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.