Will the real Burt Reynolds please stand up?
Burton Leon Reynolds, Jr.
February 11, 1936 ~ September 6, 2018
We will be looking at Actor Burt Reynolds from a Native American perspective in this third article of our series. You are in for some surprises. For many years, Reynolds claimed that his father was half Cherokee. As you will see below, his father does not look either Cherokee or Anglo-American. Burt got his start in acting, playing Native Americans. How much Native American ancestry he really had (if any) and which tribe, he was descended from, remained a mystery all of his life. In fact, there are still today many aspects of his life, whose official version, has changed repeatedly throughout his career. He remains an enigma. Even his Wikipedia biography at the time of his death cannot be fully trusted. The biggest mystery is why he claimed for many decades to have grown up in Waycross, Georgia.
Throughout most of his career, Burt claimed to have been born and grown up in Waycross, GA where his father was variously the police chief of Waycross or the sheriff of surrounding Ware County. Waycross is located in deep southeastern Georgia, next to the Okefenokee Swamp. It was definitely the hometown of the famous Creek actor, Pernell Roberts (Adam Cartright on Bonanza). Although he kept his Creek Indian identity a secret to the general public, Pernell gave generously to Native American causes and put many Creek young people through college. He was also a subscriber to the People of One Fire until his death in January 2010.
Burt’s bio now says that he was born in Lansing, Michigan by parents, whose ancestors had lived in Michigan or the Northeast for two centuries. His father did become police chief in Riviera Beach, FL after World War II. Another riddle . . . Burt has a different middle name than his father. His is Leon. His father’s is Milo , yet he officially went by the name Burt Reynolds, Jr. during his early years.
After five decades of saying otherwise, the current version of Burt’s bio has completely removed references to his supposed birth in Waycross. However, old-timers in Waycross have found strong evidence that Burt spent several summers in Waycross . . . perhaps even attended school there a year or two. During the decades when Burt claimed to be from Waycross, several people remembered having Burt as a friend there and gave interviews telling what he was like as a teenager. This was one of the many mysteries in Burt’s life. He seems to have had a close relative living in Waycross. Who that person was, we may never know. There has to be a reason that he called Waycross his birthplace for most of his career. In his late teens, he “reportedly” also drove bootleg whiskey from Florida to Waycross.
In Georgia at that time, the retail liquor trade was illegal throughout most of the state except Atlanta and Savannah, so the distribution of bootleg beer, wine and spirits was managed by sheriffs and police chiefs. It was the major perk for being in law enforcement. This explains the explosion of Elks Clubs, American Legions and country clubs in the Post World War II South. They were the only places that one could buy and consume liquor in the presence of large numbers of people. Sheriffs became millionaires from the profits of selling illegal alcoholic beverages, while enthusiastically busting rival moonshine stills and Dixie Mafia-sponsored booze distributors. Some of the bootleg booze profits filtered down to the officers.
There are no Native Americans listed in the genealogies of Burt Reynold’s parents. Not only do they not look Native American, they also do not look very much like Burt. Neither parent had black hair and tan skin. Their noses are much larger. James Hooks Reynolds, the brother of Burt Reynolds, was adopted. He was born the same year, 1936, as Burt. Isn’t that rather odd? A couple would have one son, then adopt a son the same year . . . then have no more children. Jimmy Reynolds was a stunt man and actor, but never achieved the financial success that Burt did.
Burt Reynolds DID have almond shaped eyes like the Southeastern Siouans. I think he did have some Native American heritage. Was Burt also adopted? Was one or both of his real parents, residents of Waycross? Was he really born in Waycross, but under another name? It is quite obvious that Burt Reynolds went to his grave, keeping a secret that at least to him, would be very embarrassing.
NOW . . . this is an intriguing fact that only someone from Waycross, like me, would know. Beginning in 1879 through 1910, the Savannah, Western and Florida Railroad . . . later called the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad . . . embarked on major construction projects to create direct double rail connections between Washington, DC and Florida. Simultaneously, many Southerners were going off the deep end in their persecution of African-Americans. Most of the really repugnant segregation laws were passed during this era. It was also a time of many lynchings and race riots.
In order to avoid being slowed down by racial conflicts in the rural South, ACL’s construction managers opted to hire many Southeastern Native American laborers to clear rights-of-way, saw wood cross ties and lay track. They were recruited from throughout the Southeast, but the majority were Cherokee, Catawba, Seminole, Choctaw or Lumbee. Hitchiti Creeks, living in and around the Okefenokee Swamp were hired to be foremen over work gangs of African Americans. One of Pernell Roberts’ uncles had such a job. These local Creek Indians were expected to maintain good relations between their white neighbors and the African-American laborers, but were considered to be in a “class above” the imported Indian laborers. The two Native groups did not mix.
The main ACL repair shop complex was constructed in Waycross. This became boom period for the city, when it exploded from being a cluster of shacks along Tebeau Street to having a large downtown stretching all the way to the new railroad station. When I was a child, there was a neighborhood of Cherokee, Lumbee and “Virginia” Indians, whose men worked in the ACL Shops or along the rail rights-of-way. Our neighborhood was named “Cherokee Heights” in honor of the Native American rail families, who originally lived on its edge near the main ACL rail route. Most of the Native families moved to Florida or elsewhere, when the ACL moved its main shops to the Jacksonville Area in the 1960s.
Burt Reynold’s claim to being of Native American descent
Burt said that he was either Seminole or Cherokee or not Native American at all at various times in his life. While he was playing football for the Florida State University Seminoles, Burt said that his father was Seminole then after getting a job playing a Cherokee Indian at North Carolina’s Ghost town in the Sky, Burt began telling people that his father was 1/2 Cherokee from North Carolina.
Burt did seem to have Native American features . . . sufficient to play Native Americans in movies and on television. While living in Florida, he stated that he was part Seminole. Given his features, no one doubted him. While a sophomore at FSU, he was seriously injured in a car accident, which caused his spleen to be removed. That and a leg injury eventually caused him to voluntarily leave the football team and FSU, since without the athletic scholarship, he could not afford the tuition and dorm room.
From Wikipedia . . .
“To continue his studies while recovering from his injuries, he began taking classes at Palm Beach Junior College (PBJC) in neighboring Lake Park. In his first term at PBJC, Reynolds was in an English class taught by Watson B. Duncan III. Duncan pushed Reynolds into trying out for a play he was producing, Outward Bound. He cast Reynolds in the lead role based on having heard Reynolds read Shakespeare in class, leading to Reynolds winning the 1956 Florida State Drama Award for his performance. In his autobiography, Reynolds refered to Duncan as his mentor and the most influential person in his life.”
“The Florida State Drama Award included a scholarship to the Hyde Park Playhouse, a summer stock theater, in Hyde Park, New York. Reynolds saw the opportunity as an agreeable alternative to more physically demanding summer jobs, but did not yet see acting as a possible career. While working there, Reynolds met Joanne Woodward, who helped him find an agent, and was cast in Tea and Sympathy at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York City. After his Broadway debut Look, We’ve Come Through, he received favorable reviews for his performance and went on tour with the cast, driving the bus and appearing on stage.”
“After the tour, Reynolds returned to New York and enrolled in acting classes, along with Frank Gifford, Carol Lawrence, Red Buttons and Jan Murray. After a botched improvisation in acting class, Reynolds briefly considered returning to Florida, but he soon gained a part in a revival of Mister Roberts, in which Charlton Heston played the starring role. After the play closed, the director, John Forsythe, arranged a film audition with Joshua Logan for Reynolds. The film was Sayonara (1957). Reynolds was told that he could not be in the film because he looked too much like Marlon Brando. Logan advised Reynolds to go to Hollywood, but Reynolds did not feel confident enough to do so.”
Did you know that most of the “Hillbilly” characters in the movie, Deliverance, were performers at Ghost Town in the Sky in Maggie Valley, NC? Burt Reynolds personally recruited them for the movie, since there was no budget to pay a Hollywood casting firm to come to the Georgia Mountains. Reynolds had formerly been Ghost Town’s most popular Injun and cowboy. The emaciated physical features of “Hillbillys” in Western North Carolina that academicians have traditionally blamed on “in-breeding” was actually due to aluminum poisoning and mineral deficiencies in the soils of several sections of Western North Carolina. Once these mountaineers began buying food produced elsewhere, the mutations for the most part, disappeared. The Georgia Mountains, where the movie takes place, actually never had this problem because of the rich mineral content of their volcanic soils.
The Wikipedia article completely leaves out Burt’s true “breakout” role. He played the lead Cherokee Indian at the Ghost Town in the Sky tourist attraction in Maggie Valley, NC. He started calling himself a Cherokee Indian from Waycross. People questioned what a Cherokee family was doing in the Okefenokee Swamp, but he never responded. Burt became so popular as an Injun that the owners of the tourist attraction started also using him as a cowboy. Photos of him in either Western Plains Indian garb and a cowboy, would get him a role in one of TV’s most watched Westerns . . . Gunsmoke . . . with the help of another actor from Waycross, Pernell Roberts. Apparently, Roberts always thought Burt had been born in his hometown, but later moved to Florida.
In 1959, Pernell Roberts became the first actor from the Deep South to star on a major TV Series . . . Bonanza. Before then Hollywood directors had been reluctant to hire Southerners for lead roles, because they were known to be significantly less intelligent than people in other parts of the United States. People from other parts of the country, with fake Southern accents were used to play Southerners. However, Pernell carefully spoke like a Broadway actor and never told a soul in Hollywood that he had substantial Creek ancestry. However, he proved that Southerners could play intelligent roles and become a nationally popular star. Teenage girls around the country had his photo on their bedroom walls.
Apparently, Hollywood assumed that if one dark-haired, tan-skinned man from Waycross could become a star in a Western, this Cherokee from Waycross would draw fans back to Gunsmoke, which had dropped from No. 1 to No. 10 the previous year. Actually, Gunsmoke dropped to No. 20 after Burt came onboard as a “civilized” Cherokee blacksmith, but his presence probably keep the ratings high enough so the show would not be cancelled. In the photo on the left, Burt Reynolds DOES look like a mixed-heritage Creek or Seminole Indian, but not a Cherokee. His squarish skull did resemble Muskogean skulls.
The exposure on a popular national TV program led to Burt’s departure from Gunsmoke in 1965 and transition to being a movie star (of sorts) However, those first efforts were what we called back then, Spaghetti Westerns. They were Westerns filmed in Europe or North Africa by Italian producers. Most or all of the actors were Europeans. Since there was no such thing as videos or MTV back then, most Spaghetti Westerns had limited exposure in the United States. Some were excellent movies. Most were hoaky and amateurish.
In 1966, Burt Reynolds was hired for his first starring role in a movie. It was a Spaghetti Western . . . Navajo Joe. He played a Navajo warrior, getting revenge for a massacre of his people, who also falls in love with a mixed-blood Navajo gal with auburn hair and artificial tan make-up. Actually, she was a French actress. Burt was the only American actor in the movie. All the cowboys and Indians were played by Italian, Spanish, French, Portuguese and Moorish actors. Burt wore a wig, which the Italian director thought would make him look like a savage Southwestern Indian. European movie-goers were told that Burt was a REAL Comanche Indian. For awhile that is what Burt told the American public also. Notice that Burt shaved his chest for the movie. More about that later!
Burt continued to play an Indian in few Spaghetti westerns that few people in the United States saw or at least remembered the next month. Very few people would have recognized his name unless they visited Ghost Town In the Sky in the early 1960s.
The writing of the book, Deliverance
In 1969, while working on his book, Deliverance, author James Dickey taught Sophomore English classes at Georgia Tech. There was not much English or English Literature in his classes. He read his poems and showed us slides of his favorite places in the Southeast, especially the Georgia Mountains and the South Carolina Coast. He would occasionally update us on the plot of the book he was writing. Like many “tree-huggers” in the Southeast, Dickey was appalled by the construction of Carters Dam in northwest Georgia, the Tellico Dam in southeastern Tennessee and the Jocasee Dam in South Carolina. Their costs could not be justified by the power that would be produced, but were going to flood six outstanding white water rivers. This was especially tragic for Carters Dam, because it would flood the Coosawattee River and Talking Rock Creek. Both streams were in pristine condition with no other dams and contained water falls, which would be destroyed by the creation of reservoirs.
Dicky described his original plot as being the story of a Cherokee businessman in Atlanta, who longed to get back to his American Indian roots, but who learned that his favorite canoeing river was to be destroyed by a dam. Dicky adored the Georgia mountain families. He never mentioned any negative portrayal of them in the book. However, somewhere along the line, he added that aspect to the plot in order to make the book have a more complex plot. Perhaps his publisher suggested it. When filming of Deliverance was announced in the Atlanta newspapers, it was again described as the story of a Cherokee businessman and his three friends “getting back to nature.” It is clear that Burt Reynolds was hired for the movie, because he labeled himself a “Cherokee Indian.”
The next article of this series will talk about the movie, but let it suffice to say that Burt Reynolds changed back into a Seminole Indian while filming Deliverance in Georgia. He told the press that he was playing a Cherokee man, but he was actually a Seminole Indian, who was born in Waycross, where his father was the sheriff, but later moved to South Florida when his father took a job as police chief there. I personally saw Burt Reynolds change into a traditional Seminole long shirt after getting out of the water from filming a white water canoe scene.
The Cosmo Nude photo . . . Han ser ut som ett arabiskt!
The April 1972 issue of Cosmopolitan Magazine featured a two page centerfold of Burt Reynolds in the nude. They say it made national news, but I knew nothing about it at the time, since from then until the end of May, I was working day and night, seven days a week on my Architecture Thesis. Of all things, I first became aware of the infamous photo, while watching Swedish Public Television in Sweden on the second weekend in June 1972.
The TV Series was called “Liv på USA” (Life in the USA) and of all things, this particular program featured Atlanta and Carrollton, GA! Near the beginning Swedes were introduced to the State of Georgia and the city of Atlanta . . . of which, very few Swedes knew existed at that time. The host predicted that although Atlanta had only a little over one million residents in its metropolitan area, it would eventually become a large international city. (He was right.) He listed a series of famous Georgians that at the end included Burt Reynolds and his famous nude shot. The host said that Burt Reynolds was an Indian from Waycross, GA who had suddenly become a popular movie star because of Deliverance. He said that many Swedish teenage girls now had that photo on their bedroom wall. The host closed that section of the program by saying that the fact that the Mayor of Atlanta was African and Burt Reynolds was Indian was proof that Georgia had left behind its days of discriminating against minority peoples.
I was just learning Swedish, so most long Swedish statements had to be translated for me. The following Monday morning I bragged to the staff of the Landskrona Stadsarkitektkontoret that like Burt Reynolds and Pernell Roberts, I was a Creek Indian, who had been born in Waycross, GA. Then Lena Jakobson, a city planner with an undergraduate degree in Anthropology, told my boss, Gunner Lydh something, in Swedish, which he translated to me. He chuckled and said, “Lena says that she saw you at the beach. You have a better body than Burt Reynolds. You do not look like a gorilla. Sami and Scandinavian men usually do not have hair like an animal. Swedish women prefer clean men.” Well, I was flattered, and amused, but I really had not seen the details on the fuzzy black and white version of the Cosmo photo. Gunner then translated another comment from a grinning Lena . . . She wants to know what Indian tribe, Burt Reynolds is in. Han ser ut som ett arabiskt! . . . He looks like an Arab.
Of course, I had no copy of Cosmopolitan. There was no such thing as a personal computer or the internet, so I couldn’t look at the photo. However, this morning I did. By golly, Lena was right . . . Han ser ut som ett arabiskt. In his natural state, Burt Reynolds looks like someone from the Mediterranean Basin or Middle East. Native American and Sami men have very little body hair, but also, we never go bald. Burt Reynolds shaved his chest, arms and legs for many scenes in his early movies, so he would look like a Native American! He not shave his body hair while an actor on Gunsmoke or the filming of Deliverance, however. Once he started playing in movies like, Smokey and the Bandit, he stopped shaving his body hair off altogether.
Burt Reynolds . . . who exactly were you?
This is one of the last interviews with Burt Reynolds before his health deteriorated to the point that he could not travel. It was made at the Rome, GA International Film Festival in 2017. It gives fascinating details of his life and film experiences, which previously have not been seen in his official biographies. Did you know that Burt turned down the role of James Bond in the original 007 movies . . . Hans Solo in Star Wars . . . and the roll of the wealthy playboy in Pretty Woman?
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