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The surprising success and long life of trucker flick Smokey and the Bandit
Ask a movie fanatic about the year 1977 and they’ll tell you about Star Wars or Saturday Night Fever. Ask a trucker, and you’ll hear about Smokey and the Bandit. The freewheeling action comedy starring Burt Reynolds remains a touchstone for drivers of all ages. And as one of the highest-grossing movies of the year, it helped to create a national craze over CBs and show truckers as the charming modern cowboys of the highway.
“Whenever I talk to people about trucker movies, that’s the first thing that pops out of their mouths,” says Ben Ehrlich, a long-haul driver whose Ehrldawg’s Trucker DVD Movies website offers a comprehensive list of truck-themed films. “They had a good time doing it and it shows in the final product.”
Smokey and the Bandit didn’t appear to have “blockbuster” written all over it at the start. Hal Needham, the one-time top Hollywood stuntman who came up with Smokey, claims that was due to ignorance on the part of movie executives of the time. “I gave the script to a producer friend of mine, and he said, ‘Smokey and the Bandit? What the hell is that?’ Well, anybody who didn’t know what a Smokey was isn’t gonna understand this script, you know?” he says. “A lot of studio people didn’t know what a CB was! That was the whole thing behind the movie — the trucks and the CBs and goin’ fast and outsmartin’ the Smokeys.”
It didn’t help that Needham had no standing as a writer or director. But he was good friends with actor Burt Reynolds, the world’s top box-office draw at the time. “I’d been his stuntman for 14 years,” Needham says. “When I showed it to him, he said, “You find a studio that’ll give you the money, I’ll star in it, and you can direct.”
That commitment cinched the deal: Universal Pictures agreed to put up the funds. Reynolds didn’t simply get behind the wheel of that black and gold Trans Am, though — he helped steer the idea in the right direction from the get-go.
The cast comes together
Reynolds, in Tampa, Fla., prior to a 2011 screening of Smokey and the Bandit, recalled that the script’s dialogue was rough, but the basic idea had merit. “There’s a way to make this work,” he remembered telling Needham. “And that is, if we get some really outrageous people that know how to improvise.”
Jerry Reed was an immediate choice — in fact, Needham had originally pictured Reed in the Bandit role before Reynolds decided to come aboard. Reynolds suggested Sally Field, whom he considered “loaded with talent” and, just as important, sexy, despite her somewhat tame image after starring in TV’s The Flying Nun. For Sheriff Buford T. Justice, Needham was considering rough-hewn actor Richard Boone (Have Gun – Will Travel, The Shootist).
“I loved Boone, but I wanted somebody that was insane who had done it all, but hadn’t played this kind of character, where every other word is a four-letter word,” Reynolds recalled. Comedy legend Jackie Gleason accepted the offer to do the role, and ended up ad-libbing many of the salty lines that are now forever engraved in the minds of Smokey fans everywhere. (Some molasses barbecue, anyone?)
The entire film was a departure from the written version. “We never said a word that was in the script,” Reynolds told his Tampa audience. Needham’s recollections support that notion. “Some of the writers wanted to change the title, wanted to change the Bandit’s name and stuff, but anytime a line or scene veered off from being country and being a trucking story, I just took it out of the script and shot it my way.”
Needham’s firm grasp of how Smokey should look, feel and sound was a significant contribution to the now-classic road comedy, as was his instinct for careening action and stunning stunt work.
Needham explains in his autobiography, Stuntman! that he even had to insist on getting rid of a horn section that was added to Jerry Reed’s “East Bound and Down,” because it spoiled the song’s straight-ahead country flavor.
Reed, who died in 2008, co-wrote and performed the movie’s now classic song “East Bound and Down.” Though he had quite a few films alongside Reynolds under his belt, he once told Illinois disc jockey Eddie Bear that Smokey remained his favorite film experience.
“All we did was run up and down them Georgia highways wreckin’ cars! And it was such a loosey-goosey situation. Burt had his own crew that he worked with all the time,” recalled Reed, “so everybody knew everybody. There was no pressure and we was just havin’ a blast.”
A lasting impression
That easygoing energy between Reynolds, Reed and Field is unquestionably a major factor behind the movie’s enduring appeal. And, with 1976’s massive pop/country crossover hit “Convoy” greasing the wheels for a trucker-driven pop-culture craze, the time was ideal for a comedy that combined CB radios, countrified blue-collar charisma, wild auto stunts and a good-natured lack of regard for the speed limit. In the words of Smokey authority, model-maker and memorabilia collector Tyler Hambrick, it’s “a spontaneous, action-packed movie with a cool car. The Bandit was having fun, nobody got hurt, there’s a lot of adventure and being naughty all at the same time. Gotta love it. Some call it a comedy; in the South, we call it a documentary.”
Hambrick owns a full-scale replica of “Snowman’s truck” — though, as he points out, it’s actually Bandit’s truck — with a detailed recreation of the stagecoach painting on the original Kenworth rig. The truck, while it plays second fiddle to that speedy car Bandit drives throughout the movie, is now the most recognizable element of the entire Smokey franchise. “The Trans Am stole the show, but the Kenworth kept bringing it,” says Hambrick. “Our rig cannot go anywhere without people, or the CB, going wild. Everybody, even young folks, knows the truck instantly.”
This proved to be the case when the replica, accompanied by a reproduction of Bandit’s Trans Am, appeared in a 2011 episode of American Truckers. Their goal was not only to travel the movie’s route, complete with a Coors beer run, but to meet or beat the original 28-hour time allotment. Legally, that is. The run resulted in plenty of road reaction — most notably when the two lookalikes are running alongside several 18-wheelers and the drivers spontaneously began exchanging a volley of Smokey quotes via CB.
Son, you’re looking at a legend
So while some may argue that the movie is dated, it still has a hold on an awful lot of people.
“The bottom line is, it’s funny,” Burt Reynolds said of the film. “Plus, the picture had heart. You really felt like you were watching some people who, in spite of what was going on, really liked each other. And we did.”
And while the tight shooting schedule gave the first-time director Needham a long way to go and a short time to get there, he did have the last laugh. “I didn’t get any good reviews, but the thing made so much money, Universal didn’t have any choice but to make a second one.”