Before he became a worldwide star, before he became an icon of film and television, Burt Reynolds was already famous.
In Palm Beach County.
Throughout the 1950s, his name appeared routinely in The Palm Beach Post. To eagle-eyed readers, he was probably as well-known as any local politician.
On October 31, 1953, for example, his exploits shared the front page along with news of Cold War skirmishes in East Germany and Korea, Albert Schweitzer winning the Nobel Peace Prize and Tallahassee politicos sparring over a special election to replace the late Gov. Dan McCarty.
With the headline “Wildcats Defeat Orlando Boone, 13-0,” Post sports writer Dick Taylor could not resist a trick-or-treat analogy in his lead paragraph on an away victory by Palm Beach High’s football team:
“Buddy Reynolds frosted Orlando Boone (High School’s) pumpkin on Halloween Eve last night as the bruising Palm Beach fullback softened up the brave Braves for a 13-0 Big Ten victory before about 4,500 chilled fans at the Tangerine Bowl.”
He was Buddy back then. Burt came later.
When Reynolds rose to national prominence, it must not have been a shock. He was used to being a celebrity. The son of Riviera Beach’s police chief, he had been reading about himself for a long time.
After all, it wasn’t The New York Times that first reported Burt Reynolds’ sports glory. Or the knee injury and horrific car accident that ended it — and almost killed him in the process.
It didn’t cover his first acting performance. Or give him his first professional review. Or cover his first acting award and debut as a director.
That all happened here — on the pages of his hometown newspaper.
Buddy Reynolds was introduced to Post readers on May 16, 1947, a year after his family had moved to Palm Beach County from his birthplace of Lansing, Mich. It was a three-paragraph story titled “Lake Park PTA To Give Program.” He was listed among 38 children in a “Living Pictures” presentation at the Lake Park School auditorium, re-enacting historic scenes and paintings.
A year later, he was one of 14 kids attending a meeting of Lake Park’s Boy Scouts Troop 6 at the Riviera Beach Baptist Church. Reynolds received three merit badges.
On Dec. 8, 1950, Reynolds’ picture appeared in the paper for the first time, a group shot of All-Star football players from local junior high schools. Reynolds, third from the left on the bottom row, played for Central Junior.
He also got his first review of sorts that fall in a sports story titled “Central Juniors Trim Riviera”:
“Reggie Studstill and Buddy Reynolds paced Central to the initial touchdown…Reynolds converted on another line smash.”
This was the beginning of “pile-driving Buddy Reynolds’” leap to sports-page fame, especially after he started playing for Palm Beach High.
November 1951: “Buddy Reynolds scored the second TD on a three-yard buck…”
October 1952: “Buddy Reynolds, alternating between full and halfback, sparked the drive…”
November 1952: “Buddy Reynolds crossed up the opposition…and bulled his way over the goal line.”
December 1952: “Fleet Buddy Reynolds on his way around end for a touchdown…”
October 1953: “Reynolds carried the ball an amazing total of 18 times, picking up 90 yards.”
November 1953: “Reynolds, the hardest running fullback in Florida prep circles…”
Pictures of Reynolds smashing into the end zone appeared in large spreads. Sports scribes covered his every move, even surgery for a painful “leg boil.” And given Reynolds’ longtime allegiance to Florida State University, it might surprise some Noles boosters that in December 1953 the Post reported his intentions to play college ball for the University of Miami Hurricanes.
Reynolds also got write-ups in the Post for other activities. (Though not the amorous ones he later chronicled in his memoirs).
He escorted Sally Hamner to homecoming during a Palm Beach High basketball game. With other boys in print shop, he was a finalist for a cover design of the Lake Worth city directory. He ran track — the 440 and 100-yard dash. He was a sports editor on The Frond, the high school newspaper. A portrait he did of Abraham Lincoln was displayed in the school hallway.
And on Nov. 1, 1953, he made his improbable debut as…a Palm Beach Post reporter. Along with Bette Andrews, he shared a byline on the regular school-page column, “Senior Class Notes.” Reynolds and Andrews dutifully reported on the success of the Halloween carnival, a trip to Africa USA theme park, and meetings of the Key Club and Y Teens.
To the best of our knowledge, Reynolds retired from journalism shortly thereafter.
After graduation, when Reynolds went to Florida State on scholarship, his fame continued to soar. On the football field, his go-for-broke style helped him make the 1954 varsity team as a freshman.
“Buddy Reynolds Scores In Seminoles 46-7 Win,” read a six-column headline in October 1954. “I hustle, and I guess I’m lucky,” he told the Post in an interview about how he made the starting squad so early.
He remained fascinating to local readers. Nothing about him was too small to escape attention — the Post devoted column inches to his return home for Christmas holidays and his college summer job as a camp counselor in Odessa.
Then, in September 1955, another across-the-page headline: “Buddy Reynolds Quits Seminoles Because of Injury.” After tearing cartilage in his knee, he “felt so lousy” that he left school without telling his coach. He told the Post that he couldn’t take the rest of his four-year scholarship because he would “feel like a leech.” He was coming home to get a job, though, as legend has it, he also told friends he was going to become a Hollywood star.
The 19-year-old underwent knee surgery in October, with his doctor telling the Post that he still had a chance to play football next season. “The outlook is bright for Buddy,” Dr. Philip O. Lichtblau said.
And then it got dimmer.
About a week before Christmas, Reynolds’ car struck a Rinker Materials truck and slammed into a railroad embankment on A1A in Riviera Beach, near the Beach Drive-In Theater. The truck driver fled the scene. Reynolds was rushed to St. Mary’s in critical condition. A Palm Beach High coach urged local residents to donate blood. In the end, Reynolds’ spleen was removed and he required nine pints of blood during the operation.
The Post reported that he was in “an actual battle for his life.” It wrote stories about him welcoming friends to visit (headline: “Bud Reynolds Said Improved”), and put out an inquiry to readers for an FSU watch he lost in the accident.
In a year-end column, a Post sports columnist wrote that “of most importance, may God speed to prime health Buddy Reynolds.”
But he would never be healthy for the football career he imagined. And it seemed that Reynolds’ brush with fame was over, too. Instead it was just kicking into overdrive.
More local Reynolds lore: At the urging of his dad, the jock enrolls at Palm Beach Junior College in 1956. An English professor, Watson B. Duncan III, hears him declaim Shakespeare. He tells the flabbergasted youth that he’s going to be an actor.
Amazingly enough, he became one.
On April 20, 1956, Reynolds got his first review as an actor for his performance in the college play, “Outward Bound.”
It was one sentence on Page 10 of the Post in a story headlined “College Play Is Satisfying”: “Buddy Reynolds gives a sensitive portrayal of the inwardly distracted Tom Prior.”
So satisfying that he won the school’s 1956 equivalent of an Oscar for best dramatic actor. In a “Stunt Night” for his college fraternity one month later, Reynolds wrote and performed in a prescient skit called “How To Get In The Movies.” It won top prize.
By June 1956, the Post was asking the question: “Buddy Reynolds: Actor or Gridder?” He got a scholarship to play summer stock in New York, and impressed critics and his fellow actors, including Joanne Woodward. Things moved fast.
On November 30, a headline in the Post read: “Riviera Youth Opens Broadway Career Dec. 5.” Reynolds had landed a supporting role in a revival of “Mr. Roberts” with Charlton Heston.
With a national platform, some wannabe stars might have left Palm Beach County in the dust. But that was where Buddy Reynolds was different. He always came back home, and even tried another shot at playing FSU football. When that failed, he focused on acting.
In 1958, he appeared in “Bus Stop” with the Norton Gallery Players, a theatrical offshoot of the museum. He also made his debut at the Lake Worth Playhouse that year in Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons,” where he would continue to act through the early ’60s.
It took time to build from his early Broadway appearances. At one point, the Post reported that he was so frustrated that he was going to return to “coach at St. Anne’s High School,” but told his mother he would give Hollywood one last try.
By 1959, he had done some TV guest spots, auditioned for a Clark Gable movie and got a role that fall in his first series, “Riverboat.”
During that transition year, the paper often didn’t know what to call him. The world was starting to know him as Burt. But local folks were used to Buddy. The paper split the difference, and would call him “Burt (Buddy) Reynolds.”
But as “Riverboat” was about to air, it was time to move past his teen gridiron persona, the Post announced.
“Come September, it’ll be Burt Reynolds to everyone for, no doubt, he will vault into prominence once the series starts, and that’s his billing.”
A STAR IN THE MAKING
As Reynolds’ fame grew in the early 1960s, he would return home to visit family and friends. Some tidbits from the Post’s archives:
*Even after being on TV, he acted in student plays at the Lake Worth Playhouse. It was usually to raise money for scholarships, including one in his name, but how many of today’s stars would act in college or local playhouse productions? Especially strange ones such as 1962’s “The Man In The Dog Suit,” in which Reynolds gamely posed for pictures with, well, a guy in a dog suit.
*He made his directing debut here. Long before he directed “Sharky’s Machine,” “The End” and “Stick,” he kicked off his directing career at the Lake Worth Playhouse in 1961 with a World War II drama, “A Sound of Hunting.”
*He would give speeches all over town. He spoke about his budding career at private homes, social club meetings, Forest Hill High School, Palm Beach Gardens High School and, of course, Palm Beach Junior College.
*He had a local fan club. The Buddy Reynolds Fan Club. He appeared at a New Year’s dance at the Riviera club Teen Town, and held a party for his fan club members.
*He thought about portraying a sweet prince. The November 1965 headline: “Burt Reynolds To Play Hamlet at Palm Beach Junior College.” He said it would be “the biggest challenge of my entire career” and that he had mixed feelings about “experimenting in my home town.” Alas, it was not to be. There is no record in the archives that he ever did it.
*He did play a king. Looking a bit sheepish with a crown and scepter, he agreed to be King of the new Golden Palm Festival in 1967.
*He had a night named after him at the Palm Beach Kennel Club in 1970. He was dating actress Inger Stevens at the time, and they served as honorary dog race judges at “Burt Reynolds-Inger Stevens Night.” Tragically, two months later, Stevens committed suicide.