Only 14 months apart in age, my brother and I couldn’t have been any more different growing up. An avid athlete, he tried out for every sport the school offered, while I spent most of my free time reading books. His home was on the field, my favorite place was the backrow of the bookstore at the mall, where I’d sit on the concrete floor, reading the latest comic books I couldn’t afford to buy.
It shouldn’t come as any surprise that we had totally different sets of heroes. All of my brother’s heroes were professional athletes, guys like A.J. Hawk, Ohio State’s ferocious linebacker. Hawk’s signed jersey, professionally matted and framed, was one of my brother’s prized possessions.
I was the yin to his yang. All of my heroes were drawn from the books I read and the movies I consumed relentlessly. No, my heroes were guys like Indiana Jones, a smart and savvy college professor who happens to have a side gig fighting Nazis. Or a guy like the Bandit.
Out of all those heroes, there was one who easily stood head and shoulder above the rest. Quick witted and talented, the Bandit never fought when he didn’t have to. Like the heroes in another one of my favorite television shows, “The Dukes of Hazzard,” the Bandit was “just a good ol’ boy, never meaning no harm.” Played by Burt Reynolds, a former football standout at Florida State, the story in “Smokey and the Bandit” was deceptively simple.
To settle a bet, all Reynolds has to do is haul 400 cases of Coors beer from Texarkana back to Georgia for a wealthy businessman. That might not mean anything to anyone born after the movie hit theatres in 1977, but at that time Coors wasn’t sold east of the Mississippi River. It’s a straightforward story, one Reynolds and stuntman Hal Needham came up with over drinks.
Its simplicity and its depiction of country life, complete with big rig trucks, diners and a beautiful bride might seem quaint to anyone who’s never sat on the back of a pickup truck, but stripped down to its essentials, it’s a narrative akin to Homer’s Odyssey. Like Homer, Reynolds is just a man with a job to do, on his way home from another day at work.
Of course, Odysseus was fighting the Peloponnesian War. Reynolds merely had to contend with ham-fisted Sheriff Buford T. Justice, played by the late, great Jackie Gleason. The sheriff isn’t without his troubles, his incompetent son, Junior Justice has been left at the altar by Sally Field.
Teaming up with “Snowman,” played by Jerry Reed, the duo’s plan was for Reynolds, in a gleaming black Pontiac Trans Am, to draw the ire of local constabulary, allowing Snowman to make it back to Georgia with their precious cargo.
A legendary country music artist in his own right, Reed also wrote the film’s theme song, Eastbound and Down, which went on to become one of his biggest hits. The song, a paean to over-the-road truckers, is Reed and Reynold’s promise to deliver on time, with its signature hook, “We’ve got a long ways to go and short time to get there.”
A small cottage industry sprang up around the film. Sales of black “Bandit” edition Trans Ams doubled, and several sequels, of rapidly diminishing quality were made. It’s the original film that still resonates for most, including me.
No matter what else Reynolds appeared in over the years, he’ll always be the Bandit to me. Even Reynolds tried to sidestep the accolades, at one point telling a reporter “My movies are the kind they show in prisons and on airplanes, because nobody can leave.”
When news outlets reported his death last week, it felt like a blow. No matter where I’ve been in my life or what I’ve done, there’s always a part of me that’s still 11 years old, watching Reynolds in that black Pontiac, staying one step ahead of the law all the way back to Georgia.
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