(This story first appeared in Coach’s Corner on 2/15/2014.)
Burt Reynolds had just driven up to the Tampa Theater to 1,300 adoring fans in the Pontiac Trans Am he used in the film “Smokey and the Bandit,” his hilarious homage to 1970s Southern culture being shown that evening.
I had been instructed to go to the box-office to get a free pass for the event. When I got there, the crowd’s noise was so loud I couldn’t hear the guard directing me where to go. When he said, “Go around……..” I thought he meant the building, when he really meant “Go around the usher.”
I mistakenly went halfway around the theater, attempting to open every door I saw, all to no avail until the final door opened easily and I found myself inside the Green Room, a waiting area reserved for that evening’s VIPs.
The Green Room had posters of Burt and a table laden with Reese’s Pieces, Raisinets and Goobers, said boxes lettered with the names of Burt Reynolds and Ben Mankiewicz, the MC of Turner Classic Films, the evening’s host. (I pilfered a box of Goobers when no one was looking.)
Soon, who should walk in but Burt himself, looking very fit at seventy-five, and as charming and handsome as when he posed in the buff for Cosmopolitan.
The room was now filling up with people having their pictures taken with him. I saw a break in the action and approached him, telling him I had been offered a football scholarship to Florida State when he played there in the 1950s.
I suggested that given the spelling of our names (Reese/Reynolds) it was possible we might have even been roommates in the football dorm if players been grouped alphabetically. He smiled, somewhat nervously, it seemed to me.
We discussed his coach back then, Tom Nugent, whom he described as a “visionary.” Nugent had a play in which he sent a man-in-motion who did hand-springs across the field to distract the defense. Burt smiled and said he remembered that gridiron maneuver but fortunately had never been asked to play that role.
He described in detail putting Johnny Unitas out of action during a FSU-Louisville game on a hard tackle which kept Unitas on the bench for the last seven games of the season, denying the future Hall of Fame legend a spot in the NFL draft. He said he had met Unitas often over the years and got a big kick out of reminding him of that.
Overhearing Burt’s personal aide stating that he (Burt) had been drafted by the Baltimore Colts, I told Burt we also had that in common, furthering even more our might-have-been relationship.
I asked him if FSU requests his help in recruiting football players and he said, “Oh, God, if I ever did that, the Miami and Florida people would kill me.”
We chatted a bit more about football and then I stepped aside for others to chat with Burt.
I settled in for the Q & A session taking place on the stage between Ben and Burt.
A question from the balcony lit up the theater when a man shouted to Burt, who some years ago had adopted Tampa as his home town, “Are you my father?” After the snickering stopped, Burt responded, “How old are you?” The man said he was thirty-seven.
Burt paused pensively for a few moments, did some mathematical calculations while the waiting audience eagerly leaned forward, and affectionately answered, “Yes, son, I just might be.”
Laughter, like clapboards being ripped off the side of a house, roared through the restored 1926 rococo movie palace.
He said the finest actor he’d ever met was Spencer Tracy, who gave him very sound advice. “It’s okay if you’re an actor, kid, just don’t let them ever catch you acting.”
He said he was in “love” with co-star Sally Fields but she was only in “like” with him.
He was very pleased with the fact that “Smokey” grossed four-hundred-million 1977 dollars.
Burt walked the stage, acknowledging the applause, impulsively giving his cowboy hat to a very appreciative young boy in the front row, waved a final goodbye to his adopted town, saying, “I hope you all enjoy the movie, again!”