Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover: in 2015 my wife Anne and I undertook one of our most action-packed Wizard World Chicago experiences to date. It was the year we met more actors than any other, the year I attended more comics panels than any other, and a rare year in which the two of us had to split up a few times in order to see everything on our personal to-do lists. While I attended a Friday panel starring other, younger actors of relatively recent renown, Anne sped straight for a photo op with the legendary Burt Reynolds, that unparalleled star of the silver screen and beloved macho man of our childhoods.
We were shocked to hear this afternoon about his unexpected passing at age 82. As the photo proves, Anne had the chance to meet him, but I’m sorry I missed out. Even sorrier tonight.
As a kid who grew up on drive-in theaters, my earliest Reynolds memories are all about fast cars, baffled police, and Hollywood women, just a few of the qualities shared by Smokey and the Bandit and Cannonball Run. Manly men like Reynolds were an anomaly to boys like me who grew up in a family bereft of male guidance, but in some small way he gave me a glimpse into a slick, fantastical version of what I’d missed. I remain convinced those films planted the early seeds of traits I developed later in life: patience for road trips and impatience for low speed limits.
Cannonball Run may also have been the first film I ever saw featuring bonus material during the end credits, in the form of blooper reels. Years before Dick Clark and Ed McMahon capitalized on the repurposing of unusable filmed footage into watchable content, the Cannonball Run end credits taught me that sometimes world-famous actors screw up and need do-overs just like the rest of us. I will never forget one of my all-time favorite blown lines, when the late Dom DeLuise emerged near the end in his Captain USA costume, only to announce himself at the top of his lungs as “CAPTAIN AMERICA!” Reynolds’ straight-man reactions to this and so many other DeLuise moments were classic in themselves.
Reynolds would be a presence to varying degrees in my life over the next decade or so. I remember enduring Deliverance on late-night cable and putting it my list of films never to watch twice, despite the fiery performance of a young Reynolds exuding equal parts determination and desperation. I remember when I saw Return of the Jedi for my second time in 1983 at a three-screen theater in Jasper, IN, one of the other, less crowded screens featured Stroker Ace, which probably deserved a wider berth apart from it. I remember laughing at non-adventure comedy like Switching Channels (basically a wackier Broadcast News) and his apt starring role in the sitcom Evening Shade, snuggled up next to the other CBS shows my family had already been watching like Murphy Brown and Designing Women. And I remember the time he fit right in to an episode of King of the Hill as a guy Hank Hill really wanted to impress, which probably wasn’t much of a stretch from what was going on in the recording session.
He was the man’s man, that debonair man about town, but he had an enormous sense of humor and didn’t seem afraid to laugh at himself. In my childhood that was a rare trait in his kind of actor.
Anne will always confirm her favorite Burt Reynolds work was a memorable role on The Twilight Zone — “The Bard”, one of the season-4 hour-long episodes from 1963, in which he parodied Marlon Brando as a Method actor so cocksure that he argued character motivation with the ghost of William Shakespeare himself. Her Twilight Zone fandom is life-long, exactingly detailed, and deeply cataloged to the extent that she knows virtually every actor who’s ever had a major role on it and who’s still alive. That increasingly shrinking roster is probably half of her convention dream-guest wish list.
Prevailing wisdom among convention-going fans is that none of our actors will be around forever, and that if you mean to meet as many of your idols as possible, it’s best to jump at the chance whenever a great one comes along. Too many actors had passed away long before cons became our thing, and many more actors will never do a single appearance within 500 miles of us, neither in their lifetime nor in ours. We keep an eye out for those opportunities where we can — a moment to say hi, to shake their hand or at least fist-bump, and to share with them in as few embarrassing words as possible our appreciation for their performances and the difference they made in our personal pop culture landscape.
I’m sorry I missed out and won’t be getting a second chance with Burt Reynolds, but now I’m gladder than ever that Anne leaped at the chance to meet him when she did. By her account he was gracious to every attendee, shook or kissed any proffered hand, cheerfully paused for any words of kindness, and wasn’t interested in rushing everyone through the experience as the average actor is ordered to at these affairs. Because even in his later years, no one told Burt Reynolds what speed to go except Burt Reynolds.