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The Birth of Redneck Cinema
  • February 15, 2013 : 12:02
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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 M*A*S*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.

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read more: entertainment, movies, issue march 2013

1 comments

  • Anonymous
    Anonymous
    Varification:Now leaving on track three the Bo and Carrie express!
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