In June of 1977, I knocked on the door of a suite at the Chase Park Plaza Hotel in midtown St. Louis and singer-songwriter-actor Jerry Reed opened the door.
“Come on in,” he said, smiling. “Burt’s on the phone and will be right out.”
“Burt” was Burt Reynolds, who camped out in the suite with Reed as part of a promotional tour of their film, Smokey and the Bandit, which had opened a week earlier around the country.
My appointment gave me an hour with the two of them for photos and an interview for my paper, The Telegraph, in Alton, illinois, just up the river from St. Louis on the Mississippi River.
Reynolds emerged from another room and offered a fresh, cold can of beer.
“What do you want to talk about? Fast cars, fast women or just raising hell for the run of it,” he said.
“How about why you did the film?” Seemed like a good way to start the interview.
“Hell, why not,” Reynolds said. “A chance to work with Jackie (Gleason) and Sally (Field) is not something one should pass up. This was a fun project. I like having fun.”
The can of beer was a Coors, which was part of the story of Reynolds (the bandit) on the run from Smokey (Gleason) with a truckload of Coors, which was not allowed East of the Mississippi in those days, being hauled illegally to a race in Georgia.
I wondered: “Is the Coors a prop for the interview?”
“Nah,” Reynolds said. “I just like the beer. It seems a good ‘in your face’ move when we’re here in Busch’s backyard in St. Louie.” St. Louis was the home of Budweiser and other Busch beers.
He and Reed credited stuntman/director Hal Needham for developing the film and getting it on the screen.
“Hal knows the audience for a film like this,” Reed said. “He’s good at that.”
Reed knew a few things about what audiences like. As an up and coming guitar player and songwriter, he wrote “Guitar Man” in 1957 and a number of artists make it a hit, including Elvis Presley.
“Yeah, Elvis made sure I didn’t have to work a lot more after that,” he said. Reed died in 2008 after a long career in music and movies.
Reynolds died this week at age 82. For several years, he was one of the most popular actors on the big screen and a hell-raiser who worked hard, partied even harder and could barely walk when he passed.
We talked about movies, fast cars, faster women, his past relationship with Dinah Shore and his then-current one with Field.
“A ballsy lady,” he said of’ Field. “I might end up married to her one day.”
They never married but remained good friends and he admitted later in life that he never should have let her get away.
We talked about Indians — the native American kind. Reynolds had Cherokee blood in him. I’m part Seminole. For many years, he was cast as an Indian or a half-breed.
“I guess the only Indian part I never played was Pocahontas,” he said with a wink.
My allotted time became a fun afternoon that lasted more than two hours. We ended up walking across the street from the Chase to take pictures in Forest Park in St. Louis.
A crowd of autograph seekers surrounded Reynolds. He talked and joked with them and made sure everyone got the autograph they sought.
“Burt is great with people,” Reed said. “It’s nice to be out with him because then I’m invisible to the crowd. I get to watch and admire the master in action.”
The “master in action” became the cover story for The Weekend magazine that I edited for The Telegraph. Three weeks after we published it, I got a long, personally-written note from Reynolds.
“Thanks for the afternoon,” he said. “We had a great time. I don’t get many interviews that pleasant.”
Reynolds had his ups and downs over the years but he usually approached his life with a wink and a twinkle in his eye.
He was a lot of fun.