Following Burt Reynolds’ death in September, Mike Renaut looks at the best – and the worst – of the car-chase films the Hollywood star made. Words: Mike Renaut. Images: PA images & Kurt Jones.
The world’s favorite Burt Reynolds - Good Ole Boy
Some would say, himself included, that many of the car films Burt Reynolds made in the 1970s and 80s were a successful way of ruining his own career. They were fast, cheap and fun – but they also typecast him as a moonshining, fast-driving redneck and virtually ended any chances he had of a serious acting career thereafter. They also made a lot of money and made Burt a hero of the American south.
A year after Deliverance (1972) had finally made Burt the household name he deserved to be, he made White Lightning. Burt plays Bobby ‘Gator’ McKlusky, released early from an Arkansas prison to go undercover for the FBI and catch the crooked sheriff who murdered his younger brother. Gator infiltrates the local moonshiners at a stock car track, quickly resulting in several decent car chases with virtually every sedan from Ford’s 1971 full-size line-up. Watch for the stunt where Gator’s 429cu in Galaxie leaps on to a moving barge – it almost cost stuntman Hal Needham his life since the barge was moving away much faster than in rehearsals and the car barely landed safely. All the more remarkable since Needham says all the Fords were wrecks, having been previously worn out doing stunts on a Steve McQueen movie.
W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings (1975) saw Burt portraying W.W. Bright, a petrol station robber driving a customised gold and black 1955 Oldsmobile four-door sedan. W.W. falls in with country music band the Dixie Dancekings, helping them achieve fame while at the same time using them as cover against the lawman the petrol company has sent out after him. Being set in 1957 there are classic cars everywhere and this gently paced, quirky comedy includes several good car stunts and chases.
The film also features Jerry Reed, who became a good friend of Burt’s during filming.
Possibly Burt was also feeling making films celebrating the south went some way to making up to its inhabitants for their less than flattering portrayal in Deliverance. Jerry Reed and Burt teamed up again in 1976 for Gator, the sequel to White Lightning. Once again, Gator is fresh out of prison; this time he’s investigating Bama McCall (Reed), a local gangster operating prostitution and protection rackets. Jerry Reed does a superb job as the evil racketeer McCall and there’s a chase through the swamp in a rocket-powered speedboat.
The main cars in Gator are Bama’s bright red 1975 Lincoln Continental and a brown ’1975 Plymouth Fury, although Burt also briefly drives a 1971 Matador wagon and ’1966 Buick LeSabre. Burt also sports that now famous moustache which has been largely absent until now. The movie marked Reynolds’ directorial debut and, although darker and more violent than White Lightning, it’s an entertaining film with more of Hal Needham’s excellent stunt work. Why do we keep referencing Hal Needham? Well, he was a close friend of Burt’s, did many of his stunts and Needham scripted and directed the film Burt’s best loved for: Smokey and the Bandit (1977).
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While filming Gator in Georgia, Needham noticed that his Coors brought in from California kept getting stolen. It was impossible to buy the beer east of the Mississippi and he realised bootlegging Coors might be a good plot for a film. Convincing Burt to agree to star was the only way to get the movie made. Jerry Reed was cast as lead character Bo ‘Bandit’ Darville, but ended up as his truck-driving sidekick Snowman. Jackie Gleason played the pursuing Sheriff Justice and improvised many of his funniest lines and visual gags.
Starring alongside were four black 1977 Pontiac Trans Ams, so new they were virtually pre-production, and two ’1977 Pontiac Bonneville sheriff cars. All were wrecked by the stunts and each was returned to Pontiac and crushed. The film became great publicity for Pontiac and while the movie critics hated it, the public couldn’t get enough. Smokey and the Bandit grossed $126 million; the only film making more profit that year was Star Wars. Two forgettable Bandit sequels followed in 1980 and 1983.
Fresh off the success of that car chase comedy Hal Needham had an idea to make another of the same type, this time about stuntmen. He knew the stunt business and all the best people in it. Hooper (1978) put Burt behind the wheel of another new Trans Am, this time a red 1978 with rocket power. Burt is Sonny Hooper, an ageing stuntman outgunned by younger rival Ski, played by Jan-Michael Vincent. More than 60 stunt performers helped Needham put every stunt he could think of into the film, including a gag where Hooper’s 1977 GMC pick-up truck is chased by police while driven backwards among a pack of cars at high speed. That meant constructing a special stunt truck with rear wheel steering and locked front wheels. A small steering wheel was located in the pick-up bed where the real driver lay horizontally under the bed cover, looking through a screen in the tailgate.
Hooper’s finale has the city being destroyed by earthquake, with buildings exploding as the Trans Am drives through the middle. The film crew found a vast old college dorm in Alabama slated for demolition and paid the salvage rights of $10,000 per building to destroy it. This leads to the Trans Am leaping a canyon over a collapsed bridge – another construction due to be demolished following a traffic accident – which was done by a rocket-powered chassis under a fibreglass funny car body made to look (vaguely) like the Trans Am.
In 1980 Burt Reynolds declared he was never going to drive over 35mph in a movie again. He was getting typecast and wanted a change of genre. Then he made perhaps the worst film of his career, The Cannonball Run (1981).
Hal Needham had met journalist Brock Yates at Watkins Glen racetrack and Yates explained he ran the cross-country Cannonball races. Inspired by Erwin ‘Cannon Ball’ Baker’s 143 record-breaking drives, and particularly his 1933 New York City to Los Angeles 53.5 hour drive – a record that stood for 40 years – Yates organised five illegal, high-speed, coast-to-coast runs between 1971 and 1979 and had written a screenplay about the events which he intended to pitch to Steve McQueen. Needham thought it sounded fun and a great movie plot. The pair decided to compete in the 1979 Cannonball driving a fake 1978 Dodge ambulance with a Dick Landy-built race 440cu in V8 and extra fuel tanks. They also found a doctor and used Brock’s wife as a patient. Averaging 90mph and at times touching 140mph they almost won until the ambulance’s transmission exploded. But with Brock writing the script Needham had his movie. The ambulance Burt drives in the film is the actual van used in the real race and much of what’s in the film is based around actual events.
Burt only got involved because he’d made several serious films that weren’t well received by critics, plus Needham offered him a record $5 million fee for just 12 days’ work. Needham then phoned various celebrity friends. The film was shot in a month for $15 million. Although Cannonball Run, and its even poorer sequels, are loved by fans, that original witty script vanished as Burt encouraged more farce to be added. “Frantic rewriting of the script began to accommodate a mass of stars, large and small,” noted Yates later.
Many of the scenes were done in one take with no rehearsal. A stunt went badly wrong when an Aston Martin DB5 had a head-on crash with a van that paralysed stuntwoman passenger Heidi von Beltz; something Needham chose not to mention in his biography. Cannonball Run became the second largest grossing film of 1981, but I’d recommend the vastly superior Carquake! or The Gumball Rally if you want a decent Cannonball car-racing movie.
The fact that Hal Needham owned the Skoal-Bandit NASCAR race team persuaded him to direct Stroker Ace (1983) – a stock car racing film adapted from the 1974 novel Stand On It. Burt is Stroker Ace, a legendary NASCAR racer who signs himself into a terrible two-year contract to promote fried chicken, then has to find a way to get fired while still beating young rival racer Aubrey James.
Needham directed, and cleverly got 22 other NASCAR teams to provide a stock car, a driver, crew and transporter truck completely free by promising them – and their sponsors – as much screen time as he gave his own car. It’s a silly film, but entertaining as Burt pilots his 1983 Thunderbird stock car with he and the car dressed as plucked chickens. Watch and listen for the moonshiner’s flathead-powered ’1937 Ford pick-up in the opening scenes and those rapid gear changes. Burt escaped the car chase films after that, although 2001 saw him play a team owner in Driven, the story of a Champ Car racer once described by Jay Leno as the worst car film ever made... suggesting Jay hadn’t seen Cannonball Run II. Four years later Reynolds was portraying Boss Hogg in the otherwise pointless Dodge-Charger-destroying remake of The Dukes of Hazzard.
There’s no denying Burt Reynolds made some decent films: whether any of them are listed here is a matter of personal opinion, although the original Smokey and the Bandit has stood the test of time better than most. Alfred Hitchcock once said Smokey was his favourite film. These movies are nonetheless worth watching for a reminder of how films used to include real stunt work with no computer graphics. It’s surprising to see how often Burt is actually piloting a boat, or riding a bucking horse. It’s obvious in many scenes he is actually driving at high speed or being thrown through a window in a bar fight. These films made huge profits and turned Burt Reynolds into the biggest movie star in the world – and that’s how we’ll choose to remember him: driving a car sideways while drinking Coors and laughing.
Burt gives his Ford a beating in White Lightning.
Stroker Ace’s 1983 Thunderbird stock car.
The Cannonball Run ambulance used in the film and the actual event.
An ex-police Dodge gets wrecked in Hooper.
“ALFRED HITCHCOCK ONCE SAID SMOKEY WAS HIS FAVOURITE FILM...”