He was, to some extent, an “accidental actor.” By that I mean he never intended to be an actor or, for that matter, in any way connected to the entertainment business. What he intended to be was a football player, and until he suffered a series of injuries, he was pretty good at it. He was a first team All-State fullback in high school and went to Florida State on a football scholarship. He was doing well until the aforementioned injuries derailed his career. Incidentally, those of you who are sports fans would be interested in knowing that one of his college roommates was Lee Corso, who has gone on to become a college football announcer and analyst of some renown.
Burton Leon Reynolds, Jr. was born on February 11, 1936 in Lansing, MI. His father served in the Army and later became Chief of Police in Riviera Beach, FL. He had true American melting pot ancestry – Dutch, English, Scotch, Irish and, perhaps, a sprinkling of Cherokee Indian.
Following the untimely end of his football career he left FSU. He was uncertain of what to do with his life. He considered becoming either a police officer or a parole officer.
Eventually, he enrolled in some courses at a local junior college. It was there that fate intervened. His English teacher, Watson Duncan, III was producing a play, and he convinced Burt to try out. Burt figured, “why not?” After all, it was considerably less taxing than other summer job possibilities, such as construction.
He got the part and won the Florida State Drama Award for his performance. That award included a scholarship to a summer stock theatre in Hyde Park, NY. Following that gig Burt enrolled in acting classes in NYC, along with notables such as Frank Gifford, Joanne Woodward, Carol Lawrence, Aaron Chwatt and Murray Janofsky. Who?? The latter, you can deduce was aka, Jan Murray. You’re probably not familiar with the name, Aaron Chwatt. Read on for his stage name. Burt considered Duncan to be his “mentor and the most influential person in his life.”
Burt’s first memorable role was on “Gunsmoke,” where he played Quint Asper, a “halfbreed” blacksmith. His first starring role was on the short-lived tv show “Dan August.” Burt played the title role. He once summarized his opinion of the character to Johnny Carson as having “two forms of expression: mean and meaner.”
All actors can point to famous roles that they turned down for one reason or another. Burt was no exception. At one point, James Bond producer, Albert Broccoli, wanted him to play the title role. Reynolds declined. It was his opinion that “an American can’t play ‘James Bond.’ It just can’t be done.” Many actors have played the role, some better than others. I must confess, I cannot picture Reynolds as “James Bond.”
1972 was a very big year for Burt. First of all, he starred in the hit movie, “Deliverance.” In addition, he was featured on the cover of April edition of Cosmopolitan Magazine – in the nude. To me, that was the peak of his movie career. He acted in a series of largely forgettable movies, such as “Boogie Nights” (for which he received an Oscar nomination), “Smokey and the Bandit,” “White Lightning” and “The Longest Yard,” which I thought, at least, was entertaining. His best role on tv was in “Evening Shade.” Burt was a frequent guest on late night talk shows. He was funny and entertaining, but I would classify his acting career as rather pedestrian.
Some other interesting facets of Burt’s life:
1. He co-authored a children’s book, “Barkley Unleashed: A Pirate’s Tail.”
2. His extravagant lifestyle and poor investments led to personal bankruptcy in 1996.
3. In the mid-1980s he was a minority owner of the Tampa Bay Bandits of the USFL.
4. He was co-owner of a NASCAR Winston Cup team.
5. He owned a private theater that specialized in training young performers attempting to break into the entertainment business.
In recent years, Burt had some health issues. For example, he underwent back surgery in 2009; he became addicted to painkillers; and he underwent quintuple coronary artery surgery in 2010. Nevertheless, his niece, Nancy Lee Hess, told the media that Burt’s death was “totally unexpected.”
Rest in peace, Burt. You were popular and entertaining, and you will be sorely missed.
Aaron Chwatt’s stage name was Red Buttons.