One of the most fun films of the 1970s was the Burt Reynolds vehicle (there’s a pun there) Smokey and the Bandit. On the surface it was a chase film about some good old boys with a Pontiac Grand Am smuggling Coors beer across state boundaries. Upon re-watching it a few weeks ago, and viewing the premiere of Jesse Moss’ The Bandit at SXSW, I realized that there was a lot more to the story than I ever knew.
The Bandit documents the story behind the making of the movie and of the relationship of star Burt Reynolds and his close friend, stunt double, and creator of Smokey and the Bandit, Hal Needham.
The Original Film
Smokey and the Bandit was almost a flop. The studio opened it in New York City where it fell flat. Only when they gave it a second chance in the South, for the people it was meant for, did it take off. When I re-watched recently I was surprised by the dialog and impact of some of the minor characters.
The script was written by Hal Needham who had no background in writing. Along the way more writers contributed, probably assigned to the project by the studio, including James Lee Barrett and Charles Shyer.
Barrett had already written The Greatest Story Ever Told (1995), and The Green Berets, and eventually developed the TV version of In the Heat of the Night. Charles Shyer went on to pen Private Benjamin, Alfie, and The Parent Trap. These gentlemen knew what they were doing and it shows in the dialog, especially between Reynolds’ character and the runaway bride he picks up along the way, played by Sally Field.
It is at once, subtle, charming, and funny.
Filmmaker Jesse Moss is no stranger to documentaries or SXSW. His previous efforts include The Overnighters, recipient of the Special Jury Prize at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival; Full Battle Rattle (SXSW Special Jury Prize); Speedo (SXSW 2003); and Con Man, for HBO.
He chose a structure for the documentary that is traditional for a “making of” movie, taking us through highlights of the writing, casting, and production. But this was only window dressing for the real story which is about Reynolds and Needham. In between “making of” moments, Moss takes us on deep dives into the life story of Needham, the lives of stuntmen in general, and the relationship between Reynolds and Needham. It is a buddy movie about a buddy movie.
The film explores Needham’s background as an Army paratrooper and his decision to come to Hollywood to be a stunt man. A resemblance to Reynolds, who was a hot property in the 1970s, got him regular work. When Needham’s wife booted him out one night, he called his friend Burt and asked if he could stay the night. Needham’s stay lasted five years during which Burt and Hal became each other’s wing men and drinking buddies.
Moss and his team of researchers used interviews and archival footage. They did an impressive job of locating old talk shows on which Reynolds and Needham appeared, even one Reynolds hosted. They then integrated these into the story.
Burt and the Bra
After the screening of The Bandit in Austin’s Paramount Theater, Reynolds and Moss came up to the stage for a question and answer session. Just as the Q&A on stage was beginning, a woman in the audience threw her bra up to Burt. Some things never change.
Moss and Reynolds agreed that Hal Needham, who died in 2013, was one of the most remarkable stunt men Hollywood ever saw. He was the highest paid stuntman, and along the way broke 56 bones, his back twice, punctured a lung, and knocked out some teeth. He worked on 4500 television episodes and 310 feature films as a stuntman, stunt coordinator, and second unit director. Reynolds said, “Stuff that Hal did has never been done or will be done by anyone else. Now they’d just do it in a computer.”
After Smokey and the Bandit, Needham went on to direct nineteen more films.
Moss recalled that his team had come across a reference that said that Hal Needham was the first human to test airbags by driving into a wall at 70 miles per hour. Moss was skeptical, but then his staff brought him a video of an air-bag test.
“I watched it,” Moss recalled, “and found myself saying, ‘Holy S**t. That’s Hal Needham.”
In Smokey and the Bandit, Reynolds’ character drives a Pontiac Trans Am. Reynolds recalled that sales of the car went up 70 percent after the movie. “The Pontiac people loved me,” he said, “and said I’d have new cars for the rest of my life. But that stopped after a couple of years. I guess they thought I died.”
Reynolds reminisced about the creation of the Smokey and the Bandit.
“When Hal brought the script to me,” Reynolds said, “I told him I thought it was the worst script I’d ever read. He said it didn’t matter because I could say anything I wanted.
“For the sheriff we wanted someone who would be totally out of place in the movie, but that people would like. I approached Jackie Gleason and he said, ‘Where’s the script?’ I told him it didn’t matter because he could say anything he wanted.”
The most controversial casting in the film was of Sally Field.
Reynolds said, “For the girl I wanted Sally Field. People told me I was crazy because the Flying Nun wasn’t sexy. I told them that talent was sexy. We got her in the movie and in a few years she had won two Emmys and an Oscar. I guess I was right.”
Moss’ documentary will air on CMT later this year.