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At FLIFF, Burt Reynolds' lifetime of achievement

In Burt Reynolds’ bittersweet comedy “Dog Years,” opening the 2017 Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival on Friday, Nov. 3, the actor must get by without the props he’s been associated with in nearly 60 years on screens big and small: No guns, no cars, no canoe, no biceps, no hypersexed charisma.

Instead, the 81-year-old actor gets by on vulnerability and emotion in his portrayal of a man with whom he is intimately familiar.

Penned specifically for him by writer-director Adam Rifkin, Reynolds plays a former Hollywood leading man who, against his better judgment, agrees to fly to Nashville to accept a lifetime achievement award at a film festival that turns out to be an embarrassingly low-rent fan-boy affair. Reynold’s fictional doppelganger channels his humiliation into a road trip, commandeering the festival’s beat-up car and its driver, Lil, played with punk-rock excess by Ariel Winter of “Modern Family.”

As Reynolds’ character leads Lil on a tour of old haunts and conquests, Rifkin’s film turns into an unsubtle reappraisal of Reynolds’ career — including scenes in which the modern Reynolds converses with his characters in “Deliverance” and “Smokey and the Bandit.”

In advance of his appearance at FLIFF, where he will walk the red carpet and, yes, accept a lifetime achievement award on Friday (to go with the same award he got from FLIFF in 1991), Reynolds got on the phone to answer a few questions about his career, his acting reputation, his affection for Sally Field and how he got strong-willed actress Ariel Winter to stop cussing so much.

Is “Dog Years” trying to clear up a misconception? Is there something you want people to know about Burt Reynolds, something we’re getting wrong.

Well, I’d done the other kind of film forever. I was in a zillion car pictures that made a lot of money, and they did well, but there was no way to show any kind of acting chops at all.

The names Robert De Niro and Clint Eastwood are dropped in “Dog Years” as models of great actors. But you had an element of charisma and wit they lacked. Is the breadth of your skill underestimated?

I think it’s certainly changing, yes. I’m happy it is. Before they throw dirt in my face, I hope they say that the guy’s got some chops, and he can act. I also believe that “Starting Over” and “Deliverance” were good films, really good films, but I think they may have been misunderstood in many ways.

How was “Deliverance” misunderstood?

It was misunderstood in the sense that a lot of people thought it was a horror movie, and a lot of other people just didn’t want to go see that kind of movie. I think John Boorman is the best director I ever worked for.

Did he bring out something special in you?

Yeah, he challenged me a little. Sometimes … I would say something, a line, improvising, in rehearsal, and he would walk up to me and kind of sotto voce, say, “Say that in the take.” And I thought, “Well, he hasn’t done that with anybody else.” I was very complimented about it. One was, “You don’t beat this river.” It just made sense to me to say it at that time.

You improvised that line in the film? John Boorman allowed that?

He not only allowed it, when the tape was over he said, “Cut. Print. We don’t need to do anything more.” He never did that. It was usually three or four takes at least. … I was proud of that.

Were you not challenged enough in your career?

I don’t think I did films that challenged me. But I think certainly “Deliverance” did, and “Starting Over” did. Surprisingly, I thought “Deliverance” would make a lot of money. It made money, but it didn’t make the kind of money I thought it would.

Do you wish you had done more serious, important films?

People call pictures important because someone else calls them important. And I’m not sure the people who call them important are important enough to call them that. [Laughs] Who am I to say?

“Dog Years” seems to be about regret. Is there a project that you turned down that you wished you had taken. I read that you had some conversations about “Star Wars” and Han Solo.

Yeah, you know, I don’t like that kind of film, science fiction or any kind of picture … with little people chasing you. I don’t think I’d be very good at them. That picture certainly proved me wrong in terms of box office. … But the week that it came out, we came out with “Smokey and the Bandit,” and we beat them that first week. The following week, of course, they killed us.

People may forget, but you were one of the biggest stars in pop culture when “Smokey and the Bandit” was released.

Well, you know, having Jackie Gleason didn’t hurt us. … Gleason was great, Jerry Reed was wonderful, and [the relationship between] Sally and I, that was great.

Sally didn’t want to do it, she absolutely fought me: “Why should I do a picture like that? It’s not good for your career, etc, etc.” But I talked her into it.

When the picture came out, she happened to be down here with me. And I said, “Let’s go down to the theater and see what’s making money.” And we went down to the multiplex [in West Palm Beach] ... and there was a line around the block. And I said, “Holy cow, what’s that for?” And it was for our picture. I was really happy about that.

How did you convince her to do the film?

I begged her. [Laughs] I did.

Are you still in touch with Sally?

Yeah, you know, that’s somebody that … you’re crazy if you lose touch with them. I hope that we’re always friends. I hope she lies and tells me she likes me. [Laughs] Yeah, we’re still friends.

Robert De Niro came to the opening of “Dog Years” at the Tribeca Film Festival. What did that mean to you. Did you know him?

I don’t know him, and I was really touched by it. He came up to me — I was in the back just as the end credits ran — and he winked at me. And I said, “I’ve never had a man like you wink at me, but I like it.” And he laughed.

You used to wink. That was your thing, right? Was he copying you? What do you think he was saying?

I think he was saying that he liked the picture and it was a good idea. I put a whole bunch of stuff in that wink that probably wasn’t there. [Laughs] He was very warm, and I sensed that he was happy to see me.

What do you want people to know about “Dog Years” and why you made it.

First of all, I think it’s not a Burt Reynolds film. It’s not what they expect of me. … Adam directed something that is very touching and uplifting. It gave me a chance to stretch my acting chops. I got pretty emotional some of the time. … I’ve never had to play that kind of man before, who’s openly emotional.

What scenes made you so emotional?

There’s a scene with [Ariel Winter as Lil], when I was trying to talk with her about being a grownup. When I first met [Winter] — I hope she won’t be angry about this — but you know a lot of young girls today, they get very hip to having filthy language. I took her aside, and I said, “Look, that may go over big with whoever your friends are, but I don’t like it. Especially with women.” And I said, “I assume you’re a fan of Sally Field … Well, you couldn’t get her to talk like that if you hit her with a hammer. She’s too smart. Your IQ drops about 90 points when you talk like that.” And she stopped it. And after that, we became real friends … and I’ve gotten to like her enormously.

“Dog Years” opens the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 3, at Hard Rock Live, 1 Seminole Way, in Hollywood. The screening will be preceded by a red-carpet appearance by Reynolds and other FLIFF celebrities. Tickets to the film cost $12, $10 seniors, $9 military and students. All tickets will cost $15 at the door. Call 954-525-3456 or go to FLIFF.com.

bcrandell@sun-sentinel.com

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