By Steve Winter, Senior Vice President, Sage Communications

The sexiest man in America, circa late 20th Century, still turns a lot of heads and elicits everything from sighs and swoons to outright marriage proposals.

Now 80-years old, Burt Reynolds emerged from a black Cadillac Escalade to a cavalcade of cheers as he approached the red carpet outside the Paramount Theatre in Austin, TX, for the SXSW premiere of “The Bandit,” an 82-minute documentary that showcased his lifelong friendship with Hollywood stunt-legend Hal Needham, producer of the legendary 1977 film Smokey and the Bandit.

Scheduled to air on August over CMT, the film tells the action-packed story of the making of that iconic film while tracing the vivid personal journeys of both Reynolds and Needham from obscurity to stardom, all the while highlighting one of the most extraordinary relationships in Hollywood history.

“This is not just about Smokey and the Bandit, it’s about Burt Reynolds and his relationship to Hal Needham which is not a story many people know,” said director Jesse Moss who joined Reynolds at the premiere.  “This relationship that produced this movie, that they were friends, roommates, that Hal Needham was Burt’s stunt double, that to me is the discovery behind the success of Smokey and the Bandit – an incredible buddy movie – this “bromance” between Burt and Hal.   Also, I think the documentary has what Smokey has; it has action, it has comedy and it has heart and so hopefully people will rediscover a film that they love and in doing so they’ll discover a lot about Burt that they didn’t know and also they will discover Hal Needham.  They might have known he directed the film but I’m sure they don’t know much about him.”

Needham – as masterfully portrayed through the documentary – took the unlikeliest of path from the son of an Arkansas sharecropper to Hollywood stuntman to director.  Having spent the most prominent years of his career as Reynolds’ stunt double, he developed the concept for Smokey and the Bandit during a period of time when Reynolds was trying to balance his public persona  between that of a dynamic and powerful leading ladies’ man  with a bad-boy edge and a truly talented and dynamic dramatic actor.  The documentary expertly showcased the development of the relationship between Needham and Reynolds which began on set and ultimately transcended to the point where Needham – after separating from his wife – lived with Reynolds for nearly 11 years.

When he died in 2013, Reynolds lost his soulmate.  “He was my roommate, he was my brother and I loved him very much,” Reynolds said.  “I never saw a guy that brave and I started out as a stunt man   He did stuff nobody else would do.  Everybody else turned down a stunt they would say ‘go get Hal’ and Hal would come and do it.  There will never be another one  like him.”

While not necessarily an intended by product, Reynolds feels the documentary will likely spark a revived interest in the film that grossed more than $250 million at the box office and earned its place as one of the true “Southern comedies” of the ages.  When asked if he thought that was the case, he replied, “Apparently so, you can’t get a seat.  I’m flabbergasted at the afterlife of this.  If this documentary helps get people more interested in the original Smokey and the Bandit, so much the better.”

For one day in Austin, the Bandit has already accomplished that task … and a little bit more.

SXSW runs from March 11 to March 20.

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