A documentary about the late Hal Needham, the stuntman-turned-director who helped to cheapen, devalue and all but assassinate Burt Reynolds‘ career as a top-of-the-heap superstar, is airing tonight on CMT at 7 pm Pacific/10 pm Eastern, and then again tomorrow afternoon around 1 pm or thereabouts. Jesse Moss‘ The Bandit, which screened at SXSW and two or three other festivals earlier this year, is about the perplexing friendship between Reynolds and Needham.
Reynolds’ Achilles heel was his loyalty to Needham, a pal since the ’50s and a one-time roommate. His decision to star in a string of atrocious (if financially bountiful) Needham-directed drive-in flicks from the mid ’70s to mid ’80s cast a shitkicker pall over Reynolds’ image. It wasn’t all Needham’s fault, granted, but by ’85 or ’86 Reynolds’ heyday had come to an end.
From my 2013 Needham obituary: “What killed Burt Reynolds‘ career as a hot-shit movie star? His decision to star in a string of lowbrow shitkicker films, most of which were directed by his buddy Hal Needham, who started out in the mid ’50s as a stuntman.
“Under Needham’s Lubistch-like guidance Reynolds starred in Smokey and the Bandit (’77), Hooper (’78), Smokey and the Bandit 2, The Cannonball Run (’81), Stroker Ace (’83) and The Cannonball Run II (’84).
“It’s generally understood that Reynolds stabbed his career in the heart when he turned down the astronaut role in James L. Brooks‘ Terms of Endearment in order to make Stroker Ace, allegedly out of loyalty to Needham.
“Today it was announced that Needham, 82, has passed. Condolences to family and friends, but he was one of the worst directors to ever make a dent in this town. No, wait…I didn’t mean that. Well, actually I did.
“The Cannonball Run II was one of the most throughly cynical and poisonous films I’ve ever sat through (that Frank Sinatra cameo!), and I actually paid to see the damn thing in a Times Square theatre. If you’ve ever cared about the wondrous transportation of cinema, the films of Hal Needham will always be a must-to-avoid. But I’m sure he was a nice guy and a good friend, etc. He knew how to kick back and have a good old time. Yeehaw!
“If given a choice between leading a Needham-type life and the kind of life lived by Eric von Stroheim or Stanley Kubrick or David Fincher or John Huston, I’m guessing that most Americans would choose the Needham path.”