December 25, 1978 12:00 PM

As probably the most bankable actor of the 1970s, Burt Reynolds must have regarded his acceptance of the Male Star of the Year award from the National Association of Theater Owners as another duty appearance. Then it turned into a personally unforgettable evening when he was sought out by the Female Star, Jane Fonda. “Four years ago Jane would have smiled and said, ‘I wonder where he will be next year?’ ” Reynolds figures. Then he adds, obviously moved: “She didn’t have to say she wanted to do a movie with me—but she did.”

Fonda, like everyone else, has begun to discover more to Reynolds than his Gator smile and his beguiling bad-mouthing of his own movies on talk shows. “Unfortunately,” Burt observes, “I have the ability to make what I do look easy, and that is both a talent and a curse. I’d like to see Pacino and DeNiro do Smokey and the Bandit.”

Now no less a cultural arbiter than The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael raves about Reynolds’ “grace and polish.” This year he took his most ambitious artistic risk yet, directing and starring in The End, with the box-office-poison theme of death. “I’m not abandoning my relationship with the people who made me successful,” Burt explains, “but I want to move on to another level.” Predictably, some reviewers couldn’t swallow the Woody Allenesque black comedy (in a way, it’s Burt’s Interiors), but the film still made money—if hardly as much as his latest, Hooper.

Reynolds is so serious about shedding his image of macho (“I hate that word”) that he publicly shaved his mustache on a Tonight Show dare from Steve Martin. “Now I look like I make love in the bedroom instead of on the living room floor,” he cracks. He has also finally achieved romantic stability with his Smokey co-star, Sally Field, and he’s gone literally legitimate: directing Sally in a production at his own new dinner theater in Jupiter, Fla.

With offers of up to $2 million per film, Reynolds is a restless multimillionaire who has at least five acting and directing projects penciled in for 1979, including Starting Over, a sort of Unmarried Man, with Jill Clayburgh and Candice Bergen. Though he kids about an Oscar someday (“If I get a tracheotomy, maybe”), Reynolds is genuinely serious about his beau ideals—Clark Gable and Cary Grant—and his ambitions. “I have a very strong feeling,” he allows, “that one day they’ll say, ‘Hey, Burt Reynolds, he was really good.’ ”

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