When Burt Reynolds passed away last week at the age of 82, we lost not just a legendary actor, but a cultural icon who defined the ‘70s more than any other man. His reputation especially loomed large for some of us here at Paste’s Georgia headquarters; as Southern children of the ‘70s and ‘80s, we grew up with Burt’s larger-than-life persona, both on movie screens and repeated endlessly on TBS and other cable stations, representing what, at the time, seemed like the ultimate template of masculinity. The Burt Reynolds of the Smokey and the Bandit and Cannonball Run movies was the absolute model of confidence and charm in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, and that’s the Burt Reynolds that Norm Macdonald based his unforgettable impression on during his time on Saturday Night Live in the late ‘90s.
Paste recently spoke to Macdonald about his upcoming Netflix talk show, Norm Macdonald has a Show, and asked the comedian about his old inspiration and friend Burt Reynolds. The affection for Burt was clear in Norm’s voice as he talked about the origins of the Celebrity Jeopardy sketch, Reynolds’s powerful charm, and the actor’s unassuming, unpretentious approach to his career. Here’s what Macdonald had to say about Reynolds, and look for the rest of our interview with Norm later this week.
Norm Macdonald on Burt Reynolds
I wanted to do Burt Reynolds on SNL because I could do an impression of him, and I knew that if I did an impression of him it would get a laugh because he has such great comic timing and delivery. So it was really stealing his persona to get laughs, you know. But I could never figure out a way. This guy that I wrote with, Steve Higgins, who’s now the sidekick on Jimmy Fallon, me and Higgins came up with putting him on Celebrity Jeopardy, because then we could [do impressions of] any celebrities.
It was funny, because Lorne [Michaels, SNL producer] picks out the outfits, so he had this grey hair and this grey beard for me. I realized he was doing Burt Reynolds in Boogie Nights. And, actually, now that you mention it, I don’t think anybody ever even spoke to the fact that one of the guys on Celebrity Jeopardy was from 50 years earlier, you know what I mean? Everybody was today and I was from the ‘70s. That’s the timelessness of Burt.
When I grew up as a little boy he would be on Carson. Later when I knew him I told him he was so funny on Johnny Carson, and he said that actually hurt his career, because a movie star is supposed to have a mystique, you know, and be unknowable, or whatever. And he was the first guy to just go out and be self-deprecating and funny in that way.
I really wanted him to be on [Norm Macdonald has a Show] and I talked to him for a long time, many times, trying to get him, but he was not feeling up to it. He had a movie, The Last Movie Star, and he was going to be in Los Angeles and he just couldn’t do it. But he was a guy I loved. In a way it was a lot like Chevy [Chase], or Dean Martin, he was just a guy having fun, you know? And I remember him telling me, like, because he was so self-aware of his career, “I used to be the biggest movie star in the world, and what happened was my agent would call and go ‘I’ve got a movie.’ Where is it? ‘Belgrade.’ Pass! Do you got anything in Hawaii?” He’d just go by geography. So they’d go “well there’s this fucking thing, it’s in Hawaii” and he’d go “okay, I’ll do it, but all my friends have to be in it.” So that’s the career of Burt that I knew, with Dom DeLuise and Pat McCormick and James Hampton, these guys you knew were his friends. He’d be slapping them in the face in the credits. And that came through in those movies in such a fun way. You could enjoy the movie but you could also enjoy that it was clearly just Burt having fun with his friends, you know?
Norm Macdonald has a Show launches on Netflix on Friday, Sept. 14, 2018.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s comedy and games sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.