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THE MAN WHO WANTED TO STOP BEING MISTER MACHO

When I interviewed Burt Reynolds for The New York Times in 1976, he had no dreams of being the next Robert De Niro. He had much more interest in being the next Martin Scorsese. I wonder what he's dreaming about these days? --Guy Flatley

"It may come as a big shock to most people, especially the people in New York, but my ego doesn’t need stretching anymore," said Burt Reynolds, who has turned director with "Gator," a spirited adventure-comedy in which he plays a reformed moonshine runner. "I could walk away from the adulation I get as an actor and never miss it. I’d much rather be a chess player than a chess pawn. Besides, there are a lot of good actors coming along to take my place on the top 10. What we need are good directors. Most of the young directors I’ve met only want to sit around and discuss, ‘Do you want to work from the inside out, or from the outside in?’ Which is intellectual bull. They don’t even know where to put the camera."

Mr. Reynolds is not bidding a total adieu to acting, even though he plans to direct all five of the films he is committed to do for United Artists. Before then, he will be seen in "Nickelodeon" – Peter Bogdanovich’s valentine to silent movies, due to open here in November – as well as "Smokey and the Bandit," a takeoff on car-crash films in which his daredevil mission will be to drive 400 cases of beer from Texas to Atlanta within 48 hours, and "Semi-Tough," a steamy tale of football players and their women. Clearly, Hollywood producers would be content to keep the brawny actor-turned-director busy on his customary side of the camera.

"There is just so long that I can go on jumping out of windows, off cliffs and over cars, and since no one was offering me the kind of roles I wanted to play, I felt I had to go into another area," Mr. Reynolds said. "I desperately wanted to do ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,’ but they went with the guy who had been nominated for an Oscar the year before and had won the New York Critics Award. I think Jack Nicholson was brilliant in the movie; I just wish I had had the chance to be equally brilliant. The role was a serious one, but it also required a gift for comedy, and comedy is what I do best. I’m not trying to compete with heavy actors like Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, but I would be happy to compete with anybody – including Redford and Newman – in film comedy.

"I made my own bed and now I have to lie in it," he said, referring to his public identity as a defiantly virile jock, an image he believes has cut short his growth as a serious actor. "Unfortunately, ‘Deliverance,’ in which I gave my best performance, came out at the same time as that Cosmopolitan centerfold," he recalled. "And since I’m not one to hide out in the mountains of Utah or the flats of Greenwich Village between movies, I went on talk shows and became a personality. That hurt me, but it’s a little late to do anything about it. I did everything I could to blow this Mr. Macho thing to smithereens."

A reflection of Mr. Reynolds’s sentiments about sexual role playing is the fact that he changed the ending of "Gator." Instead of walking off into the sunset with Lauren Hutton, he now gets dumped by her.

"I’ve wanted to make a comment on my image for a long time," he explained. "I’ve never said ‘I love you’ to a girl in a film and had her say, ‘That’s nice’ and then walk away. I usually ride off in a car with the grass burning behind me and the girl pregnant. I wanted very much for this girl to be a ’76 woman, an ambitious person capable of not running off with Harry Handsome, having three kids and going bowling one night a week. She’s given the choice of going to New York and becoming an anchorwoman on TV or staying in the swamp with a guy she finds sexually attractive. So she says goodbye and goes off to be Barbara Walters."