The Stuntman Who Set Hollywood On Fire

Five must-see Hal Needham/Burt Reynolds movies.

The plot was scintillating, and it was no movie. It was real life. Universal Studios was going to gamble millions of dollars on a film starring the biggest actor in the world (Burt Reynolds), directed by a guy who’d never made a movie. In fact, the would-be director was just a stuntman.

Hal Needham was, to be sure, the highest paid stuntman in Hollywood. He’d appeared in everything from the original Mission: Impossible T.V. show to Blazing Saddles. Through all those gags, he’d busted 56 bones, spit out innumerable teeth, even punctured a lung. But he’d never directed a movie.

The film—called Smokey and the Bandit—debuted May 27, 1977, at Radio City Music Hall, starring Reynolds, Sally Field and a black Pontiac Trans Am. It had a $4.3 million budget, and although critics panned it (“thoroughly unimaginative”), it became a juggernaut, grossing nearly $128 million by the end of 1977 alone.

Unwittingly, Hal Needham had launched a new movement in film. One critic writing in Playboy called it Redneck Cinema—movies with fast cars, faster women, bar fights, corny country music and devil-may-care men who’d do anything for a buddy, and for a good time. Most of all: car stunts. All of these films featured two things in particular—Hal Needham directing and Burt Reynolds driving. All were panned by critics, who were forced to swallow their rusty typewriters when Needham was given an honorary Oscar in 2012, a year before his death at 82.

Growing up, my hero was Burt Reynolds in whatever role he had in a Hal Needham movie. I wanted to be that guy—Sonny Hooper, Stroker Ace, The Bandit. I wanted Sally Field on my arm and hot cars in the garage. Didn’t turn out that way, but it’s still soothing to watch these movies and forget that they aren’t real life.

The holidays are prime red wine drinking/old movie watching time. It’s cold out. Here’s a few of Needham/Reynolds favorites to keep you warm, counting down to number one.

5. Stroker Ace (1983)