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Burt Reynolds on Stunts, His First TV Series Role and Friendship With Hal Needham

Known for macho roles in movies like “Deliverance” and “Smokey and the Bandit,” Burt Reynolds has a brace of upcoming films in the can, a documentary about his life in the works and a new book (“But Enough About Me: A Memoir”) coming out Nov. 17. But he started as a stuntman (he was honored Sept. 19 by the Stuntmen’s Assn.), and met his lifelong friend and frequent collaborator, the late Hal Needham, on the set of NBC series “Riverboat” — which gave Reynolds his first mention in Variety in 1959.

What was the first stunt you remember doing?

It was something I didn’t plan. I was doing an episode of “Pony Express” (in 1959), and I rode into a shot, and there was some guy shooting. I was supposed to get off the horse as fast as I could. Well, it dumped me, and it went along with me, but I stepped off as we went down and rolled. Apparently, it looked pretty good. The director said, “Can you do that again?”

Was “Riverboat” your first series TV role?

Yes, but I wasn’t happy on that show, probably because I wasn’t very good. In fact, I was bad. I did the best I could, but I really didn’t know what I was doing.

Did you do your own stunts on the show?

Oh, yeah. In fact, I prayed I’d have a stunt to do because I felt so confident doing those. But there weren’t that many. I’d go to the writers and tell them to write in some stunts for me.

You met Needham when he came on “Riverboat” to be your stunt double.

I was so cocky. I didn’t want a stunt double. I told him, “Look, I don’t want to take away from your talent. I’m sure you’re very good, but I do my own stunts.” He smiled and said, “If you knew how many actors I’ve taken to the hospital that said that to me. But I want to watch you do this.” I said, “OK,” and I did the stunt. He said I was pretty good and asked me what else I could do. I said, “Anything you can teach me.” He said, “OK, come out to my house.”

What was that like?

In his backyard, he had a rope net, and we’d climb this tree as high as we could go. We’d try to outdo each other. He’d do a flip, and then I’d have to do what he did. But it taught me so much about heights, and I’d had a fear of heights. He’d say: “You’re not 10,000 feet up without a net. Just jump!” And I loved it. You couldn’t keep me out of that damned tree.

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