The familiar furry baritone of Paul Williams reverberated up from the stage of the Filence Center. Rehearsals for Wolf Trap's 10th anniversary gala had begun with Williams crooning the lyrics of his Oscar-winning "Evergreen" into a hand microphone: "Love ageless and evergreen/Seldom seen by two."
He polished off "Evergreen" and slid into "Another Fine Mess." The timing was admirable: The song had been the background theme of a movie called "The End," whose star and director, a tall, slim, mustached, deeply tanned gent dressed in pale blue denims, dark blue shirt, brown-checked sports jacket and tan cowboy boots, was strolling in from the wings.
When Williams segued into "You and Me Against the World," it seemed that his musical program was meant especially for Reynolds, who arrived to emcee the gala (as a favor to chairman Elizabeth Taylor Warner) while recuperating from a couple of major disappointments. First was the slight by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which did not nominate him for an Oscar. That snub somehow provoked a far more discouraging misfortune: a break with costar and girlfriend Sally Field which Reynolds characterized as "one of the biggest damn surprises of my life."
While Williams ran through his repertoire, Reynolds sought a likely spot for a quiet conversation backstage. His name was taped beneath a door marked "Dressing Room C." When opened, the door revealed a narrow, austere closet with a small bathroom at the end. Reynolds gave it a long deadpan stare and closed the door. "That's flattering," he quipped. "Big star comes to town to assist culture and they assign him a ----ing nail on the wall for a dressing room."
Someone suggested the neighboring green room, officially reserved for Liza Minnelli (billed as "showstopper Liza Minnelli" by Wolf Trap who was not expected until yesterday. Entering this pleasant, spacious retreat, appointed with a piano and several easy chairs, Reynolds said, "Ah for Miss Minnelli, huh? I want her name immediately ripped off the door and replaced with mine. If she asks any questions, tell her I had nothing to do with it."
Reynolds settled into a big, soft chair and began talking, interrupted only every five or 10 minutes by booming announcements over the intercom -- including "attention: Johnny Cash's truck has arrived!"
"Johnny Cash's truck has arrived!" Reynolds repeated in mock awe. "And it's loaded with cattle." Turning to Dick Clayton, his agent, Reynolds said, "That reminds me. I have to find out from some person in authority what I'm supposed to do here today. Am I gonna get to sing with the orchestra? 'Cause Johnny Cash's truck is here already."
While a grinning Clayton went upstairs to check on the rehearsal schedule this client would later get a chance to run through a duet of "Baby, It's Cold Outside" with Rod McKuen -- a cute idea that promised to embarrass both men). Reynolds said, "It can be a little awkward when you don't do anything. I don't sing or dance. There's no category for something like this. You come out and introduce 17 or 18 acts and try to be incidentally amusing. I'm sure they think, "If we can't get Johnny Carson or Bert Parks or Ron Ely, maybe Burt Reynolds would be able to do it.
"If you want to do something special on short notice, they think, "is he crazy? Is he trying to make our lives difficult?' If you do a swell job, nobody particularly notices. It's okay if you do an average job, and no great harm is done if you're terrible. It's like giving great phone."
In fact, Reynolds came to Wolf Trap because he was grateful to Elizabeth Taylor Warner, the gala chairman. "When I didn't get nominated," he recalled. "I got a very sweet call, out of the blue, from Elizabeth. She wanted to cheer me up and reminded me that she'd had a puzzling time with the Academy Awards herself. The first time she won was for 'Butterfield, 8,' a movie she despised. It was clearly a sentimental award, based on the fact that she'd just recovered from a serious operation. She wasn't about to refuse the honor, but she knew that the voters had ignored half a dozen earlier performances that she was really proud of.
"Anyway, it was a friendly gesture. She even offered to let me use a guest house of theirs in Gstaad if I felt like getting away from it all. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, you know, for her to get around to asking me for something, but it never did.
"Finally, out of grattitude, I asked if there was anything I could do for her. That's when she mentioned the Wolf Trap gala. I told her I'd be glad to stand up there like Lyle Waggoner if she thought it would help. Here I am, and the more I look around and hear about the program, the better I feel about accepting."
Reynolds wanted expected (and deserved) to be nominated for an Oscar for his performance in "Starting Over." The oversight obviously stung him and apparently contributed to a misunderstanding with Field, who was destined to win the best actress award for "Norma Rae." According to Reynolds, he declined an invitation to present the best picture award and avoided the ceremony not so much out of wounded pride and romantic perplexity.
"I was having a lot of personal problems with Sally," he said, "and I suppose I just couldn't handle it. The only way it could have worked is if I had gone on the show and been hysterically funny about everything. It didn't seem appropriate under the circumstances. I thought if I tried that, it would look as if I wanted to upstage her.
"I wasn't there for two reasons. One, I wanted Sally to have her night, the triumph she worked for and earned. She is Norma Rae, you know. Sally had to fight to establish her reputation after years of being bum-rapped for 'The Flying Nun and "Gidget.' The other reason is when I asked to go with her, she said, 'No, I hadn't expected that no.To say that it took me by surprise is one of the great under statements.
Reynolds may have attempted a peace offering during a recent interview with Jim Brown of NBC's "Today" show. It felt like a very good session," he said. "At the end of maybe an hour and a half of taping, I asked that he ask me one last question, 'What do you think of Sally Field?" I didn't want to be painted as some John Derek character who had tried to dominate a girl's career and then gone off in a sulk. I said Sally Field was the most talented and deserving actress I'd ever known and that I'll always love her. Then I learned they were taking that bit down to Alabama where she's shooting a movie and asking for a reaction. At least we're talking again."
According to a gleeful Marilyn Beck column, the "Today" exchanges, scheduled to be parceled out like soap-opera segments this Thursday and Friday, will reveal a bitterly disappointed Burt and nobly generous Sally. Reynolds was understandably dismayed at this prospect, and acknowledged the likelihood that airing romantic conflicts through the media may do more harm than good:
"Except for Roy and Dale, the Hollywood track record is pretty disastrous," he sighed. "A big factor is having your problems exposed and distorted in public. I'm not sure you can ever repair the damage, and it doesn't help to complain. Even when people in the media become personalities in their own right, they're shielded from criticism.
"Right after Sally won the Oscar, a woman columnist stuck a mike in her armpit and demanded, 'Tell me what you were thinking at the moment your name was announced.' Sally couldn't remember, at which point the columnist said, 'I'll tell you what you were thinking. You were thinking: "Burt Reynolds, I did it on my own!"'
"Well, what am I supposed to do the next time I run into her?Wave and say, 'Hey, how's it going?'"
"I never meant for things to go wrong with Sally, and I never intended to boycott the Oscars. I thought I'd be going until she declined to go with me. As far as presenting the award is concerned, I told the producer, Howard Koch, that I'd feel more comfortable if he got Henry Fonda or Jimmy Stewart or Cary Grant or David Niven. Those are my heroes. As far as I'm concerned, they're the real male stars."
Reynolds, of course, has his compensations. He's still the top box-office draw in the United States. For a reported $5 million he is currently starring in a new action comedy for director pal Hal Needham called "The Cannonball Trophy," with a cast that includes Farrah Fawcett, Roger Moore and Dom DeLuise. He has signed for a reported $3 million to costar with Dolly Parton in the film version of "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas." He is enthusiastic about a new romantic comedy in the vein of "Starting Over" called "Paternity," in which he'll play a successful Manhattan businessman who fecklessly aspires to bachelor fatherhood at the age of 44 -- which happens to be Reynolds' age.
According to Reynolds, his general filmmaking strategy is an annual output of "one for them, one for me," meaning a playful, more or less certain crowd pleaser in the style of "Smokey and the Bandit" or "Hooper," followed by a more realistic, offbeat and potentially risky project like "The End" or "Starting Over."
Happily, he's discovered that "the one for them has turned out to be nothing but fun for me, while the one for me strikes a chord with them, too. I was very pleased with feedback from 'Starting Over' among the sort of guys you'd think of as the bread-and-butter 'Smokey' fans. They aren't so good at intellectualizing their reactions, but they'll come up, shake hands, fidget a bit and finally reveal that they were affected by that sort of male plight.
"I've learned to be real friends with the camera. I'm not afraid of that machine. The closer I am to it, the better I like it. "It's a subtle way of playing, and you don't want to overdo it or abuse it. You're right, it's similar to what Carson does on his show, and I've studied him closely. Sometimes you can outsmart yourself, of course. You can be so subtle that you subtle yourself right out of the scene. Or right out of an Academy Award nomination. Someday, just for fun, I'd like to try one of those overdemonstrative roles where you get to bellow and rant. Let's see what the other guys do when forced to give a truthful reading of a line like '10-4, good buddy.'"