By Lois Armstrong
April 23, 1979 12:00 PM

The premiere-night audience, resplendent in black tie, is abuzz with anticipation and champagne (on the house). In the stars’ dressing room, Sally Field fusses with her costume. “Break a leg, kid,” murmurs Burt Reynolds, kissing her. “I love you,” she whispers before going on. When Reynolds makes his entrance, the theater explodes with cheers.

The night the stars fell on Jupiter had nothing to do with Voyager II. Rather, the world’s No. 1 box office star was paying fond homage to his hometown of Jupiter, Fla. (pop. 3,136). Burt—or “Buddy,” as he’s known back in Florida—has grossed more than $400 million in the last 24 months with movies like Hooper and Smokey and the Bandit. But playing that night before an audience of 400, he felt “like a basket case.” After all, this was the Burt Reynolds Dinner Theatre, a $2 million venture he opened in January “because, as corny as it sounds, I wanted to give something back to the place that gave me so much when I was growing up.”

With a top price of $18.95 for steak-and-show, the theater had already sold out its season even before Burt began importing Hollywood pals like Julie Kavner, Karen Valentine and Martin Sheen. As Reynolds himself pledged at the inauguration: “You’ll never see a star here that you thought was dead.” Last month the impresario himself took over as director-lead of N. Richard Nash’s The Rainmaker. Co-starring was his real-life love, Sally Field, which only added to the occasion. (The audience tittered delightedly when Burt and Sally exchanged their first onstage kiss.) So what if the nearby Palm Beach paper panned his debut in the role that had once won Burt a theater award? “When you act and direct, something has to be sacrificed—usually your performance,” he shrugs. “I’m not up to par, but I’m proud of the others.” Crony Carol Burnett, who caught the show, liked it. “Burt’s one of the few, like Bogart or Stewart or Cagney, who’s a personality and can still immerse himself in a role,” she says. “He sticks his neck out and keeps on truckin’.”

“I’ve always taken chances,” reckons Burt, 43, who just completed one of his boldest. It is Alan Pakula’s film Starting Over, a sort of Unmarried Man, in which he gets dumped by Candice Bergen. He hopes it will be “my Norma Rae,” referring to Sally’s current critical stunner. Shooting the film this winter not only caused Burt to miss Christmas with his folks (for the first time ever) but also made for some groundless tabloid gossip when he escorted Candice around New York. “My God, Sally was incredible,” lauds Burt. “She said, ‘If I were Burt Reynolds and I were around Candy, I’d want to be with her every chance I got.'” Burt himself says, “I admit I’m a flirt. I like women a lot—young, old, plain, pretty, any women.” “Well, more than half the terrific people in the world are women,” notes Sally, obviously secure. “I would never want to be the kind of person to say he couldn’t be friends with women. Besides, I know he’s not a womanizer at all…Oh, maybe he was in his 20s.”

Reynolds remains genuinely fond of past women in his life like Tammy Wynette, Chris Evert and even his hard-luck ex-wife, Judy Carne. He calls Dinah Shore monthly, and she has visited Burt’s parents in Florida twice this year. He and Sally, 32, have kept company for three years, but still haven’t combined their L.A. households—his in Holmby Hills, hers in Studio City. “I’m old-fashioned about that,” he says. Two of his reasons are Sally’s children—Peter, 9, and Eli, 6—from her own five-year marriage to writer Steve Craig. “I want them to have some kind of values,” says Burt. “I don’t want them to think of me as this guy who moved in with their mother.”

His concern for her kids has likewise altered their marriage timetable. “I am planning to get married, but I don’t know when,” Burt explains. “The kids and I have a great relationship, but we haven’t had enough time together. Am I supposed to tell Sally to drop them off and screech away?” Reynolds wants to spend a solid month with them while everyone mulls whether they can make a family. “They’re more important to Sally than I am, which is the way it should be.” Personally, he adds, “I want a kid so bad that I ache, and yet I have this incredible fear. But one day you turn around and say, ‘Oh, hell, I’ll just do it.’ ”

Fitting more family demands into their schedules wouldn’t be easy. Even in Jupiter, with their careers in sync, “I was doing the laundry and he was reading the play he’s directing next,” recalls Sally. “He discussed it with me while I was cooking breakfast.” Household duties remain the Achilles’ heel of Burt’s emerging liberation. (He supported ERA in Florida—it lost—and has lunched with Gloria Steinem to “learn to talk like Alan Alda,” the showbiz feminist.) “He’s real bad in the kitchen,” groans Sally, who cooked dinner before evening shows for Reynolds. His hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) requires him to eat constantly. “I am always slapping a piece of chicken into his hand.” Liquor, though, is forbidden. “God, I was fun when I drank,” mourns Burt. “I’d go to drugs, but they’re so boring.” Besides, Sally says they have better ways of fighting off tension. “It’s so easy for the pressures to get to us, and it would be easy to start screaming at each other, but we don’t. Instead we just forget everything and giggle a lot. We know all the gremlins now, and when they pop out we’re not totally surprised.”

For Burt, the BR Horse Ranch (90 horses, a few deer, some cattle) he bought in 1968 is “home and everything to me. My biggest weakness is land. I always wanted a place where you didn’t have to worry about yelling and having somebody hear what you say.” It’s run by his retired police chief dad, Burton Leon Sr., and his mom, Fern, both in their 70s. The main house was once supposedly the hideaway of Al Capone, and there’s a tack store on the property that is open to the public (so they won’t tear down the rest for souvenirs). A frequent visitor is Burt’s “brother” Jim Nicholson, 43, whom Burt brought home from school one day when they were children and who stayed on (but was never legally adopted). Burt likes to fish for bass on his 22-acre private lake (he throws them back) and otherwise just rambles around on his disproportionately short legs. “When I was born God gave my legs to somebody else,” jokes Reynolds, a six-footer. “Somewhere there’s a man with this tiny little body walking around on my long legs.”

His Holmby Hills mansion is worth twice the ranch (in dollars), but his life there is equally down-home, though the crowd may include stars like Burnett, Betty White, Dom DeLuise, Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft, Clint Eastwood, Carl Reiner, Norman Fell and Orson Welles. “You haven’t lived,” Sally says, “until you’ve seen Orson Welles doing picture charades with everybody yelling at him.” But just as often Burt goes to her house to help with such chores as “painting the kids’ bedroom,” says Sally. “Just your flamboyant movie star’s life!” Sometimes they watch old movies or Reynolds reads showbiz biographies or “anything he can lay his hands on,” according to Sally.

“I’ve always been sorry I never finished college,” says Burt. In February he gave a talk at Harvard, where “they were hoping for a Stanley Kubrick and they got this schmuck actor with a cowboy hat. But when we were through we felt a mutual respect.” Still two years short of his B.A. from Florida State (he was there to play football), Burt has resumed his studies and just got an A on his final exam in American history. Eventually, he says, “I’d like to go somewhere and teach high school for a semester or two.”

Reynolds sees himself only distantly related to “the Burt Reynolds I created on The Tonight Show.” He long ago tired of gags about his hairpiece, which he is now phasing out in favor of an $8,000 hair transplant. (“It’s funny, if you sew something into your head it’s not phony, it’s yours. But if it’s glued on…”) Despite fears that “in a few years they’ll be asking me to play John Travolta’s father,” Reynolds feels that “these are the best years of my life as an actor, and I want to crowd in as much as I can.” Indeed, he’s lined up projects through 1981, beginning in July in London when he shoots David Merrick’s Rough Cut, his closest to a Cary Grant role; his co-star is Leslie-Anne Down.

Reynolds has never even been nominated for an Oscar, and during last week’s ceremonies he and Field were away for a week of R&R in Bora Bora. “The critics are coming around very slowly,” he finds. As Orson Welles cautions, “Forgive Burt for what he is: a crowd pleaser.” His last director, Pakula, describes Reynolds as “a man of many layers. He leaves you with a sense of mystery, something private he can draw on. He still has surprises for us.” As the man himself puts it, “I’m the best Burt Reynolds in the business—and I’m trying so hard to stretch him.” To the question they might ask back in Florida, “How ya doing, Buddy?” Reynolds’ answer is, “I haven’t even scratched the surface.”