From television origins (Gunsmoke), Reynolds became one of the most recognizable faces of 1970s American film. After negligible early roles in movies like Shark! (1969), he broke out (sans mustache) as archery ace Lewis Medlock in Deliverance (1972). That same year he also played “Sperm Switchboard Operator” in Woody Allen’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask).
Those two roles express something at the heart of the Reynolds mystique: He was macho, lusty, and funny.
Aside from Deliverance, Reynolds’s most iconic roles were in movies that eventually took on cult status. In Smokey and the Bandit (1971), The Longest Yard (1974), and 1981’s Sharky’s Machine (which he also directed), he played charming funsters with hearts of gold and biceps of steel. These roles turned Burt Reynolds into a symbol for a butch American sexuality.
The 1990s saw a Reynolds reprise, with turns in Striptease (1996) and Boogie Nights (1997). From the 2000s onward he seemed to enjoy playing up to the typecasting that arguably limited his career, cropping up in a heroic total of 37 movies this century, mostly in comic works like the Dukes of Hazzard remake. In 2019 he will appear posthumously in the Manson family dramatization, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
His long career included a 1973 album, featuring songs like “The First One That I Lay With” and “She’s Taken A Gentle Lover.” He winkingly embodied an American masculinity that women laughed over and men sought to emulate. With Reynolds’s death, America has lost its least subtle and most charismatic old-school Adonis. With a wink and a grin, he has disappeared into the sunset.