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Burt Reynolds changed the way we thought about sex — by getting naked on a bearskin rug

Hollywood legend Burt Reynolds, known for his unique swagger in movies like "Smokey and the Bandit" and "Cannonball Run," died on Sep. 6 at the age of 82. (Video: Erin Patrick O'Connor/The Washington Post)
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Burt Reynolds is stretched out on a bearskin rug like it’s a macho man’s chaise longue. He is tanned, mustachioed, and — much like the beast beneath him — very, very hairy. Bulging veins line his arms, one of which is conveniently placed in front of his nether regions. He is smiling easily, like he’s amused by what he’s depriving you of. Between his teeth, a lit cigarillo droops carelessly, not unlike a . . . well, you know.

He is making history, but you’d never know it from his expression.

The 1972 photo — Cosmopolitan magazine’s first male centerfold — was a radical statement: that women had desires that deserved not just to be acknowledged, but to be catered to. Its publication sparked a sort of revolution in women’s magazines. Looking back after Reynolds’s death Thursday, the centerfold has a powerful legacy. It captivated readers, challenged ideas about sexuality and spawned a wave of new publications. But although it launched Reynolds into a higher stratosphere of celebrity, his relationship with the picture was complicated.

The idea came to Helen Gurley Brown, then editor in chief of Cosmopolitan, one day in the late ’60s while she was washing the dishes. Gurley Brown had helmed the magazine for three years, expanding Cosmo’s circulation by rebranding it as a women’s magazine that wasn’t for mothers and wives, but for single young women. The changes led to criticism about the magazine’s “seemingly obsessive preoccupation with sex,” according to “The Improbable First Century of Cosmopolitan Magazine” by James Landers.

“Men like to look at our bodies,” Brownwho served as editor in chief for 32 years, said as she explained the centerfold’s origins in a 2012 Salon interview. “We like to look at their bodies, though it’s not as well known.”

After making a tough pitch to Hearst Magazine executives, many of whom told her she’d gone too far, Gurley Brown approached Burt Reynolds in 1971, during a commercial break while he was standing in for Johnny Carson on an episode of “The Tonight Show” and asked the movie and TV star if he’d be interested in stripping down for Cosmo.

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As Reynolds detailed in his memoir, Gurley Brown pitched the centerfold as a milestone in the sexual revolution. She buttered him up, telling him he was “the one man who could pull it off.”  (Reynolds later learned she had gone to Paul Newman first, but he declined.)

Reynolds agreed easily, but not because he saw it as a chance to be a maverick.

“I wish I could say that I wanted to show my support for women’s rights, but I just thought it would be fun,” Reynolds wrote about it later, adding that he might have been more gung-ho because of the cocktails he’d downed in the green room.

On the way to the photo shoot, a nervous Reynolds stopped for a couple quarts of vodka. The freezing studio was “bad for a naked man’s self-esteem,” Reynolds wrote. Fashion photographer Francesco Scavullo — who became famous for celebrity portraits that graced Cosmopolitan’s pages over 30 years — took hundreds of photos, creatively obscuring Reynolds’ genitalia with props and tactful positioning.

The picture that was eventually published in the magazine’s April 1972 issue was chosen by Reynolds himself. The cover bore a bold, teasing banner, according to Landers: “At Last A Male Nude Centerfold — The Naked Truth About Guess Whoo!!”  Inside, it was prefaced by a bold declaration that such a spread — and the acknowledgment of women’s desires — was long overdue.

“We had the feeling the reason naked women so abound in magazines, while there is such a dearth of nude men, is that, until recently, those in control of publications have been men, who thought only of pleasing their brother men, and neglected the visual appetites of us equally appreciative girls,” the text read.

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To say the centerfold was popular would be an understatement of near-criminal proportions. It sold out nationwide, with more than 1.5 million total copies flying off the shelves in short order. And while Cosmo had already been pushing boundaries with stories about sex, this cemented its status as a “sex magazine in the public mind,” Landers wrote, metamorphosizing into a completely new kind of women’s magazine — and others followed suit. When Doug Lambert created Playgirl the following year, he cited the Reynolds centerfold as early inspiration.

“It came to me, that’s what women want,” Lambert said of the spread later. (Lambert’s wife had been telling him this for years, but he hadn’t bought in until the Cosmopolitan centerfold, according to reporting from Esquire.)

Cosmo’s notoriety led some retailers to keep it behind counters rather than out on the shelves, elevating it even further, Landers wrote. By the early ’80s, it was selling 2.8 million copies a year.

Reynolds had a similar explosion of popularity. The morning after the magazine came out, a mob of women waited outside his home, clutching magazines in eager hands. Suddenly, boisterous audiences would bring copies for him to autograph after his theater performances. He got lewd fan mail — including a letter from a woman in Nova Scotia containing pubic hair, according to his autobiography. Once, when he checked into a hotel, he discovered himself imprinted on the bedsheets; the manager said he’d bought them at Macy’s, Reynolds wrote.

“It was a total fiasco,” Reynolds wrote, referring to the photo as one of his biggest mistakes. “I thought people would be able to separate the fun-loving side of me from the serious actor, but I was wrong.”

During a South By Southwest appearance in 2016, Reynolds said it was “stupid” of him to bare it all for Cosmopolitan and confessed he’d wondered if the picture had robbed him of an Oscar nomination for his breakout film, “Deliverance,” in 1972, according to reporting from Uproxx. After starring in classics like “Smokey and the Bandit,” “Cannonball Run” and “The Longest Yard,” Reynolds eventually earned an Oscar nomination for his supporting role in 1997’s “Boogie Nights.”

Whatever muddled feelings Reynolds might have had about the photo as he aged, its legacy is undeniable. There’s no telling how many eyes gazed upon Reynolds in his buff and easy glory, but the man on the bearskin rug will surely be archived in the American memory for decades to come.

Burt Reynolds, handsome star of film and television, dies at 82

Actor Burt Reynolds, right, with Darren McGavin on the set of the television program “Riverboat.” (AP)

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