We look back at Hal Needham’s great ‘Smokey & The Bandit’ to mark his passing

When “Smokey and the Bandit” is your debut film as a director, you get a place in the pantheon, no matter what else you end up doing.

Hal Needham was born in Memphis, Tennessee in 1931. He had an amazing run as a stuntman before he ever got behind the camera, and when you look at the full list of how many films and TV shows he worked on during his career over on IMDb, it is a stunning amount of work he did. It’s hard to calculate where he had his greatest impact on the industry. I would argue safety is the thing that he should be known for first, because he was absolutely one of the guys who helped modernize the stunt craft in film. He was a big believer in mechanical devices, like a crazed Rube Goldberg with a taste for obvious jokes and giant car crashes, and he helped create and mainstream a number of inventions over the years.

Last year, Kristopher Tapley wrote a pretty great look at the evening where Needham was rewarded by the Academy at the Governors Awards. Quentin Tarantino was one of several people who helped present the award. It’s a pretty big deal in terms of Academy politics because of how few times they’ve even acknowledged that stunts exist, one of the strangest blind spots that the Academy has. I’d never heard the story about Needham firing a missile by accident and burning down the soundstage where “Pennies From Heaven” was filming, but that’s awesome.

The summer of “Star Wars” was the moment I first genuinely awoke and clicked in to pop culture completely. Before that, I was sort of a goofball kid who really liked books. And then “Star Wars” broke my brain, and I wanted to live in a movie theater. Thankfully, there were enough other things that came out that summer that my parents wanted to see, and we spent the summer seeing a bunch of them. I saw “A Bridge Too Far” with my dad, and that was amazing. My first war movie, and it was a landslide of ’70s movie stars I didn’t recognize at all. “For The Love Of Benji,” which I think I saw more than once. “The Bad News Bears In Breaking Training,” which was the first cuss-heavy movie I remember. A double-dose of Disney with “The Rescuers” and “Herbie Goes To Monte Carlo.” My first James Bond theatrical experience, also with my dad, “The Spy Who Loved Me.”

And then, neck and neck with “Star Wars” for “film I saw the most times that year,” there was “Smokey and the Bandit.” That film remains a big deliriously happy slice of cheese with a great cast having a great time and an approach to vehicular mayhem that is positively carefree. Sally Field is great in it, appealing in a way that seven-year-old me did not fully appreciate, and Burt Reynolds is at his career best in terms of pure movie star wattage. He has to be. That’s the character. It was such an amazing creation for Reynolds, such a perfect character fit. It’s like when Eastwood played Dirty Harry, or when Pacino played Michael Corleone, or when Stallone played Rocky. The character only works because the exact right person is playing it.

The Bandit is Pure Ego in tight jeans, and Reynolds plays him like he’s sitting on Carson’s couch, drunk as shit and funnier than normal. He crushes every exchange in the film, and he is so good against Jackie Gleason that it’s a shame they didn’t immediately make six other films about totally different things together. They had great chemistry, and I have no idea what their relationship was. All I know is that in the film, Gleason and Reynolds are so perfect as cartoons that the film becomes almost surreal. Throw in the great Pat McCormick and the oh-so-great Paul Williams as Big and Little Enos, and the original “Smokey and the Bandit” just becomes impossible to resist. Raw charm. Needham knew what he had when he was shooting it. You can see it in the energy of the thing. Jerry Reed often looks like he’s at a play, just watching Reynolds do his thing, like he is having the best damn time observing.

Speaking of cartoons, I’ve also always had a soft spot for “The Villain,” a live-action Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner cartoon co-starring Kirk Douglas, Ann-Margret, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. No, seriously. It’s a Western, and Kirk Douglas is constantly getting smashed, punched, crunched, whacked, and mangled, and it’s played almost exactly like a Road Runner cartoon. And just so no one thinks Needham’s unaware of what he’s doing, Jack Elam is Avery, and Strother Martin is Jones, the bad guys who set Cactus Jack (Douglas) on the trail of Charming Jones (Margret) and her money. It’s packed with actors like Paul Lynde, Ruth Buzzi, and Foster Brooks. I haven’t seen it in long enough now that I can’t say for sure it’s a good film, but it’s one I enjoyed mightily in 1979, and I have always been fond of it.

Needham had no pretense to the films he made. Like them or hate them, he was incredibly honest about what interested him, and his movies are unabashed in their desire to entertain. This weekend, I’m watching something of his, and then I’m going to celebrate the spirit of his work by playing some “Grand Theft Auto V” and jumping my car over everything I possibly can. I will drive recklessly. I will destroy transmissions. I may drive the car off the side of a mountain and ride it down. I may try to use that crazy super-ramp by the airport to jump the car so high in the air straight up that I hit an airplane during take-off. Whatever crazy car mayhem I commit tonight, I’m going to think of Needham and what it must have taken for him to do all those things for real, and how much pure visceral joy his work has been responsible for over the years.

One of the greats has passed. All respect and love to him and his family.