October 03, 1994 12:00 PM

Yes, there was a time, long, long ago, when Burt Reynolds was unsure of himself with women. Track back to 1961. Then a 25-year-old newcomer appearing on Broadway in Look: We’ve Come Through, Reynolds accepted a dinner invitation from playwright William Inge, who had attended the show’s opening night. “I expected a small gathering of people, but instead found only Inge and a stunning woman wearing a silk blouse with no brassiere underneath,” writes Reynolds in his forthcoming autobiography, My Life (Hyperion). Feeling “she was too much for me to handle at the time, “Burt, who missed the woman’s name, froze when she said, “Tell me about your life. And what you don’t tell me here, you can tell me later.” Writes Reynolds, 58: “I then did one of the dumbest things I’ve ever done. I looked at my watch, at Inge, and at the lady’s boobs, and said, ‘Excuse me, but I run every night at this time.’ ” Then he bolted. A dozen years later, Reynolds bumped into Inge in L.A. and asked if the playwright remembered him. “Remember?” Inge laughed. “How could I forget the young man who turned down Greta Garbo?”

And so it goes in Reynolds’s self-deprecating memoir that charts his early days in Riviera Beach, Fla., as the son of a tough, undemonstrative police chief; his brief football career at Florida State (curtailed by a knee injury) and his formative years in the theater, which eventually led to the top of the Hollywood heap. Along the way he settles a few scores and drops a few names of the beauties he romanced—add to Dinah, Sally and Loni the likes of Catherine Deneuve, Farrah Fawcett and Candice Bergen. Reynolds doesn’t flinch from recording the pain he suffered when his career crashed and his marriage to Anderson collapsed or the giddy affection he reserves for his 6-year-old son, Quinton, to whom My Life is dedicated. “I hope one day he’ll open this book, have a few laughs, understand his dad a little better, ” writes Reynolds, “and know that he was loved as much or more than anyone who ever lived.”

The following excerpt begins in 1971, a decade after the Garbo debacle, when Reynolds meets Dinah Shore as a guest on her show Dinah’s Place. No longer the bashful Burt, he writes, “I felt a pull on my heart immediately. Right on the air, I asked if she wanted to go to Palm Springs that weekend.”

AFTER THE SHOW, DINAH AND I talked for hours. I’d never met anyone with her combination of intelligence, humor, warmth and wisdom. I left the studio knowing I’d been rattlesnake-bit. Blissfully charmed. Scratched behind my ears. My tummy rubbed. It was like a first love all over.

In Palm Springs, all we did was trade stories about our lives—and realize exactly where fate was leading us. There were a few small fears. Some of Dinah’s friends thought I might be using her. Others couldn’t understand the attraction. They told her she was nuts. And everybody, it seemed, glommed onto the difference in our ages. I was 35 years old then and to this day I swear to God I don’t know Dinah’s age. [Shore was 54 at the time.] I didn’t know it when we started dating, nor did I care.

Although Dinah and I fell in love quickly, our courtship moved cautiously. This was not a lady who jumps into the sack with you a half-hour into the first date. I followed Dinah around the country, meeting her in various cities while she did promotions. Then I went off to Chicago to star in a Neil Simon play, and one night I looked out and there she was.

She invited me to her hotel and ordered champagne. Later, we made love for the first time. For me, it was the discovery of how different sex is when your heart is full of real love and your body aches for life to be full.

Soon after that, we visited my parents in Florida. It was so cute. Dinah insisted on sleeping in what we called the tree-house, which is actually a cabin on the ranch that I had built on stilts. I slept in the big house.

Every night I snuck between the two places, wearing a pretty good track out in the backyard. This charade continued for four or five days. Finally, over breakfast, my dad said, “Who the hell do you kids think you’re kidding?” I felt like I was 17 again. Dinah laughed. She called my dad every Sunday without fail for the rest of her life.

If I have any class, it came from Dinah. In terms of preparing for the rest of my life, I was so damn lucky to have been with her. She didn’t gossip. She wasn’t judgmental. Her sense of decency was impeccable. She taught me how to dress when more than blue jeans was required; how to fold a handkerchief for my front pocket and how to set a table. When I moved into her French colonial house in 1974, she redid everything to make it more our house. We dreamed of building a home in Hawaii and spent countless nights sketching plans.

She knew, of course, how badly I wanted children, even back then. For several years we talked seriously about adopting. Dinah was willing but wary, believing that most men preferred to pass on the bloodline. As always, she knew me better than I knew myself. At 38, I’d just entered the fast lane. Although adoption was a possibility, I thought of it as a surrender of sorts, an attitude I look back on now as so damn self-centered and despicable. If you’re lucky enough to get one of those little sacks of oatmeal, you count your blessings.

Still, a seed had been planted that worked subconsciously to taint my relationship with Dinah. I was on the verge of proposing when my doctor, of all people, warned me to think again. In his 70s, he was one of those doctors who was also concerned about his patient’s personal life. “You know, it’s going to end tragically because of the age difference,” he said one day.

“I don’t even know her age,” I said.

“Well, I do,” he replied. “I love her too, but there’s going to come a time when you’re not sexually attracted to her. Think about that before you marry.” I pushed aside what he said and went back to a passionate romance. Neither of us mentioned the M word. Dinah was too smart and I was too frightened of commitment. But I meant every word when I told her, “I want to be with you the rest of my life.”

Unfortunately, I had no idea of the effect temptation and the old killer, fame, would have on me. But if you’ve ever looked in those funhouse mirrors, that’s the kind of distortion that gradually crept into my vision. I wanted a child of my own, of that I was certain.

Breaking up with Dinah, after four years in 1975, was the hardest thing I’d done in my life. I’d tell myself to be a man, to be straight with this remarkable woman. Then I’d back down.

I talked to Dinah at her house. She sat on the couch holding a hankie. I paced, then sat beside her. We didn’t have any secrets. I’d always said either we’d get married or move on, and it was time to face the facts. If you promised someone like Dinah forever, you’d better damn well live up to it. “I will love you all my life,” I said. “Whatever is good about me, you made it happen.”

Dinah kept her composure, but I wept as I went out the door. For days I was sullen and withdrawn. My heart ached. I fought the urge to call or run back to Dinah. I missed the closeness we had, the friendship and, truthfully, I’ve never stopped missing it every day for almost 20 years.

In 1976, Reynolds met Sally Field when he cast her to costar in Smokey and the Bandit. Following a dinner date with her the night before shooting began, Burt, writes, “I knew I could fall in love with her. In fact, I knew I already had.”

After Dinah, my parents learned not to get their hopes up about marriage, yet neither hid the fact they were smitten with Sally. And after a while, they began dropping hints about whether we were or weren’t going to get hitched.

My answer never varied. I planned to, but beyond that vague commitment loomed a question mark of mythic proportions. The problem boiled down to lifestyle. One weekend I was happy to stay around Sally’s home and repaint a room, but the next I wanted to go on the road with Willie Nelson.

The more money I made, the more homes I acquired: two in California, three in Florida, plus a mansion in Georgia. So why settle down?

Sally made it look so easy, though. She was a model mom to her two boys, Peter and Eli—aged 7 and 3 when I first entered the scene. They lived in a comfy house in Studio City, where she was always doing something—waiting to meet a plumber, dealing with pets. Wearing what seemed like her uniform—cut-offs and T-shirts—she drove carpools and waited on line at the grocery store like everyone else.

If we’d combined households, I might’ve been forced to work on issues I otherwise avoided, but at 421 was set in my bachelor ways. Eli was little enough so that I could get away with hugging him, but Peter was older. He resented me. Not only did I make demands on his mother’s time, I didn’t show him enough respect. He was right.

I didn’t make the effort I was capable of. Once I promised to take the boys fishing, something I wished my dad had done with me. I whetted their appetite with stories from my childhood. But when the big day arrived, I was too tired and hired a fishing guide to take them while I stayed home. Sally buried me for that, and rightly so. Because of her, I became a much better father when my time came. Like Dinah, who gave me confidence, Sally taught me humanity. But she didn’t get back what she gave. I proposed three or four times; she did the same to me. But each time one of us would back out.

In the fall of 1979, Sally and I became Frog and Bandit again in Smokey and the Bandit II. Before director Hal Needham shot the film’s most dramatic scene, in which Frog tells Bandit it’s all over between them because he’s never going to take life seriously, I suggested Sally write her own dialogue. She thought that was a swell idea.

The scene was shot at night. We found a beautiful location beside the water. Sally was as primed as I’d ever seen her. Clearly, the lines she’d written were about us, everything she’d wanted to say for a long time. She made the point that I wanted to play around rather than grow up. She was right, of course, and it made me feel rotten.

Throughout the rest of the filming, from Georgia to Las Vegas, Sally and I had perhaps the most heated affair of our relationship. The sex was angry—well, wonderful and mean—but we couldn’t keep from it. Before returning to L.A., Sally simply said, “It’s over, pal.” And that was it…just about.

Over the next few months, we spoke several times. When Oscar nominations were announced, I congratulated her on receiving a Best Actress nod for Norma Rae, and she bristled that the Academy had overlooked me for Starting Over. In a last attempt at reconciling, we made plans to have dinner. On the way, we got into a horrible argument—over what I don’t remember. As soon as I pulled up to the restaurant she sprang out of the car and started running. I froze, watching Sally disappear into the darkness.

I started down the street hunting for her in people’s hedges and driveways, shouting “Sally, Sally.” I finally found her walking through a dark canyon and persuaded her to let me drive her home. She remained perfectly silent while I apologized the entire way. But after I dropped her off, that was it.

The next time I saw her was on television the night of the Academy Awards. I’d retreated to Florida, as if I could snub Hollywood’s grandest night by leaving the state. Long after the telecast ended, about 1 a.m., I turned the TV back on. Alas, there would be no escape from Sally. God put her directly into my bedroom via the airwaves as Rona Barrett questioned her about the big evening. Asked what she thought while running down the aisle to collect her award, Sally said, “I was thinking, ‘F—k you, Burt Reynolds. F—k you, Burt Reynolds. F—k you, Burt Reynolds.”

They had bleeped the F-word, but I heard it. I felt as if I’d been run over by a truck. I knew the very best of Sally; my biggest regret is that she never saw the best of me. She saw only the boy.

Reynolds began to take a special interest in Loni Anderson at a TV tribute honoring him as Entertainer of the Year in 1981, when, he writes, “she snuggled up beside me and in a breathy voice whispered in my ear, ‘I want to have your baby.’ ” The two were roommates by 1984, when Reynolds signed on to star in City Heat with his pal Clint Eastwood. While shooting the opening fight scene, a stuntman accidentally slammed a metal chair across Burt’s right jaw. The result: a fractured tempora-mandibular joint that caused severe inner-ear damage. For the next two years, Reynolds would suffer from agonizing repercussions, which included not just financial setbacks and rumors that he had AIDS, but unrelenting pain. “I spent almost every day curled up in a fetal position, “he writes. “If a light was on, I felt as if needles were plunged into my eyes. I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t move without being overwhelmed by nausea and dizziness. “For a while morphine helped. Then in May 1984, before Reynolds found the specialists who would successfully treat his disorder by inserting plastic earplugs and then realigning his upper and lower jaws, another doctor prescribed the sleeping pill IIalcion.

Miraculously, as the Halcion started to relax me, my jaw quit hurting for the first time in months. I fell in love with something that would prove to be the only drug in my life.

Over time I’d come to rely on those tiny blue pills, but till then I looked to Loni for strength. I told myself that each day she stayed with me was a sign that she really did love me If a woman of her beauty was still there, I had to hope for the best.

One day Loni came home devastated. Her hairdresser had heard I was being treated for AIDS and refused to do her hair. Her manicurist also told her to take her nails elsewhere. My friends were bailing out faster than passengers on the Titanic. I tried making light of it. I joked about saving money on Christmas cards. But the loss of people whom I thought cared caused me a tremendous amount of emotional pain beyond the physical pain that was already killing me. If I didn’t have a good enough reason to take pills, I did then, and boy I was hitting those babies big time.

I gobbled up to 50 Halcion pills a day. Yes, 50,1 know that could kill you. Well, it should have. It sounds impossible. But I had doctors scattered all around the country, from Florida to California and various cities in between. As any junkie knows, it takes a lot of effort, money, quickness and so-called friends to support a habit.

In early 1986, Loni and I planned a trip to the house in Jupiter, Fla. I decided to leave three days ahead of her and, without her knowing go cold turkey off my habit. I’d overcome dependencies on Valium and Percodan in the past by locking myself in the house. After one or two horrible days and nights of the shakes, sweating and nausea, I had fought my way back. I didn’t think this would be any different.

I snuck into the Jupiter house undetected. Nobody knew I was home except my assistant. I grabbed a jug of water from the fridge, went upstairs, and lay on the bed. The afternoon was rough but manageable. However, by night I was rocking back and forth on the bed, howling like a wolf from the pain. Shaking, screaming, out of my mind, I started hallucinating. I hollered at the gremlins who wanted me to take another pill.

Somehow I made it through the night, but the next day, instead of getting better, I was clearly getting sicker. And scared. I thought about calling for help but before I could, I lapsed into a coma. For roughly nine hours I was stuck in a strange hallucinatory movie. It went around and around until the bedroom door crashed open and my assistant and several police officers found me.

Unconscious, I was spread like a beaten rug on the floor with my eyes rolled back into my head. But I heard even-thing. When the paramedics arrived, they took my vital signs, shined a flashlight in my eyes and even discussed giving me an injection of morphine, which, mixed with drugs already in my system would’ve killed me. I shouted, “No! No, don’t give me a shot!” But nothing came out.

I was rushed to a hospital. By the time Loni arrived, my heart had sputtered to a near standstill several times and had slowed to where the doctors suggested it might be time for her to say goodbye. Kneeling beside the bed, she whispered how much she loved me.

Loni told the doctor about my addiction. A shot of liquid Valium jump-started my heart. By the next day, I was out of the coma, chatting with a wonderful nurse named Nancy. Several days later, I snuck out of the hospital at 2 a.m. to avoid vulture-like tabloid reporters. Later that day, I was sparring with my new-psychiatrist.

He started me on a detox program. Drastic but safe, he prescribed phenobarbital in a decreasing amount. I began taking 21 pills and reduced the amount by one each day. He also got me a male nurse, this huge sweetheart who would be essential in getting through the tough days to come. On the first day, I downed 21 phenobarbitals, felt swell and went to sleep. By the time my allotment dropped to three pills a day, I didn’t think I’d make it.

But my nurse handled me perfectly. He yelled at me. He called me a chickens—t when I wouldn’t get out of bed. He laughed when I tried choking him. He forced me to walk around the tennis court. He dropped me in the pool and coerced me into swimming. For the first time in years, my appetite returned. About a month later, I’d regained 30-some pounds. With my strength returning, I had to convince people in Hollywood that my next performance wasn’t going to be in the Wax Museum.

Thank God for friends like Johnny Carson. Accepting his long-standing invitation, I made a highly emotional public appearance on the Tonight Show in the fall of 1986. I’d thought about dispelling persistent AIDS rumors by joking that I’d had only a mild case. Instead, I held up a little black notebook, which, I told Johnny, contained the names of all the people who’d supported me through the long illness.

Then I opened it. The pages were empty “It’s always nice to know who your friends are,” I said, and though I may not have looked 100 percent, I heard the audience cheer and I felt like I was on my way back.

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