Burt Reynolds was proud of his achievements but also candid about his flops, writes John Rogers.

Burt Reynolds was tough. His niece, Nancy Lee Hess, wanted the world to know how tough.

In a statement yesterday announcing that her uncle had died at the age of 82, she said: "Anyone who breaks their tail bone on a river and finishes the movie is tough. And that's who he was."

And so the handsome film and television star known for his acclaimed performances in Deliverance and Boogie Nights, commercial hits such as Smokey and the Bandit and for an active off-screen love life which included relationships with Loni Anderson and Sally Field, had fought his last fight.

Hess said his death yesterday was "totally unexpected" but acknowledged he had health issues.

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However, she said, "My uncle was looking forward to working with Quentin Tarantino, and the amazing cast that was assembled," referring to the upcoming film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood with Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt.

Hess noted her uncle's kindness and generosity, and thanked "all of his amazing fans who have always supported and cheered him on, through all of the hills and valleys of his life and career".

The moustached, smirking Reynolds inspired a wide range of responses over his long, erratic career: Critical acclaim and critical scorn, popular success and box office bombs.

Burt Reynolds, who died yesterday, was preparing to work with Quentin Tarantino, Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt. Photo / AP
Burt Reynolds, who died yesterday, was preparing to work with Quentin Tarantino, Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt. Photo / AP

Reynolds made scores of movies, ranging from lightweight fare such as the hits The Cannonball Run and Smokey and the Bandit to more serious films like The Longest Yard and The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing. He received some of the film world's highest and lowest honours. He was nominated for an Oscar for Boogie Nights, the Paul Thomas Anderson film about the pornography industry; won an Emmy for the TV series Evening Shade, and was praised for his starring role in Deliverance. But he also was a frequent nominee for the Razzie, the tongue-in-cheek award for Hollywood's worst performance.

His personal life provided ongoing drama, particularly after an acrimonious divorce from Anderson in 1995. He had a troubled marriage to Judy Carne, a romance with Dinah Shore and a relationship with Field damaged by his acknowledged jealousy of her success.

Through it all he presented a genial persona, often the first to make fun of his own conflicted image.

"My career is not like a regular chart, mine looks like a heart attack," he told the Associated Press in 2001. "I've done over 100 films, and I'm the only actor who has been canned by all three networks. I epitomise longevity."

Chris Rock, Burt Reynolds and Adam Sandler are shown in a scene from The Longest Yard.
Chris Rock, Burt Reynolds and Adam Sandler are shown in a scene from The Longest Yard.

Reynolds was candid about his flops, his regrets and about his many famous friends. He would call posing nude for Cosmopolitan one of his biggest mistakes because it undermined the respect he had gained for Deliverance. He revered Spencer Tracy as an early mentor and came to know Johnny Carson, Clint Eastwood, Frank Sinatra and many others.

"Burt Reynolds was one of my heroes," tweeted Arnold Schwarzenegger. "He was a trailblazer. He showed the way to transition from being an athlete to being the highest-paid actor, and he always inspired me."

Born in Lansing, Michigan and raised in Florida, he was an all-Southern Conference running back at Florida State University in the 1950s. Reynolds appeared headed to the NFL until a knee injury and an automobile accident ended his chances.

He dropped out of college and drifted to New York, where he worked as a dockhand, dance-hall bouncer, bodyguard and dish washer before returning to Florida in 1957 and enrolling in acting classes.

In the 1960s he made dozens of guest-star appearances on such TV shows as Bonanza, The Twilight Zone and Perry Mason. His first film role came in 1961's Angel Baby, and he followed it with numerous other mediocre movies, the kind, he liked to joke, that were shown in planes and prisons.

He did become famous enough to make frequent appearances on The Tonight Show, leading to his most cherished film role and to his greatest folly.

In the early 1970s, director John Boorman was impressed by how confidently Reynolds handled himself when subbing for Carson as host of The Tonight Show. Boorman thought he might be right for a film adaptation of James Dickey's novel Deliverance. Reynolds starred as Lewis Medlock, the intrepid leader of an ill-fated whitewater canoe trip. When he and three other Atlanta businessmen are ambushed by violent backwoodsmen, Reynolds must guide the group to safety.

In this March 15, 1987 photo, Burt Reynolds and Loni Anderson appear at a polo match in Boca Raton, Florida. Photo / AP
In this March 15, 1987 photo, Burt Reynolds and Loni Anderson appear at a polo match in Boca Raton, Florida. Photo / AP

Deliverance

was an Oscar nominee for best picture and no film made him prouder. In his 2015 memoir

But Enough About Me

, he wrote that

Deliverance

would be his choice could he put one of his movies in a time capsule.

"It proved I could act," he wrote.

But soon after filming was completed, he appeared on The Tonight Show with Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown. He agreed to her invitation, offered during a commercial break, to be the first male centrefold for her magazine.

"I was flattered and intrigued," Reynolds wrote in his memoir. The April 1972 issue of Cosmopolitan quickly sold more than 1 million copies, but turned his life into a "carnival". The centrefold would appear on T-shirts, panties and other merchandise and Reynolds began receiving obscene fan mail. Reynolds' performance in Deliverance was snubbed by the movie academy.

He did remain an A-list movie star, starring in such films as Shamus, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and three popular Smokey and the Bandit comedies, with co-stars including Field and Jackie Gleason.

Burt Reynolds polishes his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in Los Angeles. Photo / AP
Burt Reynolds polishes his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in Los Angeles. Photo / AP

In the 1980s, his career was nearly destroyed when false rumours surfaced that he was infected with the Aids virus, in the height of hysteria over the disease. He had injured his jaw making the 1984 comedy City Heat with Clint Eastwood. Barely able to eat, he lost 22kg and suddenly looked emaciated.

"For two years I couldn't get a job," he told the AP in 1990. "I had to take five physicals to get a job. I had to take the pictures that were offered to me. I did action pictures because I was trying to prove that I was well."

He eventually regained his health, and in 1988 he married Anderson.

But the couple divorced in 1995, and their breakup was an embarrassing public spectacle, with the pair exchanging insults in print interviews and on television shows. Reynolds finally paid her a US$2 million ($3m) settlement and a vacation home to settle the divorce.

He rebounded once again, this time with the role of porn movie impresario Jack Horner in Boogie Nights, which brought him some of his best reviews.

He won a Golden Globe for best supporting actor and received an Oscar nomination. Convinced he would win, he was devastated when the Oscar went to Robin Williams for Good Will Hunting. "I once said that I'd rather have a Heisman Trophy than an Oscar," he wrote in his memoir. "I lied."

- AP