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Burt Reynolds still captures the heart of Austin, America at SXSW Festival

Burt Reynolds at the South By Southwest premiere of the documentary, "The Bandit." (WTOP/Kenny Fried)

By Steve Winter and Kenny Fried, Special WTOP correspondents

AUSTIN, Texas– The sexiest man in America, circa late 20th Century, still turns a lot of heads. He elicits everything from sighs and swoons to outright marriage proposals.

Now 80 years old, Burt Reynolds emerged from a black Cadillac Escalade to a cavalcade of cheers as he approached the red carpet outside the Paramount Theatre in Austin, TX for the South By Southwest premiere of “The Bandit.” “The Bandit” is an 82-minute documentary that showcases his lifelong friendship with Hollywood stunt legend Hal Needham, the producer of the legendary 1977 film Smokey and the Bandit.

Scheduled to air in August on CMT, the film tells the action-packed story behind the making of that iconic film while tracing the vivid personal journeys of both Reynolds and Needham. It follows them from obscurity to stardom, all the while highlighting one of the most extraordinary relationships in Hollywood history.

“This is not just about Smokey and the Bandit, it’s about Burt Reynolds and his relationship to Hal Needham, which is not a story many people know,” said director Jesse Moss, who joined Reynolds at the premiere.  “This relationship that produced this movie; that they were friends, roommates, that Hal Needham was Burt’s stunt double, that to me is the discovery behind the success of Smokey and the Bandit – an incredible buddy movie.”

“Also,” adds Moss, “I think the documentary has what Smokey has; it has action, it has comedy and it has heart and so hopefully people will rediscover a film that they love and in doing so they’ll discover a lot about Burt that they didn’t know and also they will discover Hal Needham.  They might have known he directed the film but I’m sure they don’t know much about him.”

Needham –masterfully portrayed through the documentary – took the unlikeliest of paths from the son of an Arkansas sharecropper to Hollywood stuntman to director.  Having spent the most prominent years of his career as Reynolds’ stunt double, he developed the concept for Smokey and the Bandit during a period of time when Reynolds was trying to balance his public persona, between that of a dynamic and powerful leading ladies’ man  with a bad-boy edge, and a truly talented and dynamic dramatic actor.  The documentary expertly showcased the development of the relationship between Needham and Reynolds which began on set and ultimately transcended to the point where Needham, after separating from his wife, lived with Reynolds for nearly 11 years.

When he died in 2013, Reynolds says he lost his soulmate. “He was my roommate, he was my brother and I loved him very much,” he said.  “I never saw a guy that brave and I started out as a stunt man. He did stuff nobody else would do.  When everybody else turned down a stunt they would say, ‘go get Hal’ and Hal would come and do it.  There will never be another one like him.”

While not necessarily an intended byproduct, Reynolds feels the documentary will likely spark a renewed interest in the film that grossed more than $250 million at the box office and earned its place as one of the true “Southern comedies” of the ages.  When asked if he thought that was the case, Reynolds replied, “Apparently so, since you can’t get a seat.  I’m flabbergasted at the afterlife of this.  If this documentary helps get people more interested in the original Smokey and the Bandit, so much the better.”

For one day in Austin, the Bandit has already accomplished that task … and a little bit more.

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