Burt Reynolds, early fan of Georgia’s potential, glad to see film boom

Casually sinking into his dressing room sofa at the Douglass Theatre in Macon, wrapped in a gray sport coat with a red handkerchief peeking out of the pocket, Burt Reynolds still radiates the aura of a star.

Even at 79, he has the machismo of Paul Crewe in “The Longest Yard” and the sage-like wisdom of Jack Horner in “Boogie Nights.” And he can hit the zero-to-60 coolness of the Bandit quicker than a black Trans Am.

So when it came to selecting someone to headline the 10th annual Macon Film Festival, which took place July 16-19, the event’s director, Terrell Sandefur, says booking Reynolds was a no-brainer.

“He is the quintessential Southern movie star and a pioneer in Georgia filmmaking,” Sandefur said.

Having starred in more than a half-dozen films shot on Peach State soil, and directing two of them, Reynolds refers to Georgia as his “good luck state.” And that makes sense. The domestic gross from 1977’s “Smokey and the Bandit” alone weighs in at more than $126 million.

Reynolds fell in love with the locale when shooting 1972’s “Deliverance” in Appalachian Georgia. The state offered both rural charm and big-city flash. After meeting with then-Gov. Jimmy Carter in the early 1970s, Reynolds vowed to bring more productions stateside.

“Atlanta is just a great city,” Reynolds said. “It can look like New York, if you shoot it right. All you need is a big, tall building and a short actor, and you’ve got New York.”

Reynolds’ humor may be all inclusive, but his passion for Georgia proves serious. Amid the current film boom, he could easily dole out plenty of “I told you sos.”

“It surprises me that it’s taken so long,” he said, “because I’ve been singing Georgia’s praises for a long, long time. But they get it now, and thank God they’re coming here.”

Working as both an actor and director, Reynolds came to Georgia for a variety of reasons, not the least of which, he says, was the warmth beaming from its residents. But it also laid claim to unique spots.

While scouting locations for 1981’s “Sharky’s Machine,” the looming tubular presence of the Westin Peachtree Plaza dominated Atlanta’s skyline. When Sgt. Sharky shoots the film’s bad guy, the antagonist takes a fall from the hotel. Although the Hyatt Regency doubled for the Plaza when stuntman Dar Robinson took the spill, the 220-foot fall still holds the record for the highest free fall stunt of its kind.

Now that the masses are discovering Georgia as a ripe filming location, Reynolds has even more advice to offer.

“I think you have to be unafraid to read actors here who are in local theater,” he said, “because there are shockingly good, and they won’t let you down.”

And Reynolds knows this firsthand. Each Friday night, he teaches acting class at the Burt Reynolds Institute for Film & Theatre in Lake Park, Fla. Some of his students have even made their way to Atlanta and onto both the big and small screen.

Giving back to aspiring actors and film festivals comes easy for Reynolds. If he hadn’t made it into acting, he says he would’ve become a coach. Teaching is coaching, he explains, and offering support proves to be part of the equation.

“He was nice, gracious and accommodating throughout,” Sandefur said. “Burt said to me at the very beginning, ‘I’ll do just about anything you want me to do. You just ask.’”

The challenge came from a flood of media requests and favor-seeking fans.

“It was the first time I’ve ever been bribed to meet one of our festival guests,” Sandefur said. “And it was the first time we’ve had the National Enquirer come to the Macon Film Festival.”

At the close of the festival, following a Q&A after a screening of “Sharky’s Machine,” Reynolds hopped into a long, white limo heading to Atlanta. Sure, he may be well into the sixth decade of his career, but a throng of fans surrounded the car for his send-off.

Moments later, the limousine would zip onto I-75, northbound and headed for the city that wowed Reynolds all those years ago.

“I’m amazed when I go around Atlanta today,” he said. “It’s a big metropolis, a major city. When I was here, it was on the verge of becoming a big city, but it’s become more than I thought it would be. And I’m happy for that.”

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