Today is Burt Reynolds’ birthday and in honor of the birthday boy, let’s take a look back at that time our favorite mustachioed bandit posed in his birthday suit for Cosmopolitan magazine. It wasn’t your average nudie pic — it was actually a groundbreaking move by Reynolds and Cosmo‘s editor-in-chief at the time, Helen Gurley Brown. The dashing centerfold photo of Reynolds was taken as a statement of women’s sexual liberation and started a conversation about taboos, sexuality, and probably bearskin rugs.
Go ahead. Take it in. I’ll wait.
Let’s start with the background. How did this picture come to exist? It was actually Brown’s idea. She appeared on The Tonight Show in 1972 when Reynolds was guest hosting, filling in for Johnny Carson. While backstage, she asked him if he’d be up for posing in the buff for a ladies’ mag and he agreed to it. Irin Carmon, writing for Salon, spoke to Brown before her death in 2012 about the photo:
“I thought one day when I was washing dishes that men like to look at our bodies, and we like to look at their bodies, though it’s not as well known.”
It was a matter of equality, you see. And since the country was in the midst of a sexual revolution, why shouldn’t a strapping gent like Reynolds take one for the team and let it all hang out? Brown had been successful in helping women realize that being sexual and having desires was not only normal, it was healthy. It was allowed and it should be celebrated. And for heterosexual women, that meant looking at attractive men and letting their fantasies run wild with a little assistance from an enthusiastic model’s total lack of clothing. (Brown had actually asked Paul Newman to pose first, but he turned her down.)
I’ll acknowledge that not everyone in the feminist movement agreed with what Brown was doing at Cosmo, but this is about Burt, so let’s talk about Burt.
Reynolds was game from the word “go”. He was even the one who chose the bearskin rug to poke fun at his own unabashed masculinity. The photo, which appeared in the April 1972 issue of Cosmo, turned Reynolds into a full-fledged celebrity. Women (and probably men — definitely men) demanded his autograph on their own copies of the picture and catcalled him when he appeared onstage in New York. The singular photographic affair even inspired the creation of Playgirl, plus a few more male Cosmo centerfolds (and possibly bear culture).
But with afterglow comes some aftermath. While the photo gave Reynolds some great, ahem, exposure, he grew to regret the photo and its bad timing; just a few months after the Cosmo issue hit the stands, Deliverance was released and it was a great critical success. But now Reynolds was known as “that nude centerfold guy” and he believes that ruined the acclaimed movie at Oscar time. He told Piers Morgan in 2012:
“I really can’t [look at the picture]. I’m very embarrassed by it. I thought it cost some actors in Deliverance an Academy Award. It did distract from [Deliverance], it distracted from a lot of things. It cost the film a lot. I mean, the film deserved more. [Jon] Voight was incredible. I think it hurt Jon. I think it hurt Ned Beatty. He certainly deserved an Oscar nomination. I think it hurt me, too. It was just the wrong timing.”
As for Cosmo, it tarnished their progressive reputation a little bit, too. Some now saw the revolutionary magazine as a source of smut and too focused on sex, which was well-received by some and derided by others.
Reynolds and his career would obviously recover from this racy little blip; he was nominated for a Golden Globe just two years later for his work on The Longest Yard and would go on to make Smokey and the Bandit, Cannonball Run, and plenty of other things that made him a legend. And then he’d come full circle and play a pornographer in Boogie Nights, so at least he never lost his sense of humor.
So, Happy Birthday, Burt! We’ll raise our glass while reclining seductively on a dead animal carcass in your honor!