Burt Reynolds is the star you hate to love. Artistically, he is the male Raquel Welch. His only innovative breakthrough has been as Cosmo's first centerfold, stripped to his hairpiece. His lifestyle and costuming are studiously vulgar. When a visitor is startled to silence by the overpowering tastelessness of his Sunset Strip pad, Burt agrees cheerily, "It looks like a bullfighter threw up in here, doesn't it?"
That sense of self-parody makes the rest of Reynolds' macho malarky bearable, if not ingratiating. And he does have a certain redeeming social value. Stardom, for example, never interrupted his friendship with the old Southern buddies he keeps casting in his TV shows and pictures. He just staged a fund-raising benefit and personally kicked in $50,000 to alma mater Florida State U. (where he dropped out in his sophomore year). He has set up his parents in his lush 180-acre Florida ranch that once belonged to Al Capone. He is on best of terms with his ex-wife, Judy (Laugh-In) Carne. And finally, Burt is, in his fashion, affectingly loyal to his new old lady—19 years older—Dinah Shore.
Right now, at 38, Reynolds is just emerging as the sort of superstar that songbird-TV hostess Shore was back in the 1950s. By one poll, Burt already was the No. 4 rated male box-office name (behind Newman, Redford and McQueen) even before The Longest Yard, the exploitative prison football melodrama which is America's hottest draw this fall. And the Conference of Personal Managers, the Hollywood association which if nothing else knows how to count, just honored him as Entertainer of the Year at their annual banquet.
Dinah's current professional push is a new show which splashingly premieres in 38 cities this week with a guest list of heavies like Mary Tyler Moore, Ted Kennedy, Jack Benny, James Hoffa, Gloria Steinem—and Burt himself, who has made a reputation as the uninhibited virtuoso of the talk circuit. Unlike her previous half-hour show, which was abruptly dumped by NBC in July, this new series will run 90 minutes (or an hour of highlights in some cities) and will include variety as well as talk.
Burt and Dinah first met on that old NBC series 3½ years ago. "She had written me to be on her show," Reynolds recalls, "and after three or four months I finally did go on, saying terrible, unexpected things. I said, 'I want to talk to you about going to Palm Springs with me for the weekend.' It was hard for her to cope with me—she was making a stew at the time." Dinah remembers taping two hours to come out with 15 minutes which weren't "X-rated."
"I liked her immediately," says Burt. "I fell in like. She came to Chicago when I was doing The Tender Trap there. I told her that if she happened to be around that area, I would love to see her. She was on tour promoting her cookbook." Their liaison since is the one thing in Burt's life about which he is not facetious. "It's too precious a relationship," he explains. "It's easy for me to be flippant about my career but not about that. There are too many relationships that become public property because people don't take care of them. As for marriage, well, obviously, if we were going to be married we would be."
Hollywood hearsay has it that after two marriages (for 18 years to George Montgomery and a painful one-year quickie to a Palm Springs contractor in 1964), Dinah has ruled out a third, at least to such a young man. Reynolds has asked frequently, but, as Dinah confided to a friend, "I don't want to grow old in his arms."
"She really is the best female friend I have, and maybe the best friend," he says. It was Dinah who bailed him out during what he describes as the most terrible time of his life. When British actress Sarah Miles's manager mysteriously committed suicide (the coroner's verdict) after a beating while they were all on location together for The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing, Dinah was put publicly in the position of the woman scorned. She immediately flew to Reynolds, and after the picture was finished they shared a motor home together and then Wayne Newton's Las Vegas ranch. It was then that the outwardly insouciant Reynolds was hospitalized for internal bleeding and emotional exhaustion. (It was the second death in which the press involved Reynolds—the first was Inger Stevens, who took her own life in 1970.)
Even if the Reynolds-Shore relationship may have just possibly peaked, he has built a tennis court for her on his family spread in Florida and is in awe of her athletic prowess. She's the only woman with a golf tournament in her name and is a regular winner of Hollywood tennis championships despite her age. "I've always wanted a jock for a lover," he quips.
"If I hadn't been a jock, I would never have finished high school," Reynolds says of himself. "We didn't have dope then, but if we had, I would've been into it." His father was part Cherokee, and a hard-nosed Florida sheriff who refused to speak to him during his 14-odd muck-around years. "He would leave the room when I would come on TV," recalls Reynolds. "There's an old Southern expression, 'No man is a man until his father tells him he is.' He was the kind of man who filled a doorway. When I got the divorce, I called my mother and told her to tell my dad that he was right, that I was a quitter. That I had quit college, the TV shows Riverboat and Gunsmoke and now my marriage. He got on the line and told me to come home and he would tell me all the things he had quit."
This month Buddy (as he's called back home) returned to "Burt Reynolds Day" in Tallahassee, rode in a motorcade with his now reconciled 75-year-old dad to the Florida State football homecoming and a benefit. Dinah was not with him. "I knew," he said, "there would be a tremendous amount of meetings between the guys and I would worry about her."
Burt still maintains his gaudy house with the red-flocked walls on the Strip, and even a roommate, Hal Needham, who still plys the trade which got Reynolds into pictures—stuntman. His image aside and however his relationship with Dinah works out, Burt says, "I would like to adopt a kid, a minority kid who has a little age on him that nobody wants. It isn't an ego trip where he has to be Burt Reynolds Jr. The tragedy is that a board chairman or a lawyer can adopt eleven babies. But an actor with my image?"
As sex symbol, Reynolds says, "women will rush across the room at a cocktail party just to say they don't find me attractive." Burt sees himself improbably as the next Cary Grant. Maybe his bell has been rung in too many football games and stunt roles ("Everytime they needed someone to throw down the stairs or through a window they would call me"). But he insists: "What I can do that very few of my contemporaries can do is have fun with a character." That character right now is himself. Life is a talk show and no one is stealing it like Burt.