Historically Speaking: The life of Burt Reynolds

Kathie Bell
Special to the Globe
Boot Hill Museum Honorary Marshal Burt Reynolds starred in "Gunsmoke" as well as "Smokey and the Bandit," and "The Longest Yard."

He is best known for his numerous motion picture and television roles. But his role in the TV show "Gunsmoke" is often forgotten. Feb. 11, 2021 is the 85th anniversary Burton Leon Reynolds birth in Lansing, Michigan.

Shortly after, he, his mother and sister joined his father, who had been drafted, at Fort Leonard Woods, Missouri, where they lived for two years.

When Reynolds father was stationed in Europe, the rest of the family moved to his mother's childhood home of Lake City, Michigan. In 1946, the family settled in Riviera Beach Florida, where his father became Police Chief.

Reynolds played football at Palm Beach High School.

As a sophomore, he was First Team All State and All Southern as a fullback, and was offered multiple college scholarships. At Florida State University he played halfback.

His hopes for playing professionally were dashed in his sophomore year when he injured his knee in the season's first game, and injured the other knee and lost his spleen the same year in an automobile accident.

He continued his studies at Palm Beach Junior College in Lake Park, Florida, where Reynolds' acting career began. As lead in the play "Outward Bound," he won the Florida State Drama Award.

He really didn't have aspirations to act. But, his award lead to a scholarship to the Hyde Park Playhouse in New York State.

He performed for the Playhouse and on Broadway for a couple of years before getting serious and taking acting classes.

There were a number of fits and starts in Reynolds acting career. He thought about returning to Florida and some urged him to move to Hollywood.

Instead he worked various jobs including waiting tables, washing dishes, driving a delivery truck, as a bouncer and as a dockworker where he was paid $150 to jump through a window for a TV show.

In the late 1950's Reynolds began appearing in guest roles on television. Universal signed him for a seven-year contract; not so much for his acting, but for his good looks.

Reynolds first regular TV role was in 1959 as Ben Frazer in "Riverboat." He left the show after only 20 episodes. After that is was hard for him to land a job as people didn't want to hire anyone who would walk away from a major TV network gig.

Reynolds did continue to appear as guest stars in television for a few years.

In 1961, he was in a couple of minor motion pictures and returned to Broadway in "Look, We've Come Through," which only lasted five performances.

He continued his guest roles on TV until 1962 when he joined the "Gunsmoke" cast after Dennis Weaver's departure.

Here, he portrayed blacksmith Quint Asper. Reynolds set many female viewers’ hearts a flutter by being the only character on the show to wear shirts with the sleeves cut off.

His publicity shots were equally as “risqué” with Reynolds appearing shirtless while manning a fire. Reynolds left "Gunsmoke" in 1965 because he didn't enjoy sharing the limelight with James Arness who played the starring role as Matt Dillon.

He appeared in numerous TV shows and movies, but turned down roles in the TV show "Mash" and as Agent 007 in James Bond movies.

However, Reynolds was a popular talk show guest, which probably saved his career.

In the 1970's Reynolds fame and movie career took off peaking in 1977 with "Smokey and the Bandit." Reynolds continued enjoying fame for his TV and movie roles into the 2000's.

Boot Hill Museum made Reynolds an Honorary Marshal in September of 2015 honoring him for his role as Quint Asper in "Gunsmoke"

Burt Reynolds died of a heart attack at 82 in Jupiter, Florida on September 6, 2018.