I was definitely not old enough to watch Smokey and the Bandit when, at 7 years old, it became my favorite movie. My step-father had pirated the Burt Reynolds flick from a rented VHS using a dual stack of VCRs he had just for that purpose. Neither he nor my mom seemed to care much about me popping the tape in every chance I got. They didn’t mind that I’d watch, rapt in the living room as Bandit attempted to bootleg a load of Coors from Texarkana to Atlanta in 28 hours. They didn’t mind that my ears were being filled with an hour and a half’s worth of swearing and sexual innuendo, or that my eyes were filled with reckless behavior. So, essentially, my life was perfect. Or so I thought.
My step-father had very much modeled himself after Reynolds; the man could have been his doppelganger. He was equally tan and hairy, rocked a Reynolds’ mustache and could mimic the star’s signature laugh. So, it could be that my parents saw my adoration of Burt Reynolds as a proxy for the adoration of my step-father. But they were wrong.
Sure, my stepfather could be charming and cool. But, he could also be angry and frightening and incredibly mean. I didn’t see my step-father in Reynolds, I saw Burt Reynolds as a better man than the one who was raising me. Burt Reynolds never thumped me in the chest for crying about math homework.
The fact is that I always wanted to be one of Snowman’s kids at the beginning of Smokey, climbing up on Burts’ back and calling him “Uncle Bandit” while he teased me in a good-natured way. But more than that, I wanted to the man himself when I grew up. I wanted to drive with imperturbable and reckless grace. I wanted to joke easily with girls and have friends as close and undying as Snowman.
By the time I’d nearly worn the ribbon of the Smokey and the Bandit VHS tape, my step-dad had duplicated Hooper, soon followed by Cannonball Run and Cannonball Run 2. And as the Burt Reynolds library grew, so too did my love for the actor. He always played the same smart-ass, wise-cracking, devil-may-care character, full of swagger and smiles. That’s who I wanted to be, too.
By the time I hit early adolescence, a copy of Best Little Whorehouse in Texas had arrived in our collection. My parents guarded this tape a bit more carefully, but my Reynolds’s fandom could not be curbed. It helped that I was a latch-key kid and had hours of unstructured time after school. So the movie became my guilty go-to, and it landed at a perfect time. I was a burgeoning choir geek and theater kid and there was Burt Reynolds, singing, in a musical. It didn’t hurt that I was also starting puberty and coming to an understanding of my sexuality. Not only were there scantily clad women, there was a shower scene with naked football players. It was all very confusing.
As I grew up Reynolds’ career faded, as did my cultural tastes. I started delving into the counterculture and my relationship with my step-father became increasingly strained. By the time I’d left home to live my own life, I’d forgotten I wanted to be like Burt Reynolds. I’d replaced that ideal of manhood with that of the Beat Generation and their self-serving, drunken, intellectual mumbo jumbo.
Then Reynolds crossed my path again in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights and my childhood came flooding back. But Reynolds wasn’t playing his same role. As the porn director, Jack, his character was much more aligned with the stepfather I remember. It was a bit of a let down actually. Not his acting. His acting was phenomenal. It was the character that troubled me. Suddenly, I wanted that old Reynolds back.
I’m older now, with a 7-year-old boy of my own. Of course, there’s no way I’m letting him watch Smokey and the Bandit or any other Reynolds classics until he’s much older. I’m not nuts. But, when he does, I hope he recognizes a bit of me in his legendary characters. I hope the up-for-anything Bandit with the twinkle in his eye and the easy laugh reminds my kid of his old man. Because that’s what I ultimately internalized from the best of Reynolds’ characters: take things as they come and take a chance.