Burt Reynolds was the kind of celeb you wanted to know, by John McGauley

I have a Burt Reynolds story that you might appreciate.

Twenty years ago, I was checking into a very plush Phoenix golf resort. Very plush. I was there on business, not to play golf. It was taking kind of a long time at the front desk, there was something wrong with my reservation or some other problem.

There were three clerks at the front desk, and I was killing some time by schmoozing with them, probably trying to get a better room at the same price.

Out of the blue I asked them all a question:

“You get a lot of celebrities here, don’t you?”

They all said yes.

“Who’s the celebrity you like the best?”

In unison, without hesitation, the three women answered: “Burt Reynolds.”

“No kidding,” I said. “Why?”

“Because he treats us like people, he talks with us and he’s a really big tipper,” one of the clerks said. “Sometimes he leaves fifties.”

“Who do you hate,” I asked.

“Robin Leach,” came the answer.

You may not recall that name, but Robin Leach was kind of a celebrity at the time, host of the show “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.”

Coincidentally, both Burt Reynolds and Robin Leach died this year, Leach on Aug. 24, and Reynolds on Sept. 6. Leach was 76 and Reynolds 82. Leach is a footnote now, but everyone of a certain age knows Burt Reynolds. He was a superstar with more ups and downs than the big roller coaster at Six Flags.

The three clerks went on to say that many celebrities paid no attention to the resort’s staff, that they were non-persons, the “little people” who didn’t matter. Apparently, Burt Reynolds didn’t think so, and I have a hunch that he treated everybody the same, no matter what their stations in life, the lowly and the high and mighty. He just seemed to me like he really was that way. I never thought that his public persona was anything different than his real persona.

You get with most celebrities and famous people that they’re really different in life than they are in public; that they can be creeps when they don’t think anyone important is watching.

Reynolds, though, the clerks added, was very funny, too, making them all laugh.

I was a Burt Reynolds fan before those women told me that, and I was an even bigger fan of the man afterward. I was very sorry to hear that he’d died.

I wish Burt had been my friend, or I his. I wish I could have hung out with him, just doing simple things. I know he would have made me laugh, and feel comfortable. I’ll bet he had a lot of friends. Not sycophant friends, but real friends. His co-stars loved working with him, I’ve read, and Sally Field said he was the only man in her life who she truly loved. I can believe that.

His films made a ton of money, they were fun-filled, absurd, and what he did was play Burt Reynolds. Critics hated those movies, of course, and fans packed the theaters to see him. He was actually a very good actor, no one can watch the movie “Deliverance” and not realize that. He admitted that he should have accepted more serious roles, that he’d typecast himself with all those silly movies. He regretted a lot of things in his life, but he never appeared to make apologies, or whine or wear a hair shirt. His love life became its own publicity machine. He earned millions, and lost millions, maybe because he was a big tipper.

But here’s what I miss about Burt Reynolds: the time in which he was popular, a time when political correctness and the sustained din of indignation did not yet stain our culture, when people felt freer to say what was on their mind. You have to realize that he became popular during the waning days of the Vietnam War, and the country was worn out, it wanted to chill out, relax, have some real fun.

There could be no Burt Reynolds now, he would have offended all the professional class of whiners, complainers and self-proclaimed hall monitors who populate our culture now and hold sway over everybody. He just said in public and private what was on his mind, like we all used to do. Now we just have to say it in private, in whispers.

But there he is, with that engaging smile, his arm relaxed on the door to his Trans Am, winking at the audience in the film “Smokey and the Bandit.” He’s chewing gum, as he always did in his films. A guy raised in Michigan and Florida, a standout halfback at Florida State University, a man who loved women, a man who loved life, who loved people, who lived in a universe filled with funny lines, many of them off-color and off the cuff. He liked himself.

Jackie Gleason was cast as Sheriff Buford T. Justice in “Smokey,” and it’s a sublime thing to watch — two superstars who were naturals, and a reminder of what our culture used to be like before the Puritans took control again. It’s a mess of a film, but the viewer can’t help but think about how much fun it was to make it, and how much fun it was to watch.

Maybe there will be another Burt Reynolds someday, and a culture that accepts that type. Hopefully.

John McGauley writes from Keene. He can be reached at mcgauleyink@gmail.com

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