I wasn’t any more comfortable in this charade than he was. But he wasn’t giving up yet. I got the message that he had committed to this interview to lure millions of Cosmo girls to see his movie. I followed him back to his suite, where he stretched out on the sofa and glowered at my tape recorder. I asked a question. He didn’t answer. I looked up from the notebook. He was asleep.
I’d never had anyone fall asleep in the middle of an interview before. Engelbert Humperdinck had been late and rude, so I said, “Forget it,” and walked out. But Eastwood had been unfailingly polite. I touched his arm to wake him.
“Let’s go to bed,” he said.
I guessed he would do anything to escape talking. I realized that I absolutely did not care about his motivation.
Afterward, he started to talk. I didn’t say a word, for fear of stopping him. He answered questions I wouldn’t have dared ask.
Burt Reynolds was filming White Lightning in the stifling heat of Little Rock in August 1972, when Cosmopolitan sent me off to pin him wiggling to the canvas. One year earlier, the buzz about Reynolds’s powerful performance in Deliverance was so feverish, it had made him nervous. If the picture lived up to the hype, it would be a breakthrough for the actor, who’d been fired from Universal and had slogged through television action series—Riverboat, Gunsmoke, Hawk—only to find an audience by being himself, sardonic and self-mockingly funny, on the late-night talk shows. Then came the Cosmopolitan centerfold. Burt had astonished himself and the world by posing nude on a fur rug. From the clips and quotes, he struck me as a man who didn’t give a damn what anyone might think.
I found Reynolds in the Sam Peck Hotel bar with a string of locals warming the bar stools and the imported movie talent cooling down after a day on the set. He was big as life, which is never as big as celluloid or fantasy, looking fresh-scrubbed and Saturday Night Feverish in a skintight striped body shirt open at the neck and lean black stretch pants.
This was work for both of us. But the rules of this movie-star-interview game say you both pretend it’s fun. In those first few minutes, his leg was already pressed against mine. I imagined the leg was saying, I am a man and you are a woman and we’re stuck with this artificial intimacy, so let’s go with it.
Burt ordered a club sandwich, anointing it with ketchup, and sweetly tolerated a dozen interruptions from passing fans.
“Don’t you just want them to go away?” I asked.
He shrugged. “I sat there for fifteen years while people reached across me to get someone else’s autograph, asking me, ‘Are you somebody, too?’ ”
The heat was oppressive the next morning, the mosquitoes bigger than chickens. Burt, as moonshine-runner Gator McKlusky, would tangle with a gang of toughs, the cops, and the sheriff in the dusty rubble. Burt would be shoved, pummeled, fly through the air, and wind up hanging in the crook of a tree.
“Everybody thinks I’m an ass for doing my own stunts,” he told me. “Number one is that I like doing it. And in the long run, I’ll be a better McKlusky.” Between each take, someone handed Burt a glass of vodka spiked with Gatorade.
Just as the camera was lugged into place, the sun disappeared. Burt lounged during the break, admiring his co-star’s legs. “Cyd Charisse’s are even better,” he volunteered. “And for the best keester in Hollywood, it’s Vera-Ellen and Mitzi Gaynor. As for boobs . . .” He pondered, watching me take notes. “There’s a problem. Big boobs are wonderful, but after six hours you get tired of them. Small little boobs, they just sit there and stare at you. They’re wonderful, too.” I couldn’t decide if he thought he was amusing me or just playing Burt Reynolds. It was his Johnny Carson persona.
We moved into the star’s dressing room—not the giant luxury trailer I would have expected, but, rather, a cramped tin can on wheels, left over from a low-budget shoot. Burt propped his feet on a rusty metal locker after blending an alchemy from its contents—frosty vodka, limes, near-frozen tonic nestled in a bank of ice.
The sun broke out again. The crew scattered peat moss over brush and scraggle to soften the falls. Burt unzipped his dungarees and started stuffing padding around his flanks. I couldn’t help but notice—I guessed I was expected to notice—that the Cosmo centerfold did not do him full justice. Oh dear. I had to pull myself back to reality, remembering that I had vowed not to be a pushover.