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Remembering the greatest trucker movie of all time

Smokey & the Bandit still resonates 42 years after captivating America

I’d like to say I remember it like it was yesterday, but at my age there’s too much to recall, so let’s just say I remember it well.

Senior year in college, 1977, a Saturday night, me and my honey headed to a movie with some Bradley University frat brothers, their dates and a couple of lonely freshmen we took pity on and invited along.

Peoria, IL, the heart of the Midwest, trucking country, with CB radio at its absolute zenith. 10-4 good buddy!

I don’t recall which of us chose to see Smokey & the Bandit, but it wasn’t me. I was an east coaster. I knew nothing about how Coors beer wasn’t allowed east of the Mississippi.

The theater was packed. The movie had opened a few weeks earlier to middling reviews, but word of mouth made it a must-see. Burt Reynolds in his prime, a sleek, black Pontiac Trans Am, Sally Field at her sweetheart-best, Jackie Gleason way over the top… and an 18-wheeler with Jerry Reed and his Bassett Hound, Fred, chosen by Reynolds chiefly because it refused to obey commands. Oh yes, and a trailer full of Coors.

Budgeted at $4.3 million, Smokey has grossed over $300 million to date. No need to go into plot specifics. If you’re a trucker you must have seen Smokey & the Bandit. And maybe Smokey II and Smokey III. If not, there’s a really fun 96 minutes in your future.

Gotta say I enjoyed the hell out of it back in the day. Gorgeous down-south scenery, Reynolds racing, police cars crashing. A dopey on-screen romance that turned real off-screen. And the truck. Always the truck, trying to make it to Atlanta with the beer to collect eighty grand.

Stuntman and first-time director Hal Needham thought up the movie, and it came to be made only because his best friend Reynolds said he’d star.

Needham went to Pontiac to get the hot Trans Am, asking for six and getting four. He knew they would take a beating. Pontiac figured they’d get some decent publicity for the car. They also provided two Bonnevilles for Gleason to drive (and wreck).

When Smokey became the second biggest-grossing film of 1977 (Star Wars was #1), Trans Am sales skyrocketed. Now in the driver's seat for Smokey II, Needham asked for and got 10 Trans Ams and FIFTY-FIVE Bonnevilles, five for Gleason and 50 for Gleason’s Canadian law enforcement pals who helped him catch the Bandit.

In his autobiography, Needham cared not a whit that many critics panned the film. One person loved it. That person, asked to name his favorite movie, answered, “Smokey & the Bandit.” It was Alfred Hitchcock.

Most everyone connected with the film agrees that it was almost totally ad-libbed. Field said she took the role after Reynolds requested her to, and wasn’t fazed by the ad-libbing because she wasn’t a stage actress used to saying the same things over and over. Gleason made up everything he said.

Reed played Snowman, the truck driver, in constant communication with the Bandit via CB radio. An accomplished musician and recording star, Reed was supposed to write a song for the movie, but hadn’t as the filming was ending. Needham pestered him, and by the next morning East Bound & Down had been co-written by Reed and Dick Feller. A rollicking, banjo-driven highway anthem, perfectly capturing the non-stop chases, the song not only highlighted the movie but became a big hit. It spent 16 weeks on the U.S. country music charts, reaching #2.

I’m as excited today about Smokey & the Bandit as I was leaving the theater that night in 1977. Why? My Blu-ray version of the movie just arrived. It’s time to take a trip back in time.

 

 

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