonogram

Hot off his success in Deliverance and his nude spread in Cosmo, a solo album seemed like the next, most Hollywood-appropriate course of action.

Reynolds released his debut record, “Ask Me What I Am,” in 1973 and somehow this gem seems to have evaded critics and fans alike. We do know that the album came with a double-sized poster of Reynolds in a blue jumpsuit and cowboy hat. You can listen to a track on YouTube, but if you must hear it in its entirety, it’s available on Amazon.

10. HE DIDN'T THINK DELIVERANCE COULD BE RE-MADE TODAY.

“They keep talking about a remake, but I don’t think you could find four actors crazy enough to do it,” Reynolds said. “Not by any stretch of the imagination were we white water experts. We’d quit for the day and come back and practice. We got to the point where we were more proficient, or at least we didn’t get tipped over all the time. I have to admit that, in spite of the danger, or maybe because of the danger, it was the most fun I ever had.”

Reynolds often said that Deliverance is the finest of all of his films.

Ira Aldridge: The Black Shakespearean Actor Who Broke Theater's Color Barrier

Ira Aldridge as Othello circa 1830
Ira Aldridge as Othello circa 1830
Henry Perronet Briggs, Wikimedia // Public Domain

It's easy to forget that before the dawn of film, stage actors were power players; many of them carried just as much clout as modern Hollywood stars. In 1880, Sarah Bernhardt earned $46,000 for a month of performances on her first New York tour alone (which would be well over $1 million today). In 1895, English actor Henry Irving made enough of a name for himself to become the first actor in history to receive a British knighthood. And way back in 1849, two rival Shakespearean actors, William Macready and Edwin Forrest, caused such a stir with their competing productions of Macbeth that their fans ended up rioting in the streets of Manhattan.

But before all of them, there was Ira Aldridge. Born in New York in 1807, Aldridge made such a name for himself in the theaters of the mid-19th century that he went on to be awarded high cultural honors, and is today one of just 33 people honored with a bronze plaque on a chair at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. But what makes Aldridge’s achievements all the more extraordinary is that, at a time of widespread intolerance and racial discrimination in the U.S., he was black.

Young, Gifted, and Black

The son of a minister and his wife, Aldridge attended New York’s African Free School, which had been established by the New York Manumission Society to educate the city's black community. His first taste of the theater was probably at Manhattan’s now-defunct Park Theatre, and before long he was hooked. While still a student, Aldridge made his stage debut—at the African Grove Theatre, which had been established by free black New Yorkers around 1821—in a performance of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s adaptation of Pizarro. According to some accounts, his Shakespearean debut followed not long after, when he took on the title role in the African Grove Theatre's production of Romeo & Juliet.

These early performances were successes, as was the African Grove Theatre, which quickly proved the most renowned of the few theaters in New York staffed mainly by black actors and attended mostly by black audiences. But despite these early triumphs, both Aldridge and the Grove had their fair share of hardships.

Shortly after its opening, the Grove was forced to close by city officials, supposedly over noise complaints. The project was relocated to Bleecker Street, but this move took the theater away from its core black audience in central Manhattan and planted it closer to several larger, more upmarket theaters, with which it now had to compete. Smaller audiences, coupled with resentment and competition from its predominantly white-attended neighbors, soon led to financial difficulties. And all of these problems were compounded by near-constant harassment from the police, city officials, and intolerant local residents.

Eventually, the situation proved unsustainable: The Grove closed just two years later (and was reportedly burned to the ground in mysterious circumstances in 1826). As for Aldridge, having both witnessed and endured racist abuse and discrimination in America, he decided he'd had enough. In 1824, he left the U.S. for England.

The African Tragedian

Ira Aldridge in the role of Othello, 1854
Ira Aldridge as Othello in 1854
Houghton Library, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

By this time, the British Empire had already abolished its slave trade, and an emancipation movement was growing. Aldridge realized that Britain was a much more welcoming prospect for a young, determined black actor like himself—but what he didn’t know was that his transatlantic crossing would prove just as important as his decision to emigrate.

To cover the costs of his travel, Aldridge worked as a steward aboard the ship that took him to Britain, but during the journey he made the acquaintance of British actor and producer James Wallack. The pair had met months earlier in New York, and when they happened to meet again en route to Europe, Wallack offered Aldridge the opportunity to become his personal attendant. On their arrival in Liverpool, Aldridge quit his stewardship, entered into Wallack’s employ, and through him began to cultivate numerous useful contacts in the world of theater. In May 1825 Aldridge made his London debut, becoming the first black actor in Britain ever to play Othello

The critics—although somewhat unsure how to take a "gentleman of colour lately arrived from America"—were won over by Aldridge’s debut performance in a production of Othello at the Royalty Theatre. They praised his "fine natural feeling" and remarked that "his death was certainly one of the finest physical representations of bodily anguish we ever witnessed." Astonishingly, Aldridge was still just 17 years old.

From his London debut at the Royalty, Aldridge slowly worked his way up the city’s playbill, playing ever-more-upmarket theaters across London. His Othello transferred to the Royal Coburg Theatre later in 1825. A lead role in a stage adaptation of Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko followed, as did an acclaimed supporting turn in Titus Andronicus. To prove his versatility, he took on a well-received comedic role as a bumbling butler in an 18th-century comedy, The Padlock. Aldridge’s reputation grew steadily, and before long he was receiving top billing as the “African Roscius” (a reference to the famed Ancient Roman actor Quintus Roscius Gallus) or the renowned “African Tragedian”—the first African-American actor to establish himself outside of America.

Even in the more-accepting society of abolitionist Britain, however, Aldridge still had mountains to climb. When his portrayal of Othello later moved to Covent Garden in 1833, some reviewers thought a black actor treading the boards on one of London’s most hallowed stages was simply a step too far. The critics soured, their reviews became more scathing—and the racism behind them became ever more apparent.

Campaigns were launched to have Aldridge removed from the London stage, with the local Figaro newspaper among his vilest opponents. Shortly after his Covent Garden debut, the paper openly campaigned to cause “such a chastisement as must drive [Aldridge] from the stage … and force him to find [work] in the capacity of footman or street-sweeper, that level for which his colour appears to have rendered him peculiarly qualified.” Fortunately, they weren’t successful—but the affair temporarily ruined the London stage for Aldridge.

"The Greatest of All Actors"

Portrait of Ira Aldridge by Taras Shevchenko in 1858
Portrait of Ira Aldridge in 1858
Taras Shevchenko, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Instead of accepting defeat, Aldridge took both Othello and The Padlock on a tour of Britain’s provincial theaters. The move proved to be an immense success.

During his national tour, Aldridge amassed a great many new fans, and even became manager of the Coventry Theatre in 1828, making him the first black manager of a British theater. He also earned a name for himself by passing the time between performances lecturing on the evils of slavery, and lending his increasingly weighty support to the abolitionist movement.

Next, he took his tour to Ireland, and on his arrival in Dublin became a near-instant star. With the island still locked in a tense relationship with Britain at the time, he was welcomed with open arms when Irish theatergoers heard how badly he had been treated in London. (In one flattering address in Dublin, Aldridge told the audience: “Here the sable African was free / From every bond, save those which kindness threw / Around his heart, and bound it fast to you.”)

By the 1830s, Aldridge was touring Britain and Ireland with a one-man show of his own design, mixing impeccable dramatic monologues and Shakespearean recitals with songs, tales from his life, and lectures on abolitionism. As an antidote to the blackface minstrel shows that were popular at the time, he also began donning “whiteface” to portray roles as diverse as Shylock, Macbeth, Richard III, and King Lear. When the notorious Thomas Rice arrived in England with his racist “Jump Jim Crow” minstrel routine, Aldridge skillfully and bravely weaved one of Rice’s own skits into his show: By parodying the parody, he robbed Rice’s performance of its crass impact—while simultaneously showing himself to be an expert performer in the process.

Such was his popularity that Aldridge could easily have seen out his days in England, playing to packed theaters every night for the rest of career. But by the 1850s, word of his skill as an actor had spread far. Never one to shy away from a challenge, in 1852 he assembled a troupe of actors and headed out on a tour of the continent.

Within a matter of months, Aldridge had become perhaps the most lauded actor in all Europe. Critics raved about his performances, with one German writer even suggesting that he may well be “the greatest of all actors.” A Polish reviewer noted, "Though the majority of spectators did not speak English, they did, however, understand the feelings portrayed on the artist's face, eyes, lips, in the tones of his voice, in the entire body." Celebrity fans were quick to assemble, including the Danish author Hans Christian Andersen, and the renowned French poet Théophile Gautier, who was impressed by Aldridge's portrayal of King Lear in Paris. Royalty soon followed, with Friedrich-Wilhelm IV, the King of Prussia, awarding Aldridge the Prussian Gold Medal for Art and Science. In Saxe-Meiningen (now a part of Germany), he was given the title of Chevalier Baron of Saxony in 1858.

Aldridge continued his European tours for another decade, using the money he earned to buy two properties in London (including one, suitably enough, on Hamlet Road). But by then, the Civil War was over and America beckoned. Now in his late fifties—but no less eager for a challenge—Aldridge planned one last venture: a 100-date tour of the post-emancipation United States. Contracts and venues were hammered out, and the buzz for Aldridge’s eagerly-awaited homecoming tour began to circulate.

Alas, it was not meant to be. Just weeks before his planned departure, Aldridge fell ill with a lung condition while on tour in Poland. He died in Łódź in 1867, at the age of 60, and was buried in the city’s Evangelical Cemetery.

After his death, several theaters and troupes of black actors—including Philadelphia's famed Ira Aldridge Troupe—were established in Aldridge’s name, and countless black playwrights, performers, and directors since have long considered him an influence on their work and writing.

In August 2017, on the 150th anniversary of Aldridge's death, Coventry, England unveiled a blue heritage plaque in the heart of the city, commemorating Aldridge's theater there. Even this long after his death, the extraordinary life of Ira Aldridge has yet to be forgotten.

8 Enlightening Facts About Dr. Ruth Westheimer

Rachel Murray, Getty Images for Hulu
Rachel Murray, Getty Images for Hulu

For decades, sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer has used television, radio, the written word, and the internet to speak frankly on topics relating to human sexuality, turning what were once controversial topics into healthy, everyday conversations.

At age 90, Westheimer shows no signs of slowing down. As a new documentary, Ask Dr. Ruth, gears up for release on Hulu this spring, we thought we’d take a look at Westheimer’s colorful history as an advisor, author, and resistance sniper.

1. The Nazis devastated her childhood.

Dr. Ruth was born Karola Ruth Siegel on June 4, 1928 in Wiesenfeld, Germany, the only child of Julius and Irma Siegel. When Ruth was just five years old, the advancing Nazi party terrorized her neighborhood and seized her father in 1938, presumably to shuttle him to a concentration camp. One year later, Karola—who eventually began using her middle name and took on the last name Westheimer with her second marriage in 1961—was sent to a school in Switzerland for her own protection. She later learned that her parents had both been killed during the Holocaust, possibly at Auschwitz.

2. She shocked classmates with her knowledge of taboo topics.

Westheimer has never been bashful about the workings of human sexuality. While working as a maid at an all-girls school in Switzerland, she made classmates and teachers gasp with her frank talk about menstruation and other topics that were rarely spoken of in casual terms.

3. She trained as a sniper for Jewish resistance fighters in Palestine.

Following the end of World War II, Westheimer left Switzerland for Israel, and later Palestine. She became a Zionist and joined the Haganah, an underground network of Jewish resistance fighters. Westheimer carried a weapon and trained as both a scout and sniper, learning how to throw hand grenades and shoot firearms. Though she never saw direct action, the tension and skirmishes could lapse into violence, and in 1948, Westheimer suffered a serious injury to her foot owing to a bomb blast. The injury convinced her to move into the comparatively less dangerous field of academia.

4. A lecture ignited her career.

 Dr. Ruth Westheimer participates in the annual Charity Day hosted by Cantor Fitzgerald and BGC at Cantor Fitzgerald on September 11, 2015 in New York City.
Robin Marchant, Getty Images for Cantor Fitzgerald

In 1950, Westheimer married an Israeli soldier and the two relocated to Paris, where she studied psychology at the Sorbonne. Though the couple divorced in 1955, Westheimer's education continued into 1959, when she graduated with a master’s degree in sociology from the New School in New York City. (She received a doctorate in education from Columbia University in 1970.) After meeting and marrying Manfred Westheimer, a Jewish refugee, in 1961, Westheimer became an American citizen.

By the late 1960s, she was working at Planned Parenthood, where she excelled at having honest conversations about uncomfortable topics. Eventually, Westheimer found herself giving a lecture to New York-area broadcasters about airing programming with information about safe sex. Radio station WYNY offered her a show, Sexually Speaking, that soon blossomed into a hit, going from 15 minutes to two hours weekly. By 1983, 250,000 people were listening to Westheimer talk about contraception and intimacy.

5. People told her to lose her accent.

Westheimer’s distinctive accent has led some to declare her “Grandma Freud.” But early on, she was given advice to take speech lessons and make an effort to lose her accent. Westheimer declined, and considers herself fortunate to have done so. “It helped me greatly, because when people turned on the radio, they knew it was me,” she told the Harvard Business Review in 2016.

6. She’s not concerned about her height, either.

In addition to her voice, Westheimer became easily recognizable due to her diminutive stature. (She’s four feet, seven inches tall.) When she was younger, Westheimer worried her height might not be appealing. Later, she realized it was an asset. “On the contrary, I was lucky to be so small, because when I was studying at the Sorbonne, there was very little space in the auditoriums and I could always find a good-looking guy to put me up on a windowsill,” she told the HBR.

7. She advises people not to take huge penises seriously.

Westheimer doesn’t frown upon pornography; in 2018, she told the Times of Israel that viewers can “learn something from it.” But she does note the importance of separating fantasy from reality. “People have to use their own judgment in knowing that in any of the sexually explicit movies, the genitalia that is shown—how should I say this? No regular person is endowed like that.”

8. She lectures on cruise ships.

Westheimer uses every available medium—radio, television, the internet, and even graphic novels—to share her thoughts and advice about human sexuality. Sometimes, that means going out to sea. The therapist books cruise ship appearances where she offers presentations to guests on how best to manage their sex lives. Westheimer often insists the crew participate and will regularly request that the captain read some of the questions.

“The last time, the captain was British, very tall, and had to say ‘orgasm’ and ‘erection,’” she told The New York Times in 2018. “Never did they think they would hear the captain talk about the things we were talking about.” Of course, that’s long been Westheimer’s objective—to make the taboo seem tame.

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