Remember when Burt Reynolds was almost James Bond?

As the 24th James Bond movie, Spectre, hits North American theatres this weekend, the speculation about who will replace Daniel Craig as 007 has shifted into high gear. (Will it be fan favourite Idris Elba?) Craig has made it clear in interviews that he’s turning in his license to kill, although that’s probably just post-Spectre fatigue talking—he still has one more movie on his Bond contract and no matter how unchallenging playing a super spy is or how much he worries about being typecast, it’s not as though his non-Bond movies have shaken the box office or stirred critical acclaim. He may complain now, but when it comes to James Bond, never say never.

This sort of Bond malaise is par for the course, of course, going all the way back to Sean Connery, who famously stepped away after the ninja-rrific You Only Live Twice—he was replaced by George Lazenby in the highly underappreciated On Her Majesty’s Secret Service before being enticed back for one more mission, the abysmal Diamonds Are Forever. But did you know that after Connery quit the first time the role of James Bond was offered to Burt Reynolds, who reportedly turned it down because he (rightly) believed that no American could or should play Britain’s greatest big screen hero? (Apparently, Adam West and Clint Eastwood were also offered the keys to the Aston Martin around the same time and also declined because they, too, felt Bond should be British; never mind that the role went to Lazenby, an Aussie.) Reynolds was primarily a TV actor at the time, with a resumé full of guest roles on things like Gunsmoke, Perry Mason and The Twilight Zone and a title role in the Sergio Carbucci spaghetti western Navajo Joe. His star-making role as the bow-hunting alpha male in Deliverance was still a couple of years away.

It’s an interesting side note in the storied history of the spy series, one I mention only because I was a big fan of both Bond and Burt Reynolds back in the ’70s and ’80s. Reynolds would’ve been horrible as Bond—too smug, too much twinkle in his eyes, too…Burt. So Bond dodged a bullet there. But while I don’t think he’d have been right for Bond, he would’ve made for an interesting—and appropriately swaggering and steely—Han Solo (another role Reynolds famously turned down).

Now, when I was a kid my dad’s two favourite actors were Charles Bronson and Burt Reynolds. Bronson because he was tough and taciturn, a no nonsense man’s man and, as my dad would often say, he proved you didn’t have to be pretty to be a movie star. Reynolds was the opposite. When he wasn’t smoldering like a young Marlon Brando, he was cracking wise and mugging for the camera. His roles often required him to kiss the girl (something Bronson rarely did) and drive really, really fast, and my dad, a highway patrolman at the time, loved nothing more than a good car chase. That Reynolds would crack wise, mug for the camera and crash cars in a movie that shared our surname—the stunt spectacular Hooper—well, that practically made him a member of the family. And when you’re a kid, you love what your dad loves, and so Bronson and Reynolds were my heroes, too. Our love of Reynolds, at least, wasn’t special—from 1978 to 1982, he spent five straight years as Hollywood’s top box-office draw, something no actor since can boast.

 

And I still have a soft spot for Reynolds. I still think Hooper, in which Reynolds plays an aging stuntman modeled in part on the film’s stuntman-turned-director Hal Needham, is a whole lot of fun. The stunts are truly spectacular and the chemistry between real-life couple Reynolds and Sally Field, who co-starred in both Hooper and Smokey and the Bandit, is both obvious and a joy to watch.

There’s an interview with the 79-year-old star in the latest issue of Vanity Fair to help promote his upcoming autobiography, But Enough About Me: A Memoir, and it’s rather candid as far as these things go. He doesn’t talk about James Bond or Han Solo or Hooper (sadly), but he gets into his money troubles, his women troubles and his health troubles.

Actually, come to think of it, he doesn’t talk about Deliverance, either, which really is too bad. Deliverance is a great film, a stone cold classic (it was nominated for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Editing at the 1973 Academy Awards). It’s also a punch-in-the-gut progenitor of the survival horror subgenre to a degree. Four friends out to prove their manhood on a canoe trip run afoul of inbred Appalachian hillbilly buttfuckers. Banjos and buggery. That’s the story in a nutshell. There’s an ecological subtext involving the building of a dam that will flood the region and force the locals to relocate—coffins are unearthed so they can be reinterred in a safe location, for example—but first and foremost it’s a survival odyssey through a land that’s as good as dead.

Based on the novel by James Dickey (who co-wrote the screenplay with director John Boorman and who also has a small role as the sheriff in the movie), it also stars Jon Voight, Ronny Cox and Ned Beatty. Now, if you only know Beatty as Otis, Lex Luthor’s bumbling sidekick in Superman: The Movie, you really haven’t seen how great he can be. In Deliverance, he plays the weak link among the four friends, the amiable pal who wouldn’t hurt a fly. So of course, he’s the one who ends up being forced to strip to his tighty-whiteys and “squeal like a pig” before being raped. It’s a disturbing scene that becomes the catalyst for the backwoods nightmare that follows.