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Good Ole Burt; Cool-Eyed Clint

23 minute read
Richard Schickel

A guy sits alone in a theater. He’s young and he’s scared. He doesn’t know what he’s going to do with his life. He wishes he could be self-sufficient, like the man he sees up there on the screen, somebody who can look out for himself, solve his own problems. I do the kind of roles I’d like to see if I were still digging swimming pools and wanted to escape my problems.

—Clint Eastwood

I think there’s a parallel in my career and Clint’s. We both have a particular audience that is loyal to us no matter what the critics say. With Clint, they want him to rip the bad guy’s face off. With me, they want me to say those Don Rickles lines to people in authority—the bank clerk who won’t cash your check, the traffic cop. And it even goes further, all the way up the lines of authority-even up to the President.

—Burt Reynolds

There speak the last—or any way the latest—American movie giants. They are star-craftsmen who have built, in a dozen years and better than a dozen pictures apiece, a couple of strong film characters, American arche types. Nowadays this is a rarer and perhaps more valuable achievement than making a string of perfect movie master pieces. These heroes—larger than ones found in ordinary life, but not entirely dis connected from it either—are not made in a single film. They grow out of a lot movies and eventually turn them all into mere incidents in the larger and more absorbing drama of the star career. Consider Eastwood’s moralistic killer, whose cold eyes are set off by his incongruously boyish voice and smile, or Reynolds’ good-ole-boy con man, shooting from the lip as fast as Eastwood shoots from the hip. The comparison is not with their contemporary peers but with the major figures of the great age of screen heroism, to Coop and Gable, Bogie and Duke, those exemplars of the democratic notion that the seemingly ordinary could be, should be, the repository of the extraordinary.

Exaggeration? Hyperbole? Lése-majesté? Not really, for these newer creations are merely variations, updated for life in the ’70s, of the kind of durable, reliable characters an older generation of stars created. They are people who suggest simply by their changeless presences that there may be traditions and behavioral conventions that one can rely on in a pinch.

This is work that not many stars other than Eastwood and Reynolds are currently doing. Wayne, Stewart and Fonda, last survivors of the generation of giants, have become old men despite our most imaginative efforts not to acknowledge that dismaying fact. Brando broods and thickens in the middle on his South Seas Elba, a character actor in search of characters he can knock off in a month’s shooting time. Newman is good wine, aging nicely but often bottled strangely, so that it is hard to identify his essence. Redford is adorable, but when they enriched that handsome hunk of white bread, they somehow left out the mythic minerals. Nicholson is a wise guy, a kind of Bogart manqué, who has not yet touched the darker depths that the screen’s first, and greatest, existential hero suggested he knew. Hoffman is short, nasal and urban; set him against a big American sky, and you get a comedy like Little Big Man. Half the fans think Pacino is De Niro, while the rest are pretty sure De Niro is Pacino. Anyway, they are consummate, protean actors, not archetypes, and they never pretended, or wanted, to be anything less—or more, depending on the point of view.

There are many reasons for the absence of the heroic impulse among all these actors, and in fairness it must be said that the fault does not lie entirely in the stars. Everyone knows this is not a particularly heroic historical moment. It is difficult to find many real-life heroes to identify with, and this thins the soil out of which larger-than-life movie figures can be expected to grow. Beyond that, not nearly so many movies are being made nowadays, so there are fewer opportunities for the kind of relentless exposure that built the great star careers of the past. Finally, the movie audience now is much smaller, less habitual in its attendance and more urban and cosmopolitan. That audience has, for instance, all but buried the greatest of movie genres, the western, which stated and restated the most potent of American myths, that of the loner forever moving westward.

In today’s climate it may actually take more courage and more imagination to become an Eastwood or a Reynolds than it does to be a Nicholson or a Redford. Eastwood-Reynolds films are usually dismissed by critics, rarely play the chic little theaters where the cinéastes gather to read subtitles and subtleties, or get nominated for prizes. If anyone talks about Burt and Clint at all in the better intellectual circles, it is to denounce their macho manners and express fear that their habitual resort to violence poses a continuing threat to the morals of the children and, very possibly, to Liberal Democracy and All It Holds Dear.

Yet year after year after year, when the great scorers in the studio accounting offices come to write the names of the annual box-office winners and losers in their ledgers, the names of Clint Eastwood and Burt Reynolds reliably turn up in ink as black and shiny as the latter’s hairpiece. Across the land—in drive-ins and shopping-center triplexes, even in the big cities, where action pictures still provide the underclass with the same kind of escape they always have—Eastwood and Reynolds draw people to theaters in astonishing numbers.

In 1976, for example, Reynolds did a favor for his friend Hal Needham, a stuntman who had the opportunity to direct if he could get Reynolds to star in the picture. The result was a little number called Smokey and the Bandit, nothing much more elaborate than a 90-minute car chase, with Jackie Gleason playing a sheriff in hot, exasperated pursuit of Reynolds’ good-ole-boy trucker. The film cost about $4 million. The last time anyone looked, it had grossed about $100 million, second only to the phenomenal Star Wars for 1977. Reynolds’ latest picture, Semi-Tough, has been doing business at the rate of $3 million a week, which is not bad either.

As for Eastwood, his annual Christmas release in 1976 was The Enforcer, third in his “Dirty Harry” series. It cost only $4 million to make. So far, it has grossed ten times that amount. His new picture, The Gauntlet, in which he also plays a cop (although this time a much less confident one), is running ahead of The Enforcer at the box office. For both men, these successes are predictable in vehicles that fulfill the expectations of their audiences, mostly people who, as Reynolds’ pal Comedy Writer Hank Bradford says, “have to take two steps up [into their pickup trucks] to drive home.”

Whether they live in a city housing project, a tract development or deep in the piney woods, these Americans are, for the most part, culturally disfranchised. They were raised on the old American popular culture, on the myth of the individual who is the master of his own fate, truckles to no man or institution, and whose possibilities are as limitless as a Great Plains horizon. Now, however, employers, unions, governments regulate their lives. Mortgage obligations and even rising Social Security deductions hem them in. The open road, down which escape always seems possible, has become a featureless eight-lane interstate, with a Smokey Bear lurking at every cloverleaf. For those people, fantasies of the free life live on in country music, which shamelessly romanticizes the road, and its Truckey cowboys in the CB subculture, with its arcane patois, so useful in frustrating authority figures like the highway patrol.

The secret of Reynolds’ and Eastwood’s success is that they also have found ways to fulfill the often unexpressed longings of this group, to make that essentially 19th century figure, the resourceful Western loner, into a 20th century character. For what, after all, are Eastwood’s many cops but Westerners wearing suits instead of chaps, carrying an automatic instead of a six-gun? Clint’s first cop—Coogan in Coogan’s Bluff—is a Westerner, an Arizona deputy sheriff who goes to New York City to extradite a prisoner and is soon on a collision course with police-judicial bureaucracy. So is his cop in The Gauntlet, Phoenix lawman also on an extradition job. As for Reynolds, his Southern drawl is not all that different from a Western one; both are the accents of the Sunbelt frontier. He too is usually a loner, as isolated behind the steering wheel of truck or sports car as any cowboy astride his horse—and just as free to change course.

Despite differences in the images the actors project, there are strong off-screen similarities between the two men. The most important, perhaps, is a respectful attitude toward the audience they often share, and that in turn appears to spring from common factors in their personal and professional backgrounds.

When they talk about the people who go to their movies, the effect is almost choral. “There’s a tremendous audience out there of people who have been given up on,” says Reynolds. “They are truly middle-of-the-road people. They aren’t left or right. They’re just watching. They are the people who pray, who worship Elvis Presley. They happen to be people I grew up with, and I like them.” Says Eastwood: “I like to play the line and not wander too far to either side. If a guy has just come out of a bad day in the mines and wants to see a good shoot-’em-up, that’s great.”

Eastwood, like Reynolds, has an unpretentious sense of identification with these people. He was born 47 years ago in San Francisco and named after his father, who scratched hard for work in the Depression. The family lived in something like a dozen West Coast cities and towns. “When you’re a new kid in town, you always have to punch it out with the kids the first day or so,” he recalls calmly. “Kids always seem to pick on tall kids too, and I was six feet tall at the age of thirteen.” Making friends slowly, playing no team sports, living mostly inside himself, the character he would later play in movies was already taking shape.

In high school and after, Eastwood worked at a succession of hard-labor odd jobs. In the Army he managed to ease himself into a cushy spot as a swimming instructor at Fort Ord. Among those hanging out at the pool were several actors. Eastwood discovered, somewhat to his surprise, that they were regular guys. “I’d always thought actors were a little bit weird.”

That is when the acting bug began to nibble at him, and when he moved to Los Angeles to study business administration, a $75-a-week Universal contract looked good compared with the $110 a month the G.I. Bill paid him. Some of the bits he did in epics like Tarantula and Revenge of the Creature can still be caught on the Late Show. He worked his way up to $100 a week, then was fired. Kids his friend Reynolds: “They said Clint talked too slow, and his Adam’s apple protruded too far.” About this time he married a U.C., Berkeley, student named Maggie Johnson and after 24 years together they are still a happy couple. He continued working in syndicated action shows like Highway Patrol and dug swimming pools to help make ends meet.

It was not until 1958 that he landed the part that established him: Rowdy Yates, the mildly troublemaking second lead in TV’s long-running Rawhide. It was not until 1964, during a break between the sixth and seventh seasons of Rawhide, that Eastwood got a real shot at features. For $15,000 he made an Italian-German-Spanish co-production western that was eventually called A Fistful of Dollars. He took the role partly because he realized that the story was a knockoff of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, a film Eastwood greatly admired. In the original, it had been a Samurai warrior who mopped up the gangs terrorizing a small town; in Sergio Leone’s remake, it was a scraggly bearded, serape-draped and mysteriously silent gunman who did the job, and established Clint Eastwood as something more than a second lead. In fact he became a major international star, especially after two sequels cleaned up.

While all this was going on, Burt Reynolds, six years Eastwood’s junior, was growing up in similarly lower-middle-class circumstances but on the other side of the continent, in Riviera Beach, Fla. His father was the police chief, capable of physically knocking some sense into his “restless” son, even making the boy spend the night in his jail after a junior high school prank. Burt’s attention was concentrated on football and on the girls from the stately homes of nearby Palm Beach, some of whom made him, a part-Indian, working-class kid, call at the side door when he went to pick them up for a date. He was a run-right-at-’em halfback at Florida State, until he crashed into a truck, wrecked his knees and ended his playing days. Shaken, he quit college, bummed to New York City, brushed against show biz for the first time as a stuntman on TV shows. Acting, he observed, might not be a bad way for a natural-born show-off to make a living.

Thereafter the route was standard: summer stock, small parts in New York theater and television, the trek west in hopes of a shot at movies. He too got a Universal contract and a running part on Riverboat (“used to show up at the boat and toot the whistle”), then on Gunsmoke. After that came leads on short-run shows such as Hawk and Dan August.

He was not, in those days, the Burt Reynolds people now know and love. At Universal he brought his lunch in a bag because he was too shy to eat in the commissary. A Brando lookalike, he weighed about 20 lbs. more than he now does and had a rotten temper that led to a lot of punch-ups. One of the people most offended by his tendency to slug things out was the lady to whom he was briefly married, Laugh-In Comic Judy Carne. “God, you’re boring,” she said after one brawl.

She helped him discover that a clever fellow need not use his fists to make a point. At the same time he learned he need not always be used by TV. Instead, he could use the medium to reshape his image. Until the mid-’60s the fact that “he sees everything on a tilt,” as one friend puts it, was not, to say the least, general knowledge.

He came out of that closet one night, when he bounced onto Merv Griffin’s TV show to make “a terrific major announcement” about his Dan August series. “Oh, that’s great,” his host encouraged. “Yeah, I’ve just been canceled,” said Burt, chortling merrily and adding that he now had the distinction of having been canceled at one time or another by all three of the TV networks. “I thought—and it was very calculating—that I could get on television and say, ‘Hey, my last picture was a turkey,’ and people would find it funny.”

The ploy worked, and talk-show fans began perceiving Reynolds as “a man smarter than the roles he played.” Soon Johnny Carson started asking Reynolds to fill in as host of the Tonight Show. Even the infamous nude centerfold photo in Cosmo was intended as a put-on, a satirical thrust at the whole institution of centerfolds and a self-parody of his own growing macho image. That gambit may have worked a little too well. The magazine hit the stands just as Reynolds’ first really good picture, Deliverance, hit the screen, and some of his friends think the gatefold may have cost him an Academy Award nomination. Overall, however, his strategy worked. He has not had to play a heavy in years, and his success as a highly bankable “light” gives him more and more chances to call his own shots, even to direct himself, in Gator (1976) and the upcoming The End.

From here on out, our heroes’ road should be straight, trending gently upward as it passes through the lovely countryside of wealth, fame and success—right? Well, not exactly. Hollywood had trouble believing Eastwood’s pasta hits weren’t flukes. And when he started to get work back home, he was appalled, “not only at the way money was misused, but also the lack of control that an actor had over the character.”

His response to this situation was about what you would expect of a man whose screen character personifies rugged individualism in our time. He simply went out and formed his own company, which has taken over sole control of Eastwood’s work; he rents himself out to no man or studio. “My theory was that I could foul my career up just as well as somebody else, so why not try it?” The Malpaso Co. is named after a creek that runs through the Eastwood property on the Monterey peninsula. The outfit operates with a minuscule staff from a bungalow in Burbank known locally as the Taco Bell because of its resemblance to the fast-food joints. “If I’ve got a six-pack under my arm, a few pieces of paper and a couple of pencils, I’m in business,” says the frugal proprietor.

Eastwood likes to say that he “glorifies competence, ” but he also takes some chances. He got into his biggest trouble, ironically, with his biggest hit, 1971’s Dirty Harry. The plot concerned a supercompetent San Francisco cop trying to bring a sex criminal to justice. Harry turns roguish when he is thwarted at every turn by the niceties of civil liberties. Eastwood’s fans—people worried about crime in the streets and laws that seem to coddle criminals—enjoyed this particular variation on Eastwood’s basic antiauthoritarian figure. He himself knew that he was on dangerous ground politically, but went ahead. He liked the idea of playing a man who starts out job oriented and system supporting, then discovers the system cannot encompass anything as human as a man obsessed. What Eastwood was not prepared for was the critical storm that broke over him. The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael called it “fascist medievalism.” When Magnum Force was released, she complained about “carnage without emotion.” She was widely echoed. Eastwood’s image, at least among critics, was deeply, perhaps permanently tarnished. A self-described “political nothing,” a nosher of health foods, and a man who refuses to hunt because he cannot stand killing, suddenly stood accused of being a right-wing gun nut. The tag is still there despite Harry’s milder late outings, despite the comic overtones of his fine road picture, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, the conscious classicism of The Outlaw Josey Wales.

Eastwood’s response has been to evoke audience acceptance, to note his avoidance of “slow-motion violence, the ballet of death,” which, in his opinion, romanticizes killing. He thinks that if Cooper or Gable were making films today they would play harder, Eastwood-like variations on their basic characters. He is probably right. Years ago, D.H. Lawrence wrote that “the essential American soul is hard, stoic, isolate and a killer.” Lawrence was exaggerating, of course, but in his words can be found a kernel of truth about Eastwood’s screen character—and audience response to it.

Eastwood seems able to live with that uncomfortable piece of information. If his friends have any criticism of him, it is that he shows no interest in going beyond established limits of self and craft. “It surprises me that he is not more interested in a greater variety of roles,” says Dirty Harry Director Don Siegel. Adds Producer Carl Pingitore, once Eastwood’s editor: “He’s a lot better actor than most people in this town realize. He’s just barely scratched the surface.” Eastwood sort of agrees. “A lot of actors who play Henry V can’t play my character. They’d be ludicrous.” Which is, of course, precisely why he is not about to try Shakespeare. He hates the idea of looking ludicrous in any situation. When work is done, he quietly retreats to his home, his wife, his young “sawed-offs,” Kyle, 9, and Alison, 5.

They live on a cypress-strewn bluff above the Pacific near Carmel, far from the despised Hollywood social scene. Their new home is a redwood and fir concoction-spacious and earthy in tone. Clint fills his time with jogging, golf, tennis and his home gym. He likes to hang out at the Hog’s Breath, a restaurant he named and partly owns; at a friend’s restaurant near by, No-Name’s battered scrape occupies a place of honor. It is a quiet life for a man whom a knowledgeable friend calls “the wealthiest actor in the world.”

Eastwood’s only star-type indulgence is a Ferrari Boxer, which he allows no one else to drive. He does not take it when, as he typically does, he throws a print of his latest film into a car and drives around the country sneak-previewing it to see how his true audience—strictly nonstudio types—responds. Says he: “Making money isn’t as important as having fun at what you do. I have fun making movies.” And so much for other people’s artistic ambitions for him.

Burt Reynolds doesn’t feel that way. Burt Reynolds has an image problem too. But he intends to do something about it. If certain critics take Eastwood too seriously, they refuse to take Reynolds seriously enough. As he was once confined by tough-guy roles, he now feels he is the prisoner of his big-screen, good-ole-boy image and his small-screen, wise-guy image. If success for Eastwood has meant a chance to control life and limits, for Reynolds it has meant the opposite. It gives him the chance to take risks. Which means, at the moment, letting out the news that he is sweeter and more sensitive than he has ever let on. Why he is even into Transcendental Meditation, something that Eastwood, a casual friend of many years’ standing, introduced him to when Reynolds was at a low point, both physically and mentally, some time ago.

Says girlfriend Sally Field: “There are many things that Burt’s audiences don’t get to see—a shy, little-boy side that isn’t in the scripts.” That aspect of Burt began to appear to friends during his well-publicized liaison with Dinah Shore a few years back. He says now: “If I have any class at all, it’s due to Dinah.” He makes a gesture around his lavish Holmby Hills mansion. “If it hadn’t been for her, this place would probably have been decorated in redand black.” Dinah echoes Sally and a lot of Reynolds’ pals: “Burt is basically a home person who has had a macho image thrust on him, but he’s really very intuitive and sensitive.”

Unquestionably, Reynolds encourages this kind of sweet talk. It is not unlike the tactic he used on television to demonstrate his quickness and likability—a thought-out campaign. Says he: “My strategy is to become so bankable that they can’t ignore me.” He plans to alternate projects like The End, in which he plays a dying man trying, however comically, to come to terms with mortality, and guaranteed moneymakers like a new movie about stunt men, directed by Smokey ‘s Needham.

Unlike Eastwood, Reynolds yearns to break away from genre projects (White Lightning, Sam Whiskey, W. W. and the Dixie Dance Kings, to name a few), and he is now looking for ambitious ideas and first-rate scripts. He does not like seeing them end up in the hands of others. Two pictures that he “would have killed for,” Blume in Love and A Touch of Class, went to George Segal. Reynolds wants to use his box-office power to fight back. Says he: “I’m not sorry I’m bankable. It means I can get what I want. Now I can say, ‘I want Glenda Jackson as a co-star—let George Segal drive the f—car.’ But I’m getting very businesslike about it. I’m putting on my producer’s hat. I’ve got to get better scripts.”

Taking a longer view, Reynolds adds, “I’m trying very subtly and subliminally to ease myself away from Billy Clyde Puckett and toward Gary Grant. I may be the most unsophisticated Gary Grant in 20 years, but I’m going to get there.” Beyond that lies a still wilder dream. “I want to lead a quiet, pseudointellectual life and go out and direct a picture two times a year. You can only hold your stomach in for so many years.”

His price per picture for films in which he only acts has just doubled—to $2 million—but he is already rich from percentage deals on older films. The once famous womanizer has been settled down with Sally Field for over a year, and having finally braved the Bel-Air party circuit on Dinah’s arm, he now shuns it. The wall-to-wall mirror on his bedroom ceiling nowadays often reflects a man reading poetry (Eliot and Frost, among others) and sipping a Tab. He is also a serious, intelligent student of film—old, exotic and by competitors. He will still shower gifts on his friends—though he admits he does not know how to accept them, or compliments, in return. Of course, he will still fill an actress’s dressing room with flowers, or an actor’s with a favorite libation, on the first day of shooting, but the flash of his character is dimmed these days.

That does not mean he has gone soft. A friend calls him “the velvet hammer,” and Director Robert Aldrich says: “Behind that false humor arid false modesty is a bright man who’s paid his dues. People think he’s Charley Charm, but that’s only part of it. Burt is a strongwilled, self-centered businessman; he does what serves Burt, and he should.”

Once again the Eastwood and Reynolds stories begin to coincide. They handle the problem of being a star in different styles. But their public has perceived them to be, on-screen and off, what they really are—self-made men. Far more than the studio-controlled screen heroes whose tradition they have inherited, they are in control of their destinies. That can only reinforce the power of their screen images. As Eastwood says, “I’ve been lucky enough to shape my own career. With a lot of help, of course. I guess I’m pretty self-sufficient, and I think that’s appealing to the audience, because there are so many things to feel un-self-sufficient about in life.”

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