How Do the Friars Roast Burt Reynolds? Blue on the Inside, but Tender Is the Bite

updated 06/01/1981 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/01/1981 AT 01:00 AM EDT

When he stepped into the rococo Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, Burt Reynolds, 45, knew his showbiz peers had come to braise as much as praise him. Selected Entertainer of the Year by New York's Friars Club (a raucously secular 76-year-old theatrical group), Burt was to be seared in the big-fish fry of all "roasts," an annual charity testimonial that last spring honored Henry Kissinger. "We are gathered here tonight for one purpose," solemnly intoned roastmaster Johnny Carson (a former recipient himself), "to watch Burt Reynolds give the finest acting performance of his career—being humble. Generous. Warm. Loving. Charitable...And to become the world's No. 1 box office star without possessing any of those qualities is quite an achievement."

As the tuxedoed and bejeweled crowd of 1,100 munched baby lamb chops and pasta primavera (at up to $750 per plate), Burt bantered with pals among his 37 dais-mates like Barbara Walters, Smokey director Hal Needham, Norman (Three's Company) Fell, David Steinberg, Robert (Vega$) Urich and Jerry Reed. A former star named Ronald Reagan wired his well-wishes, as did absentee fans Bette Davis, Cary Grant and Carol Burnett, who also sent a heart-shaped shield of roses. Then Carson made sure that things got thornier.

"Some critics put down Burt, saying he lacks range and depth," Johnny poked indignantly, "but I ask you this: Could Lord Olivier jump a ravine in a Chevy pickup? I'm talkin' art," he added. "So, Burt, this is your night. Unfortunately, it's Robert Redford's year, and you have many years to look forward to not winning an Oscar."

Then the dais got in its whacks. Swathed in fuchsia, Elizabeth Ashley, Burt's co-star in his forthcoming Paternity, swaggered to the podium to note, "I may be the only woman on the dais who has not known Burt in the biblical sense." With that, Marlo Thomas bounced up from her chair in mock protest, and Madeline Kahn waved her hand. (Later, Ashley purred, "But we all lie, don't we?")

Charles Nelson Reilly("the only man who could make a Valium nervous," said Johnny), who is directing Julie Harris in Death of a Salesman at Burt's Florida dinner theater, presented Reynolds with a program autographed by the cleaning ladies and bartenders at the establishment. Carefully underdressed latecomer Willie Nelson arrived to sing Mona Lisa and Georgia on My Mind for the boy from Waycross. Madeline Kahn warbled a different tune ("It's surely not his brain that twirls my skirt/I love him 'cause he's just Burt"), inspiring Carson to comment, "I think she has splinters in the windmills of her mind."

After Paul Williams, Robby Benson and Barbara Walters waxed respectively crude, gooey and earnest, Burt's buddy Dinah Shore glided to center stage. "When the history of this particular age is recorded," Dinah averred, "it will be in the books that Burt Reynolds has done more for little old ladies in tennis shoes than anyone." She then delightedly hiked her hem to show off sneaker-clad feet, which brought down the house—and a melting reply from an obviously moved Burt: "I don't know about little old ladies, but you knock my socks off."

Howard Cosell (according to Carson "the Alexander Haig of sportscasters") rounded off the rodomontade with a scorekeeping commentary, concluding, "Dinah, you showed the world how to take a one-liner and steal the show." Before Burt was presented with the traditional Friars statuette and a $6,000 gold Corum watch, Cosell added, "He deserves every homage being paid to him."

Finally it was Burt's turn to blast back. "I'll probably never win an Oscar, so I'll do my speech now," he cracked. "I may not be Brando or Pacino, but, dammit, I show up. I'd like to thank all the little people—but I don't associate with them anymore." When the laughter subsided he added, "I invited everyone here tonight that I love and I sat listening, and I kept thinking, 'What a great guy!' " Continued Burt, "My days as a leading man are numbered, so I started a breeding program and out of that came Robert Urich, who is part me and part Shetland pony. I was especially touched by Robby Benson being here, because he just passed through puberty a minute ago. And Johnny Carson. Everybody says Johnny is a hard guy to get to know—so I stopped trying." Just before midnight, Burt closed on a sentimental note, pledging, "I'll make you proud of me. I've got something real good in me and it's going to pop out one day and all those people out there will be surprised, except you here tonight." Then, as the guests pocketed their free Faberge dinner favors (perfume and cologne) and edged toward the exits, Burt's father, who had flown up from Florida for the occasion, had perhaps the most sincere remark of the evening: "I'm as proud as any parent could be of his son."

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