Dozens of police and state patrol members in full riot gear and shiny helmets kept women like Naomi Lawrence at bay. "I love Burt Reynolds," drawled the gray-haired woman, who shivered in her cloth coat and strained at the police barricades on Peachtree Street. "Got his Cosmopolitan centerfold beside my bed. But I want the real thing now."
The real thing was on his way this cold Saturday night, in a bustling southern city whose streets provide the bloody backdrop for Reynold's latest film, "Sharkey's Machine." As Tom Sharkey, Reynolds plays a demoted vice-squad cop who falls for a pricey hooker (Rachel Ward) en route to busting up an international drug cartel. He directed the $25-million, R-rated film and also stars in it. The role he plays is a slight departure for Reynolds. In "Sharkey" he attempts the tender side of macho.
Helicopters swooped low for a fly-by over an edgy crowd of 2,000 who turned out for the Hollywood-style world premiere at the Fox Theater. Blue jeans and hunting jackets mingled with tuxedos and mink coats. Some hung from trees, booed the mayor and hooted for Burt.
"Get back," snapped the cops.
"You're not Burt Reynolds, you can't tell me what to do!" snarled a fan.
Blinding klieg lights cut the night sky. Atlanta Hawks cheerleaders high-stepped in skimpy white leotards. The Cloggettes kicked up a storm to keep warm. Robert Ray and the Rayettes rocked from a flatbed trailer. Reynolds hunkered low in a police cruiser, just one prop in the scenario of hype, then hopped out on a red carpet to greet his people.
"I'm mighty proud to be here and proud to be a Georgian," said the actor, born in Waycross, Ga., and raised in Florida by his father, the town sheriff. The benefit premiere raised $81,000 for a college scholarship fund for children of Georgia police officers killed in action and generated much more in free publicity for the studio PR machine.
But hype didn't play a role for fans like Dianne Bell. She came for Burt and Burt alone. "He kissed me twice," swooned the brokerage-firm account supervisor whose office was used for location shooting. "I rode in the elevator with him and when I asked for his autograph, he just bent down and kissed me. I'll never forget it. I love his sense of humor." She blushed. "I like his tight jeans."
Reynolds slipped quickly through the stage door and joined the cast backstage -- Vittorio Gassman, Brian Keith, Charles Durning, Earl Holliman, Bernie Casey, Henry Silva, Richard Libertini and Rachel Ward, the unknown British model he bills as female lead -- and nervous Hollywood executives with money on the line. "I expect 'Sharkey' to be bigger than 'Arthur,' " predicted Lloyd Leipzig, Orion Pictures PR man. "That was our biggest this year, $75 million gross." He paused to scoff. "Look at the competition. All heavy pseudo-intellectual movies: 'Reds,' 'Ragtime,' 'On Golden Pond.' And 'Who's Life Is It Anyway?' is about a man who is dying! We promise heat and excitement with 'Sharkey.' It's escapist."
Reynolds and company riddle the screen with bullet holes in a film that some critics are sure to say outdirties "Dirty Harry." "Of course, we hope it's a little more than 'Dirty Harry,' " says Reynolds.
"Yeah, there's a little violence," says Leipzig. "But people involved in drugs don't play around." As for racy language, he adds, "Nothing is too racy for young people today. A couple of 'f---s' isn't going to change the world."
Jim Nabors, a Reynolds pal who is not in the film, gave the crowd a Gomer Pyle "Gollleeee." Actors were introduced by Maynard Jackson, the lame-duck mayor. Gov. George Busbee, whose wife was given a cameo role, threw a cocktail party for the cast, but banned the press after top studio brass calculated reporters might divert attention from the film to the parties, said one state official.
Backstage, Reynolds conceded that he risked losing some loyal six-pack and pickup-truck fans to try a more "serious" role in "Sharkey's Machine," based on Atlanta author William Diehl's novel. But he's not worried. "My fans have supported me," he said. "They've gone to the well when it was dry and come back. A couple of pictures I'm not proud of, but this is a good picture. I'm not going to make 'Smokey Goes to College.' I want to make different kinds of pictures. This is a much more serious role than I usually play, but there's an awful lot of me in there."
"Sharkey's Machine" is part of Reynolds' ongoing love affair with Georgia that began with "Deliverance" in 1972, when he regularly drove 100 miles from north Georgia to party in Atlanta. He came home again to direct or act in "Gator," "The Longest Yard," "Smokey and the Bandit" (parts I and II) and "Cannonball Run," making Georgia the country's third largest film producing state. The assorted rednecks he fondly portrays have brought Georgia an estimated $96 million in film-related revenue, fueling a fervent cult following off Peachtree Street.
"Atlanta's back on the map," said John Templeton, 26, a shoe salesman wearing a tuxedo and black satin cape. "Sherman burned it down, but Burt Reynolds just built it back."