Car by Carl Steuer of Blackhorse Motors, Los Angeles
This past December, during a fancy all-duded-up Governors Awards ceremony at the Ray Dolby Ballroom in Los Angeles, Hal Needham, the legendary stuntman and director of Smokey and the Bandit and The Cannonball Run, stepped up to the podium to claim his honorary Oscar. The daredevil, square-jawed veteran of hair-raising stunts in more than 300 feature films—in which he broke 56 bones, twice broke his back, fractured a collarbone, punctured a lung and lost several teeth—Needham, 81, has earned the slight hitch in his giddyup that now dents his famed swagger. Besides, he probably never expected the film industry to salute him for his life’s work—particularly if he flashed back to May 19, 1977, the Thursday night his debut movie turned America’s grandest, most popular movie showplace, New York City’s 6,000-seat Radio City Music Hall, into an outsize art deco ghost town.
On that white-knuckle night, not even the allure of 100 leggy Rockettes high-kicking in slinky military precision managed to draw flies to the world premiere of Needham’s directing debut, Smokey and the Bandit. For the uninitiated or those who may need a reminder, the twangy barnstormer is 96 minutes of pedal-to-the-metal, Southern-fried, grinning-ear-to-ear car chases and badassery featuring a runaway bride, a scene-stealing hound and the even bigger scene-stealing Jackie Gleason as a short-fused, potty-mouthed sheriff—not to mention the plot: To win an $80,000 bet, ultracool outlaw Burt Reynolds, driving a black Pontiac Firebird Trans Am, and ace trucker Jerry Reed, behind the wheel of a souped-up semi, have to haul 400 cases of contraband Coors 1,800 miles in under 28 hours.
But back in 1977, Manhattan wasn’t cottoning to Needham’s raucous, randy good-old-boy salute to hot cars, 18-wheelers, open throttles and two-lane blacktops. The release of Smokey and the Bandit wasn’t trumpeted in high-profile Burt Reynolds interviews, there was no red-carpet opening, and Needham hadn’t been flown out to publicize the flick. Not surprisingly, the New York film critics were short on Northern hospitality. The New York Times deemed the movie fit only for “audiences capable of slavering all over a Pontiac Trans Am, 18-wheel tractor-trailer rigs and dismembered police cruisers and motorcycles.” Other reviewers found it “thoroughly unimaginative” and an “unfortunate waste of talent.” Nobody involved in the making of Smokey was naive enough to think they had created another Lawrence of Arabia, but what really got the suits sweating at Universal Pictures, the studio newly cash-rich from nervy, small-risk movies like American Graffiti and Jaws, was the opening-night view from the rear of the theater: aisles of posh velvet seats, mostly empty.
At Radio City Music Hall, where hit movies might be held over for months, Smokey and the Bandit got the boot after one short week.
From the vantage point of more than 30 years, Needham—who had been Hollywood’s highest-paid stuntman, working in signature films directed by Roman Polanski (Chinatown) and Mel Brooks (Blazing Saddles) and as an action double for John Wayne, James Stewart, Kirk Douglas, Steve McQueen and Burt Reynolds—says, “I’d warned Universal about opening the movie at the Music Hall: ‘We won’t make enough money to pay the damn Rockettes.’” The studio should have listened. Needham not only knew his audience, he also never forgot where he came from. The charismatic Memphis-born sharecropper’s son, ex-logger, Korean War paratrooper, billboard cigarette model and sometime actor had cemented his hairy-chested gonzo rep by leaping off a runaway stagecoach and jumping from horse to horse for Little Big Man, driving a car off a dock and landing on a moving ferry 80 feet away for White Lightning and scoring a world record by jumping a boat 138 feet over a swamp for Gator.
Famed also for his four-letter vocabulary and for having lived with his buddy Burt Reynolds for well over a decade, Needham was summoned by the Universal brass to a post–Music Hall postmortem. Recalls Needham, “They started saying stuff like ‘Should we cut the movie? Is it too this, too that?’ It got drastic. It got heated. I said, ‘Wait a minute, folks. I didn’t make Smokey for big-city audiences. I made it for the South, the Midwest and Northwest. Those are my people.’”
As a sop to Needham’s people, the same people who composed Reynolds’s fan base, Universal booked the flick in a handful of Southern theaters and drive-ins. Needham, Reynolds, country music favorite Reed, Reynolds’s friend and protégé Alfie Wise and other celebrities rode tractor-trailers through downtown Atlanta for a down-home-style second “premiere.” Says Reynolds, “If you want to know if something���s going to be a hit, ask a kid. There were lines of kids around the block. It looked like a riot was going on.” Universal played up the movie’s huge success in Southern states and reopened it in New York, the rest of the East and the Midwest. Says Needham, “Everywhere it played, it went bananas. All the bad reviews I got, the ones saying Burt walked through the movie and Jackie Gleason was a buffoon? Didn’t matter. People told each other how funny the movie was, and word of mouth spread. I finally had to think, Maybe it is a movie for everybody.”
By late June the flick had hauled in an impressive $12 million. By year’s end, only Star Wars topped it as 1977’s biggest moneymaker. Today, Smokey and the Bandit is estimated to have grossed in the neighborhood of $365 million worldwide.
In hindsight, the signposts for the movie’s big breakthrough look as big and broad as a barn door. Four months before the film stormed theaters, newly sworn-in president Jimmy Carter and first lady Rosalynn had begun to bring a touch of the New South to the Beltway. The CB-radio craze had millions zooming the highways, swapping tips on ways to outfox cops enforcing the 55-mile-per-hour speed limit imposed in 1974. C.W. McCall’s 1975 ditty “Convoy”—about a cross-country trucker rebellion—held the number one position on the country charts for six weeks. Truckers were celebrated as modern-day cowboys. Country artists had plucked and twanged their way into the mainstream thanks to million-selling hits from Waylon Jennings, Dolly Parton, George Jones and Willie Nelson, among others. Movies came down with a case of country fever too, with such low-budget, high-octane material as Macon County Line, The Great Texas Dynamite Chase and Eat My Dust flexing blue-collar muscle at the box office. But Smokey and the Bandit put an openhearted, irreverent, multiracial face on the emerging South. As actor-director Billy Bob Thornton put it, “To the rest of the country, Smokey and the Bandit was just a movie. Here in Arkansas, it was a documentary.”
Fittingly, the movie’s origins were of the “just plain folks” variety. Needham, at the age of 45 in 1976, was becoming tired after two decades of stunting. On location he was fascinated that a maid kept raiding his hotel minibar for bottles of Coors. “It shocked me that it was illegal at the time to sell Coors east of the Mississippi River,” he remembers. “When I heard that, my mind went crazy. Everything in Smokey came from the simple idea of cases of Coors everyone east of the Mississippi wanted to get their hands on. I liked that it wasn’t about killing or hurting people, but it was action and about doing something illegal. I thought, What if someone were driving a truck full of beer and there were lots of fast cars and a lot of cops chasing him? My idea was to make it funny for anybody who has ever driven fast, gotten a ticket and driven away saying, ‘Goddamn cops.’”
Needham figured his best shot at getting to direct the movie himself was to pitch it as a quick and dirty Roger Corman–style project costing $1 million or less. He tapped his wild-man friend Jerry Reed to star as an ace driver and ladies’ man nicknamed the Bandit. Reed, then 39, a ferocious guitar player, session musician and songwriter for Elvis Presley and Dean Martin, was also known for warbling toe-tapping hits such as “When You’re Hot, You’re Hot.” Invited to appear in movies in 1975 by his friend Burt Reynolds, Reed expanded his audience via Reynolds vehicles, playing a musician in 1975’s W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings and a vicious crime boss in 1976’s Gator.
Needham scrawled the entire Smokey script in longhand and slipped it to Reynolds, the former college halfback and smoldering Brando look-alike who, starting in the late 1950s, spent more than a decade doing stunt work and acting on TV Westerns and detective series before taking his friend Clint Eastwood’s advice to head to Italy, where Reynolds was cast in the 1966 spaghetti Western Navajo Joe. Reynolds and Needham had become friends in 1959 when Needham stunted for the actor on the period adventure TV series Riverboat. Recalls Reynolds, “I told Hal I’d do his movie, but I also said, ‘This is the worst script I’ve ever read in my fucking life’—and he was so cheap that he still only had it in his own handwriting on a legal pad. I told him to hire a typist and some writers to make it better. Hal couldn’t have gotten his movie made without me, unless he did it on a $50 budget.”
Needham moved Reed to the sidekick role and got screenwriter pal James Lee Barrett (Shenandoah) to tinker with the script. Needham says, “I had a pretty good reputation for doing action and second-unit direction. The script had comedy and action, and having Burt Reynolds in my ass pocket, I thought, This is going to be a slam dunk.” Despite having an increasingly bankable movie star onboard, Needham was thrown out of some of the best studio offices in town. But if Hollywood executives balked at Needham directing the movie, Reynolds says, “You only had to be around Hal to get it. He was ready, a guy who came up fast in TV and stunts and, more than that, a guy who could be in charge. He was like the first Marlboro Man, and he had the balls of fucking King Kong.”
With his options dwindling, Needham grabbed the attention of producer Mort Engelberg, who had easy access to hit-making movie executive Ray Stark (The Way We Were, The Sunshine Boys). Engelberg helped set up the show at Universal with a lowball budget of $5.3 million, $1 million of which went to Reynolds. Universal president Ned Tanen was, according to Engelberg, the only Hollywood honcho willing to roll the dice, as he had done earlier with the offbeat low-budget, high-profit movies American Graffiti and Car Wash. Says Needham, “They didn’t have to tell me that they were making the movie because of Burt. They figured if it was going to go in the toilet, with Burt as the star at least they had a pretty good chance of getting their money back.”
According to Sean Daniel, then a rising young film executive who later became Universal’s president of production, a few studio bosses might have sensed the zeitgeist and seen Smokey and the Bandit as a lighter country cousin of angry, antiestablishment, era-defining material such as Dog Day Afternoon and Five Easy Pieces. “There was this great wave of antiauthoritarian movies in the 1970s, movies that mostly came out of New York and Los Angeles and were part of the new direction in American cinema,” Daniel says. “Smokey and the Bandit had its own version of rebellious, antiauthoritarian characters. It came from a different place, but it tapped into a similar American mind-set and spoke most directly to an audience waiting for movies made for them.”
To punch up the screenplay, Universal hired writers including Robert L. Levy (who later produced Wedding Crashers), Charles Shyer (who later wrote and produced Private Benjamin) and Alan Mandel (who later wrote for Who’s the Boss?). Needham recalls, “I told them, ‘Don’t change the title, the names of the characters or the action. Just jazz up the jokes.’ They came back to my office about a week later, and I was so angry when I saw that the title was changed and Burt’s character had a new name that I yanked a toothpick out of my mouth, threw the script in the wastebasket, picked up the tooth cap that I’d pulled out along with the toothpick and told them, ‘You’re fired.’”
With the script in limbo, Reynolds took the lead in pursuing Sally Field to co-star as a bride who flees her wedding to the handsome but doltish son of a small-town sheriff. Field had been struggling to shuck her perky, sexless image as star of TV sitcoms Gidget and The Flying Nun, finally startling audiences with an Emmy-winning performance as a woman combating multiple personality disorder in Sybil. Says Reynolds, “Universal asked, ‘Why do you want the goddamn Flying Nun or Sybil?’ They wanted someone who would have been all wrong for the picture. I told the studio, ‘You guys don’t get what sexy is. Sexy is talent. Sally is sexy.’ Anytime I had any problems with the studio assholes, I’d go to [MCA/Universal chairman] Lew Wasserman, the smartest, most brilliant man, so I never had to bother with those numb-nuts. For Sally, I went to Lew, and he just fixed it.”
Reynolds had reason to second-guess the project himself. “All, and I mean all, my advisors and friends went down on their knees, begging me in tears not to make Smokey,” he recalls. “Later, those same people said things like ‘Boy, I’m glad I kept after you to do that picture.’” Whether or not those same advisors and friends also convinced him to turn down MAS*H, Star Wars and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, among other films, Reynolds remained loyal to Needham. He also continued to exercise his smarts and star muscle when it came to casting the role of Sheriff Buford T. Justice, the racist, explosive, good-old-boy cop who chases the Bandit. “I told Hal that the character should be dangerous, totally unpredictable, insane and, most of all, funny,” says Reynolds. “I basically told them that if the great Jackie Gleason didn’t play Buford, I wasn’t doing the movie. My father was chief of police in Jupiter, Florida; he knew a cop named Buford T. Justice and also said sumbitch all the time. The studio assholes wanted Richard Boone, an actor I loved but not for this role. Of course, Lew Wasserman loved the idea of Jackie Gleason, and his marketing brain kicked into gear immediately, saying, ‘I see 8 million Jackie Gleason sheriff dolls.’”
Gleason, the burly, acid-tongued comedian-musician dubbed the Great One by Orson Welles, had been hugely popular on TV in the 1950s with The Jackie Gleason Show and The Honeymooners, followed by less successful 1960s movie roles. Happily, Gleason’s Oscar-nominated turn in The Hustler helped the public forget his critical and box-office duds Gigot and Papa’s Delicate Condition. By the mid-1970s, Gleason had lived large, gambled, womanized and boozed; his health and fortunes needed a boost. Needham went into courtship mode. Says Needham, “I called Gleason and he asked, ‘What makes you think I would do this?’ I said, ‘Well, Mr. Gleason, I am a big fan, and I’ve seen every Honeymooners and many other shows and movies you made. I wrote this script and I’m going to direct it, so nothing’s etched in stone. If you play this character, I can see that you would be very, very funny.’ The shorthand version of it is that he said, ‘I’ll do the movie.’”
To find someone to play Big Enos Burdette, the puffed-up millionaire who wagers $80,000 that the Bandit can’t run the bootleg beer across state lines in 28 hours, Reynolds helped Needham by pursuing mountain-size Pat McCormick. A top comedy writer for Don Rickles, Red Skelton and Phyllis Diller, McCormick spent 12 years crafting some of Johnny Carson’s best Tonight Show monologues. His rep as a gonzo wit was matched by his renown as a carousing eccentric. Songwriter, composer, actor and frequent Tonight Show guest Paul Williams (McCormick’s junior by only 13 years but cast as his frustrated, vertically challenged offspring, Little Enos) recalls, “My first conscious memory of this strange, funny man is the two of us coming into the blinding light out of a bar across from NBC in Burbank after we’d been there all night drinking. I’m five-foot-two and he’s six-foot-seven. He looked down at me and said, ‘Jesus, you look like an aerial photograph of a human being.’ Burt thought we’d be funny together, so we did Smokey and the Bandit, Smokey and the Bandit II and even worse.”
Needham himself made one of the single shrewdest casting decisions of the entire movie when he chose as the Bandit’s car a 1977 black Pontiac Firebird Trans Am Special Edition sporting the “screaming chicken” eagle decal. “When I saw a picture of it in a magazine, I said, ‘That’s the car I want to put the Bandit in,’” Needham says. “I called Pontiac, where nobody had heard of me, of course, and said, ‘I’d like some Trans Ams for Burt and three LeManses for the sheriff’s car.’ There was some back-and-forth, and they gave me four Trans Ams and two LeManses. After the movie came out, though, you had to be on a waiting list for six months to even get a Trans Am.” Devised as Pontiac’s answer to Ford’s 1964 breakaway hit Mustang, the Trans Am saw sales jump by 20,000 units after the movie made the pony car a regular guy’s equivalent to 007’s Aston Martin.
Cast and crew corralled, the movie kicked off filming during the summer of 1976 in West Palm Beach, Florida; Ojai, California; and Georgia locations including Jonesboro, Cumming, McDonough, Redan and Atlanta. Two days before production began, a Universal hatchet man descended on Atlanta to shave Needham’s budget by $1 million, reducing it to $3.3 million after Reynolds’s salary. Reynolds, the movie’s million-dollar man, proved he was all too human. Says Alfie Wise, memorably cast in the movie as a state trooper, “Burt would be riding high and then have deep fatigue. A medical checkup found that his blood sugar was too low; he had hypoglycemia.” Explains Needham, “It meant he might be able to work three, four hours at most. Well, so much for Burt covering my ass and protecting me from Universal. I had to rearrange the entire shooting schedule and on a reduced budget, but it showed them that I could handle things.”
Collaborators on Smokey and the Bandit and subsequent Needham-Reynolds movies describe the on-set vibe as “fun and games,” “summer camp” and “testosterone city.” Reynolds credits Needham with setting the tone: “Hal would break every day at five o’clock. The guys would be in the bars drinking by 5:20. Everybody would be shit-faced by 11 p.m. There was this local bar where Gleason would perform and Jerry Reed would sing about 500 country songs. We had so much fun every single night. By five a.m. the next day, everybody would be ready to go again, in good shape.”
Well, more or less. Recalls Reynolds, “Gleason had this assistant named Mal who had been working for him for decades. Gleason would yell, ‘Mal? Hamburger!’ and Mal would rush over with a glass of vodka and a sandwich. Gleason would start eating ‘hamburgers’ around nine a.m.” Production manager Peter Burrell, who would go on to work on Smokey and the Bandit II, says, “Any scene requiring Jackie to stand upright we usually found was better to shoot in the morning.” Paul Williams, who gained his sobriety in 1991, says, “Every day Gleason would have this predictable arc where he’d go from being a little quiet around 10 a.m. to a little funnier, then to even funnier, to being in a great mood, and then you’d have the beginnings of his going to a dark place.” Adds Burrell, “He was a brilliant comedian, and when you had him from ‘even funnier’ to ‘in a great mood,’ he had so many ad-libs, we had to bite our lips to keep from ruining takes.”
Early on, Gleason had made it clear to newbie director Needham what he was in for. “The Sunday night before we were to begin our first day of shooting, Jackie called and asked if I’d go over to his hotel to talk about the script,” Needham says. “At this point, we hadn’t actually met in person, and I thought, Uh-oh, but I went over and he invited me in wearing exactly what you’d expect he would—slacks and a sports jacket with a red carnation in the lapel. He fixed drinks; we toasted to a good shoot, got completely plowed and never once talked about the damned script. The next day I found him on the set sitting in his chair wearing his clothes from the night before, except that his shoes were on the wrong feet. He raised his cup in salute, leaned back in his tall chair, lost his balance and rolled all the way down a 12-foot incline.” Says Reynolds, “We all ran toward him and I said, ‘Jackie, are you all right?’ He got right back up and said, ‘Never spilled a drop.’”
Although Gleason’s comic gifts had his co-workers in hysterics, his work methods challenged the film editors. Says Reynolds, “He was so wonderfully inventive, he never did the same thing twice when the camera was on him.”
Recalls Needham, “Seventy-five percent of Jackie Gleason’s dialogue Gleason wrote himself, like calling Mike Henry [the former Tarzan actor who plays his doofus son] ‘tick turd’ and telling him, ‘There’s no way, no way, that you came from my loins. Soon as I get home, first thing I’m gonna do is punch your mama in the mouth.’ I mean, who could improve on that?”
According to Needham and fellow crew members, the high-spirited Jerry Reed was a blast of white lightning. During the first week’s shooting, Reed asked Needham to have a listen as he tore into a snappy new tune he’d written called “East Bound and Down.” Says the director, “It was getting-down-the-road-truckin’ music and told the story just right. After he finished, I was quiet because I was blown away. Jerry blurted out, ‘Okay, you don’t like it. Let me come up with another song.’ I said, ‘Jerry, change one thing about that song and I’ll fuckin’ kill you.’” After the movie came out, the song became a number one hit and Reed’s most requested song in concert.
Although his five-year reign as the country’s number one box-office attraction began a year after the filming of Smokey, Reynolds’s good looks and laid-back charm—not to mention his 1972 nude centerfold in Cosmopolitan—had already made him a much-written-about sex god reputed to have enjoyed the charms of actresses Mamie Van Doren, Inger Stevens and Catherine Deneuve, among others. Wise, who frequently worked and traveled with Reynolds, recalls routinely scouring the star’s hotel suites in advance of his arrival, sometimes finding amorous female fans hidden in closets and under beds. Says Paul Williams, “Why do you think we all hung so close around Burt? You could get raped just by standing close to him. If your clothing was just a little bit loose, you could experience an accidental fondling. Burt has always attracted a rather extensive crowd of attractive, free-spirited ladies.” But few failed to notice the attraction between Reynolds and his appealing co-star Field. “The audience actually saw Burt and Sally falling in love on screen,” Needham says. “That added so much to the fun of the movie and spoke volumes for their characters’ relationship in the movie too. They were complete professionals about it.”
Smokey collaborators say the bond between Reynolds and Needham, also a magnet for women, was tight. Says Wise, “In a closed town like Hollywood, Burt opened a lot of doors for Hal. They’re like brothers.” The relationship caused much chatter and head-scratching around gossipy Hollywood. Reynolds explains, “Hal knew everything about cowboying, horses and action, and I was a Broadway actor who had been at the Actors Studio and gone through all kinds of bullshit for looking too much like Marlon Brando when I was trying so hard not to. I knew that I could do comedy, and that’s why I did so much comedy guesting on The Tonight Show. By the time of Smokey, I was ready. Hal encouraged that.” Longtime friend Marilu Henner, Reynolds’s co-star in 1983’s The Man Who Loved Women and 1984’s Cannonball Run II, says that Reynolds and Needham “spoke the same language and had that hard-drinkin’, hard-lovin’, real-guy mentality.” Jamie Farr, who co-starred in Needham and Reynolds’s two Cannonball Run movies, remembers, “Hal looked out for Burt. They worked in tandem. Burt would make suggestions, and Hal always listened.”
But the director needed no advice when it came to staging blowout chases, fender benders and vehicle crushers. Working with a trusted crew on a tight budget, Smokey alumni recall one of Needham’s big stunts nearly spinning out of control during a scene in which Field’s character hurtles the Trans Am over a fence and crashes onto an athletic field, sending child and adult extras scrambling every which way. “Just talking about this out loud scares the shit out of me,” says Reynolds. “Everybody was convinced that the stunt double for Sally had done major stunts before because she was living with well-known stuntman Bobby Bass. She hadn’t. The car jumped the fence fine, but she jammed her foot on the accelerator. Bobby Bass was in the car with her and only had to deck her with one punch, but he couldn’t pry her fingers off the wheel or pry her foot off the accelerator. In the movie, you see children looking terrified in front of the car coming right toward them. Some of the women in the stands fainted, and Sally, Hal and I went over to them to make sure everybody was all right. The kids, of course, were laughing, saying that they wanted to do it again. But it was insane to do that.”
Needham says, “It wasn’t that the scene was ill planned or anything, but we didn’t take into consideration that the field would be so slick. I had a camera in the car, and I thought we had killed a kid for sure. My heart was pumping so hard. It was so dangerous, but it looked so good I said, ‘Shit, I’ve got to have the extra shot.’ We built the back of a dugout out of boards and things and had the car just come crashing right through it. That scene killed that particular Trans Am.”
Another Trans Am wrecker was the police car chase that ends with the Bandit’s muscle car jumping a rotted-out bridge. Needham explains, “The approach to the bridge was short, so I had replaced the stock engine with one of my NASCAR 800-horsepower race car engines. We pretty much shot the other car by bouncing on curbs, racing through ditches and going down embankments. To finish the movie with our last car, we had to use parts from the other cars that wouldn’t run anymore. For the last scene in the movie, the only car we had left wouldn’t start, so we had to have another car push it into the shot. Considering the wear, tear and abuse we put those cars through, I’m surprised they lasted as long as they did.”
Two years after Smokey and the Bandit completed its initial theatrical release, it nailed down the number 12 position on Variety’s list of the biggest movie moneymakers of all time. Needham (whose first Smokey percentage check reportedly came to $400,000, about $1.5 million in today’s currency) became overnight a go-to action director. Reynolds rocketed to America’s number one box-office attraction in 1978 and stayed there through 1982. Field’s best actress Oscar for 1979’s Norma Rae vaulted her into a whole new stratosphere. The Pontiac Firebird Trans Am became the American ride, NASCAR edged out Formula One as the country’s favorite form of racing, and countless tail-chasing movies and TV shows such as The Dukes of Hazzard were spawned.
Needham, Reynolds and Field stuck together for 1978’s middling financial success Hooper, a semiautobiographical action flick about an aging stuntman attempting one last stunt in a rocket car, before succumbing in 1980 to pressure for more Smokey. Needham was more gung ho about the prospect than Reynolds, who wanted to team with his friend and director in something grander. Says Reynolds, “I wanted to star in a remake of the 1930s movie Captain Blood, something where I could swing from ropes doing that Errol Flynn pirate shit. I wanted to show that I had chops. They wanted another Smokey.”
With the sequel’s budget upped to $10 million and Reynolds’s take now at $3 million, Reynolds again helped Needham fill out the cast of the project—variously called Smokey and the Bandit Have a Baby, Smokey and the Bandit Ride Again and Smokey and the Bandit 10-4—this time with close friend Dom DeLuise, who had made a splash in Blazing Saddles. The Pittsburgh Steelers’ Terry Bradshaw and Charles Edward Greene (a.k.a. football star “Mean Joe” Greene) also joined the cast. This time around Pontiac filled Needham’s order for 10 black Trans Ams, 25 red Bonnevilles and 25 white Bonnevilles. With the tabloids hotly reporting the ups and downs of the Reynolds-Field relationship, rumors emerged that Reynolds was considering replacing Field with Julie Kavner, best known today for voicing Marge Simpson. In the end, Field did the film.
On its August 15, 1980 release, Smokey and the Bandit II scored what was then the second-highest box-office debut in movie history and eventually grossed more than $66 million. But the charm, heart and pea-pickin’ good-time funkiness of its predecessor were missing—especially considering how Reynolds’s character had morphed into an arrogant, wasted, falling-down drunk whom Field’s character actually accuses of being a “fame junkie” who feeds intravenously on People magazine and National Enquirer headlines. The sour barbs prompted a San Francisco movie reviewer to observe that the stars “seem to be airing private beefs.” Reynolds admits today, “We were fighting at the time. Sally would say something pretty strong to me and I’d say, ‘Write down all of that,’ and she wrote all that dialogue. We did that arguing scene in one take, and she really cried. I told Hal, ‘You’re going to print that version. I don’t think there’ll be a second one.’ She was fucking amazing. That’s what the movie needed more of.” Needham recalls Reynolds calling him into his trailer two days before the film wrapped to announce that he and Field were calling it quits.
The critics were so brutal (the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin called suicide “a pleasurable alternative”) that Needham flipped them off by taking out trade-paper ads featuring caustic reviews alongside a photo of him outside a bank with a wheelbarrow overflowing with cash—gangsta style before the term was coined. Recalling that ad today, Needham says with a hearty laugh, “Wasn’t that cute? So many producers and directors congratulated me for having the balls to say ‘Fuck the critics.’ Burt and I were going to do that ad together, but finally he said, ‘You know, Hal, you may not give a shit, but I’ve got a career I’ve got to watch.’”
When the studio suggested a third Smokey, Needham decided that he too had a career to watch. Both he and Reynolds flipped off Universal. Needham’s lack of enthusiasm could not have been helped by a $3 million lawsuit filed in 1977 by Michael T. Montgomery charging him and others with plagiarizing both a 1975 treatment and full screenplay. The Los Angeles Times reported in July 1983 that a jury vote of 11 to one had called for a settlement. Explains Needham, “When I was looking for somebody to rewrite and build it up, some schmuck I met one time said it was all his idea. It cost the insurance company $100,000 and he went away. I hope to hell he choked on the money.”
Reynolds and Needham hooked up again for the dismal NASCAR comedy Stroker Ace, a reject with audiences and critics. Meanwhile, Universal announced in the fall of 1982 that production was soon to begin on Smokey Is the Bandit, starring Jackie Gleason in dual roles and with TV director Dick Lowry at the helm. In an April 27, 1983 article, venerable Variety reporter Army Archerd wrote that sneak-preview audiences had been so baffled by Gleason’s playing both the sheriff and the Bandit that Universal hastily arranged reshoots with Jerry Reed playing the Bandit. But even with a brief cameo by Reynolds (who donated his fee to charity), fans smelled trouble, and the flick released as Smokey and the Bandit Part 3 stalled after making only $7 million.
Since the glory days of Smokey and the Bandit, it’s easy to see the cultural skid marks the movie left on car-crazy successors such as The Fast and the Furious and the self-conscious Gone in Sixty Seconds remake. In 2007’s Death Proof, Eli Roth croons “East Bound and Down,” and HBO paid homage with Danny McBride’s series of the same name. Smokey and the Bandit references mark everything from episodes of Two and a Half Men to the videos for Kid Rock’s “Cowboy” and Nelly’s “Ride Wit Me” to Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s performance in Watchmen. Smokey fans included movie suspense maestro Alfred Hitchcock (who considered Burt Reynolds for several film projects), as well as My Name Is Earl star Jason Lee, who says, “I saw it as a kid, and it was badass—the car, Burt’s clothes. Sally was hot, and it was full of action. We liked going on the ride with them. As an adult, Smokey reminds us how much better shit was when movies weren’t all cheesy, super tough guy, full of CGI and bad one-liners.”
For some true believers and diehards, the movie is—and has always been—about hot wheels. There’s Georgia-based Tyler Hambrick, for instance, whose 1979 Kenworth 900W truck and 40-foot trailer are painted to replicate the semi Reed drives in the film. Hambrick’s rig has helped raise funds for the Wounded Warrior Project, which helps veterans. Hambrick, who leads Smokey location tours, has also participated in every weeklong Bandit Run, an annual event in which Smokey buffs—many in restored Trans Ams and from as far away as Europe and Canada—cruise a predetermined route through the South, with pit stops at museums, automobile factories and local car shows. Says Bandit Run organizer and sponsor Dave Hall, a former computer-software designer whose Lincoln, Nebraska garage Restore a Muscle Car is a haven for owners willing to spend as much as $100,000 to restore their Smokey Trans Ams: “Mention a Trans Am and people know it as the Smokey car, so the demand for these cars is always there. Pull into a gas station in one of those cars and everyone wants to talk to you. You become someone you’re probably not when you’re driving your minivan.”
North Carolina resident Debbie Ciepiela, who publicizes the Bandit Run, laughingly says she must compete with her husband’s “motorized mistress”—a fully restored Bandit car he bought in 1976. Says Ciepiela, “Smokey and the Bandit is a fun, feel-good piece of Americana that I’ve probably seen at least 100 times. The Bandit Run attracts CEOs, college students, construction workers, mechanics and other unexpected types. When we drive through these small towns and people see our cars, they yell and cheer. You can’t help but get caught up in the excitement.” Comments Reynolds, who organizers hope will attend the 2013 Bandit Run, which this July will travel from Lincoln, Nebraska to Golden, Colorado, “I’ve had five big, tough, burly guys show me all across their backs these incredible tattoos of me as the Bandit. After I said ‘Wow’—what else can you say?—these big guys were actually blushing. It was so sweet.”
After Smokey and the Bandit II, Reynolds and Needham created yet another car-cult franchise when they reunited in 1981 and then 1984 for the free-for-alls The Cannonball Run and Cannonball Run II. About an illegal, secret cross-country race, the films feature some of the biggest stars of the day: Roger Moore, Farrah Fawcett, Telly Savalas and fabled Rat Packers Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and Shirley MacLaine. Reynolds remembers throwing parties in his hotel every night while filming. The movies would later inspire everything from a short-lived 2001 reality-TV series to the Cannonball Rat Race, a six-day New York to California road race and treasure hunt with an $8,995 entry fee that kicked off in New York on September 3, 2011. But Cannonball Run II star Marilu Henner says some experiences can’t be duplicated at any price: “Burt and Hal liked to have a good time and made sure the rest of us had one too. The real party was hanging out in the bar at the Arizona Inn in Tucson with idols like Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin, Shirley MacLaine—and to have Sammy Davis Jr. suddenly break out in song? Secretly, I was pinching myself.”
The 1970s and 1980s are long gone, but fever for the revved-up Needham-Reynolds movies rages on. “I know the movies are always showing somewhere,” says Needham, “because we all get residual checks from the U.S., Finland, Australia, New Zealand.” The director, who in 2011 published his autobiography Stuntman! and tools around town these days in a Mini Cooper, looks back on it all, saying, “My movies weren’t artistic. I kept the jokes funny, I made the action fast, and I never killed anybody. Who knows? Maybe it’s time we did another truck movie.” Needham has an Oscar now. Maybe he’s right.