I am a man of the 1970s. It’s where I grew up. It’s the country where I’m from. It’s where I learned to be me, in large part, and where I found much of what I still value most. It’s a place I understand, and one that understands me.
All I can see today, through the fog of the four decades through which I have traveled since, is the distant shore of that homeland. Certain beacons are still visible, reminders of what it was like back there. But those beacons grow ever dimmer, and sometimes they wink out, to be seen no more.
Burt Reynolds died yesterday at the age of 82.
Burt spent the 60s acting on TV, and he became America’s favorite box-office personality in the mid 70s. But he also had a modest recording career. In 1973, as his fame was beginning to build thanks to a breakout performance in Deliverance, he released Ask Me What I Am, produced by Bobby Goldsboro, a longtime friend and colleague, and Nashville record mogul Buddy Killen. It’s obscure enough not to have been reviewed at Allmusic.com, although the fine and bygone blog 30 Days Out reviewed it in 2008. Burt sings and sometimes talks his way through 11 songs as a down-home rural storyteller. It’s not very good beyond its curiosity value, but if you’re interested, you can listen to the whole album here.
In 1980, he recorded a single, “Let’s Do Something Cheap and Superficial,” for the movie Smokey and the Bandit 2, and it reached #88 on the Hot 100 in November. I was aware of it at the time, although I can’t say whether I actually played it on the radio. That it would get some traction was a foregone conclusion. By 1980, Burt Reynolds had become a national archetype. “Let’s Do Something Cheap and Superficial” was exactly the kind of self-mockery we would have expected from him then. The Burt of Ask Me What I Am, despite a successful career in TV up to that point, wasn’t a strongly defined personality yet, and the album works less well as a result. (Lack of a strongly defined personality is not the only problem the album has; song selection is another, as well as singing on-key.) If Burt had made a whole album in 1980, it would have been far different, and likely far more successful.
Although I am a man of the 70s, my title is in lowercase. Burt Reynolds was a Man of the 70s—if not The Man of the 70s. The milestones are many: his photo spread in Cosmo, a string of iconic movies spanning 1973 to 1983 (roughly from Deliverance through Stroker Ace), his romances with Sally Field and Dinah Shore and Loni Anderson. Over the last 25 years or so of his life, when his profession was not so much acting or directing as it was simply Being Burt Reynolds, he retained, for the most part, the persona he first projected during his glory days: handsome as hell, smooth with the ladies, tough and determined, unimpressed with authority figures, fearless and funny, able to laugh at himself above all. These were all things a lowercase man of the 70s wished he could be. Burt even managed a creative rebirth relatively late in life, with an Oscar nomination for playing Jack Horner in Boogie Nights (1997). A creative rebirth in his relative dotage is something a lowercase man of the 70s might also wish for.
Burt Reynolds is said to have said, “If you hold onto things long enough, they get back into style. Just like me.” That, too, is something a lowercase man of the 70s might wish for today. To be cool again, or to at least understand once again what cool is, if he was never actually cool himself. To escape being a relic. To wake up one morning back in his native country and recognize the place.
But that isn’t how our world works, and even the most wishful, wistful lowercase man of the 70s knows it. The best he—we–can do is to peer through the fog, looking back for those beacons that shine out to us from home, and never forgetting the ones that stand where we no longer can see them.