Goodbye, Burt

Thoughts following the death of the iconic everyman movie star

Last week, at the end of a long day in the office but before heading home, I logged into Facebook and was immediately alerted that something I’d posted had violated its community standards on nudity or sexual activity.

I couldn’t imagine what got flagged for removal, but after a few clicks Facebook showed me the offending photo: Burt Reynolds in a famous centerfold spread for Cosmopolitan magazine back in 1972, before his role in Deliverance and the other films that made him a household name. The image is hard to forget. It’s Reynolds lying on a bearskin rug, his arm propped on the dead creature’s head. The only thing he’s wearing is the cigarette dangling from his mouth.

Indeed, the mustachioed Reynolds is very naked—and very hairy—though his arm covers his package.

The photo is one I’m acquainted with for a few reasons. One, it’s iconic. Two, I’ve seen it up close. A few years back, Meredith J. Cooper and I stumbled across the centerfold while doing some housekeeping here at the CN&R office. The magazine reprinted the spread for its 20th anniversary issue back in 1985, and somebody who worked at this newspaper evidently was quite fond of it. They saved it and even added a few embellishments—including writing on it, “Well, everyone has a dream!”

I can’t remember the context in which I’d posted it online—at some point quite a while ago.

When I got the indecency alert, I was given a chance to contest it, so I responded thusly: “But it’s Burt Reynolds! And you can’t even see his junk!” Nevertheless, Facebook took it down, which seems pretty ridiculous based on the latitude the company gave Russian trolls in 2016.

I griped on my timeline about the ordeal, which, to my surprise, a friend responded with, “This has been happening all day.”

My internal dialogue: Why in the world has Facebook been scrubbing people’s feed of this iconic photo? And that, dear readers, is when I turned to Google News and learned that 82-year-old Reynolds had died that day. (Facebook later apologized and stopped yanking the pic.)

I’ve read a little about Reynolds over the years, and knew that he’d made the mistake of turning down a pivotal role in one of my favorite films, Terms of Endearment, based on the novel by my all-time favorite writer, Larry McMurtry. Jack Nicholson won an Oscar for the part. Turns out that’s one of many regrets he’d expressed about choices made in his career and love life.

There are a lot of tributes floating around in the wake of his death that paint a bleak picture of missed opportunities—he died prior to filming his part in an upcoming Quentin Tarantino flick he’d hoped would launch a comeback, for example.

I’m not going to buy into the gloomy narrative. From what I’ve read, he was a beloved friend and generous philanthropist. Moreover, Reynolds was nominated for an Academy Award for his role in Boogie Nights. Does his filmography include bombs? Sure, plenty of them. Was he some sort of sad sack? Not even close.

And then there’s that Cosmo spread—published not once, but twice. Heck, that alone makes for a pretty impressive epitaph.