CATEGORIES Movie NewsOf the two biggest franchise-launchers of 1977, one involved a pair of rebellious outlaws with a shaggy sidekick, a runaway heroine, a Mutt-and-Jeff pair of tall-short comic relief characters, epic-length chases, spectacular stunts, and endless vehicular mayhem. The other was "Star Wars."
Yep, we're talkin' "Smokey and the Bandit," which opened 35 years ago this week (on May 27, 1977) and wound up grossing more money than any movie that year except for George Lucas' interstellar road adventure. It also launched a truckload of sequels on film and TV, gave Burt Reynolds his most iconic role, helped make movie stars out of country guitarist Jerry Reed and TV sitcom starlet Sally Field, provided a career comeback for Jackie Gleason, and sent Pontiac Trans Am sales soaring.
Still, as popular as Reynolds and his muscle car were, there's plenty about "Smokey and the Bandit" that you may not know. Read on to learn Bandit's real name, the film's unlikely Oscar history, and the story of the real-life Buford T. Justice.
1. "Smokey and the Bandit" was one of several 1977-78 movies to capitalize on the CB radio fad; others included Sam Peckinpah's "Convoy," Chuck Norris vehicle "Breaker! Breaker!" and Jonathan Demme comedy "Handle With Care" (a.k.a. "Citizens Band"). Of course, after "Smokey," the car walkie-talkies became even more popular, with every suburban soccer dad in America pretending that uttering "10-4, good buddy" into the transmitter made him resemble Burt Reynolds.
2. Hal Needham, who once claimed to be the world's highest-paid stuntman and was an expert in car chases, made his directing debut with "Smokey."
3. Jerry Reed was one of country music's most innovative guitarists. After befriending Reynolds, he made his film debut opposite Burt in 1975's "W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings" and co-starred with him once again, in "Gator" (1976), before appearing in "Smokey."
4. Originally, Jerry Reed was supposed to play Bandit, and the movie would have been a low-budget B flick. But then Reynolds got interested. Instead, Reed landed the major supporting role of trucker Cletus Snow. Jerry would eventually be promoted to Bandit status in the third movie, in which Reynolds only had a walk-on.
5. "Buford T. Justice" sounds like a made-up name for a lawman, but "Smokey" lore has it that there really was such a person. The real-life Buford T. was supposedly a cop that Reynolds' father had known when he was a small-town Florida police chief.
6. The role of Sheriff Justice went to veteran comic Jackie Gleason, who hadn't made a movie in seven years.
7. Sally Field was cast as runaway bride Carrie, whom Bandit calls Frog (because she's restless and always hopping around). During the shoot, Reynolds and Field became a couple, dating for five years.
8. Pat McCormick ("Big Enos") was only 13 years older than Paul Williams, who played his son, Little Enos.
9. Jilted bridegroom Junior Justice was played by Mike Henry, a former NFL linebacker who had portrayed the title role in three Tarzan movies* in the 1960s and had worked with Reynolds in "Dan August" and "The Longest Yard."
10. The plot, in which Bandit and Cletus have 28 hours to drive from Georgia to Texarkana, Texas, and return with an illegal shipment of Coors beer, took a lot of liberties with reality. In truth, Texarkana was located in a dry county, so Coors wasn't legally sold there, either. Also, the round trip would have been only 1,260 miles, not 1,800, making the 28-hour feat a lot less impressive.
11. Bandit's real name? It's barely ever uttered in the movie, but it's Bo Danville.
12. Gleason reportedly based much of his character on Reynolds' recollections of his police chief father, including the way he reduced "son of a bitch" to "sumbitch." Gleason also claimed he came up with the scene in the diner (the "choke and puke") where Justice chats with a man he doesn't realize is the Bandit.
13. At least four Pontiac Trans Ams were used for the movie. The original Pontiac engine wasn't strong enough to power the car for the bridge jump sequence, however, so a Chevrolet engine was installed in the jump car.
14. Needham has said a deadly accident was narrowly averted during the scene on the football field. The film crew didn't know that the grass had just been watered, and the car nearly skidded into the crowd of extras.
15. The movie earned $127 million at the North American box office, making it the second highest grossing movie of 1977, following "Star Wars."
16. "Smokey" earned Oscar nominations for Walter Hannemann and Angelo Ross for their editing work on the film's thrilling action sequences. (It lost the prize to the editing team from "Star Wars.")
17. Field earned a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actress in a Musical or Comedy. Reed was named favorite supporting actor at the 1979 People's Choice Awards, nearly two years after the film's release.
18. Needham directed six more movies and two TV projects starring Reynolds, including the "Cannonball Run" movies and "Stroker Ace." He also went on to serve as assistant director under action directing legend Don Siegel (of "Dirty Harry" fame) for the Reynolds caper "Rough Cut."
19. Field played Reynolds' love interest in three more movies ("Hooper," "Smokey and the Bandit II," and "The End"), all of them directed by Needham (except for "The End," which was directed by Reynolds). She also co-starred with Reynolds in "The Rainmaker," the inaugural production at his Florida dinner theater.
20. Neither Needham nor Reynolds had much to do with "Smokey and the Bandit Part 3." An early rumor had it that Gleason would play both Justice and the Bandit in the film, and an urban legend suggests that such a version was shot, only to be scrapped and re-filmed with Justice chasing Reed's Snowman, who has become the bandit in Reynolds' absence. However, there's no evidence that a Gleason-only version was ever filmed.
21. "Smokey" was one of the inspirations for the popular TV series "The Dukes of Hazzard." In fact, three of its stars had had bit parts in "Smokey": John Schneider (Bo Duke) had been a cowboy extra, Ben Jones (Cooter) had played a trucker, and Sonny Shroyer (Deputy Enos) had served as a motorcycle cop.
22. Reed composed and performed three songs for the film: "The Legend," "The Bandit," and "East Bound and Down." The last became Reed's signature hit and lent its title to the recent HBO sitcom starring Danny McBride.
23. In 1994, Needham directed four "Bandit" TV movies, starring Brian Bloom as the chivalrous speed demon: "Bandit's Silver Angel," "Beauty and the Bandit," "Bandit Goes Country," and "Bandit Bandit" (also known as "Bandit: Bandit Bandit").
24. Whenever "Smokey" aired on network TV, Gleason's "sumbitch" would be re-dubbed with the novelty phrase "scum bum." That became such a popular epithet among kids that, in 2007, Hot Wheels issued a Bandit-esque Pontiac with the phrase "Scum Bum" printed on the rear.
25. In 2009, there was talk of Craig Brewer ("Hustle & Flow") directing an updated version of "Smokey and the Bandit," though his movie, which would have been called "Mother Trucker," was actually based on a true story about a guy who stole a semi and led police on an interstate chase as he rushed home to see his dying mom. The movie was never made, and Brewer went on to direct the remake of "Footloose" instead. Still, rumors have persisted of a "Smokey" reboot. In a January 2012 interview, GQ magazine asked Reynolds what he thought of the idea. He replied that there were plenty of modern-day stars who could handle the job, such as George Clooney, "but I'm not sure there's something in them that wants to be that notoriously silly."
*Henry quit the Tarzan franchise and turned down the TV series that would star Ron Ely after suffering injuries and maladies so severe (including dysentery, a liver ailment, an ear infection, and a chimp bite on his face requiring 20 stitches) that he sued the producers for maltreatment, abuse, and unsafe working conditions. Among the three films he made as the ape man was "Tarzan and the Valley of Gold" (1966), an absolutely insane movie with a ridiculously high body count; Henry's Tarzan alone is responsible for about 40 deaths, including one where he crushed a bad guy with a giant Coke bottle. Really must be seen to be believed. Netflix doesn't seem to have it, but Amazon does. Check it out and see why Henry decided it was safer to spend his movie career being insulted by an apoplectic Jackie Gleason.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Hal Needham directed "The End." In fact, it was Burt Reynolds. We've made the update and apologize for the error.