JERRY REED R.I.P.
March 20, 1937 - September 1, 2008: An Appreciation
When I was lucky enough to interview "Smokey and the Bandit" and "Cannonball Run" director Hal Needham a year or so back, he told me a great story:
See I intended to do this movie for $750K, or maybe $1 million, put Jerry Reed in it, a lot of car stuff and things, Roger Corman style. But when Burt agreed to do it, I just called Reed and said "You're now Snowman."
And he was cool with that?
Oh sure, sure, 'cause he and Burt had done some films before that. They did "Gator" and "W.W. and the Dixie Dance Kings".
Jerry Reed was one of the all time country music greats and had already established himself as a Nashville super star before he took up acting in the aforementioned "W.W" (1975). He followed that with the villain role in "Gator" (1976), which Reynolds both starred in and directed. He did an excellent job in it too, as a total malevolent scumbag. It's unlikely, however, many saw Reed for the screen natural that he was until "Smokey and the Bandit" took off like a rocket in '77. Not only was he great in the film- the perfect laid back "good old boy", but he also provided the theme song "East Bound and Down" which went to #2 on the country music charts and is still heard today (it was recently covered by the band The Road Hammers). Other notable screen roles included two return engagements to the "Smokey" saga and "The Survivors"(1983) where he played a hitman on the trail of Walter Matthau and Robin Williams. In 1986, he directed and starred in "What Comes Around", a drama about a drugged up country singer whose brother helps him get back on the road to sobriety. It's not the easiest movie in the world to dig up, but if you're a fan of Reed's, it's well worth seeking out. He was also memorable as the sadistic coach in Adam Sandler's "The Waterboy" (1998)
About a year or so ago, I tried to contact Reed through his agency for an interview. His booking agent declined, saying Jerry wasn't available at the time- he was busy completing what turned out to be his last album, "The Gallant Few", a tribute to the U.S. troops, who will receive all proceeds from the album's sales. It can be ordered HERE. Reed was that kind of guy. A compassionate man, yes, but also a God of guitar players. His musicianship influenced at least three generations of guitarists.
But back to ol' "Smokey" (if you want to read about musicianship, there are many sites online with Reed biographies) the movie that changed everyone's lives, including Reed's. As "The Snowman", hitting the highways with his hound dog Fred, he was the heart of the first two movies, with Reynolds acting as the soul. In "Smokey and the Bandit" Reed's revenge against a bunch of pissed off bikers is classic cinema. "Smokey and the Bandit II" opens with a great, high energy truck rally with Snowman and Fred in the lead, backed up by Reed's song "Texas Bound and Flying" which I think is an even better song then "East Bound and Down". Later in the film when truck after truck shows up to support Bandit and Snowman's escape through the desert, Reed's energy and excitement are palpable. He was great in those movies. Fun, energetic, broad and a terrific side kick for the laid back charm Burt bought to the Bandit.
"Smokey and the Bandit Part 3", however, is one of the worst movies ever made. When Burt and Needham made it clear they were not stepping up for a third go round, the studio did exactly what you, or I, or anyone with any sense would do: They called the movie "Smokey IS the Bandit" and had Jackie Gleason play BOTH roles. See what I mean? Exactly what you'd do right? Obviously! (NOTE: There has been some speculation as to whether or not this version of the movie ever existed. That it was ever even shot. Though Universal has done their best to make sure the Gleason as Bandit footage has never surfaced, I can guarantee you it did exist. I thoroughly remember an "Entertainment Tonight" behind the scenes bit on it while it was still shooting with that title showing Gleason being interviewed dressed as The Bandit.)
When the movie was previewed, audiences opinion tended to differ. They had no idea what the hell was going on. Why was Sherrif Justice chasing himself? To suck as a movie is one thing. To both suck and confuse the hell out of your audience...that's another thing entirely. Universal Pictures quickly cut all the Bandit material and re-shot it with Reed as "The Bandit" so Gleason was at least chasing SOMEONE. It was a noble attempt, but it's still a really, really, aggressively bad movie...except when Reed's on screen. He is genuinely funny amidst the horror that is "Smokey 3", and it's too bad he never got the opportunity again to carry a GOOD comedy, 'cause he's the only thing worth watching in this picture. When he hops around with glee shouting "I'm gonna be The Bandit! I'm gonna be The Bandit!" his glee is infectious. When he goes into a diner and gets thrown through every possible door, window etc. imaginable, but still tries to get his girlfriend's burger order right, he's hilarious. Sadly he's also stuck in a film he wasn't even supposed to be in in the first place.
Anyway, the third "Smokey" was forgotten pretty quickly, but Jerry Reed will never be forgotten by anyone who sees one of the "Smokey" flicks. He is also an inspiration to anyone who ever picks up a guitar and a true country music legend.
Mr. Reed, you will truly be missed.