IT’S ALMOST 9 P.M., AND THE STAR, announced for 8:30, still hasn’t appeared. But once Burt Reynolds arrives onstage, he wanders the den-like set—munching peanuts and grapes—and chats, jokes and dishes for…why, will you look at the time? It’s been almost four hours! An Evening with Burt Reynolds is Homeric in length if nothing else. But the audience at Nashville’s Tennessee Performance Arts Center doesn’t mind. They’re getting what they came for and plenty of it. “I went to this party in the ’60s and saw this beautiful woman in a see-through yellow blouse with nothing underneath,” says Burt. “I kept staring at her, but when she said, ‘Why don’t you go home with me?’ I ran out the door. Twenty-five years later I found out who the woman was: Greta Garbo.”
David Niven used to urge Burt to turn his irreverent storytelling—long displayed on the talk show circuit—into an act. Now, with the help of his friend director Charles Nelson Reilly, Burt has gone and done it. He has taken his 55 years of memories and anecdotes on the road, busing through 18 southern and midwestern cities in 30 days. But wait. Why is this guy up there? He’s a movie star. He has a hit TV show, Evening Shade. Surely he doesn’t need the money. No, this need is elemental. Burt needs to talk.
And talk he does. About Sally Field (“She hasn’t had much good to say about me, but she’s the best actress I’ve ever worked with.”). About Dolly Parton (“I don’t know about you, but I like her more plump. There’s more to love.”). And about Bette Davis on the day her nemesis Joan Crawford passed away (“Bette came into this room and said, ‘Well, the bitch died today.’ She paused for a second and then added, ‘She was always on time.’ “).
Burt tailors each show to his audience. In Nashville he skips the bit about the effect on his career of rumors that he had AIDS. Here, he goes country and western, wearing a glittery denim jacket and bringing Minnie Pearl onstage (“Eat your heart out, Porter Wagoner.”). At the end the Nashvilleans give the good ol’ boy a warm, standing ovation, as if he were an old friend. The females can pretend to more than that. As they leave, they can plunk down $16 in the lobby for a nightshirt bearing a picture of the star in tuxedo and tennis shoes and emblazoned with the words, I SPENT THE NIGHT WITH BURT REYNOLDS.