"You may or may not ever see a male nude centerfold in Cosmopolitan, but I hope you do."
-Helen Gurley Brown to female
Cosmopolitan staffers, 1971.
In 1972, after a decade and a half in the business, Burt Reynolds was finally on the brink of stardom. Now 36, Burt had been an actor since the late 1950's.
His first movie was Angel Baby in 1961. Since then, he had appeared in several mediocre to bad films (usually typecast as a Native American) and had either starred or had recurring roles in three TV series- Gunsmoke, Dan August and Hawk. Burt claims he was "the first actor in history to be in a cancelled TV series on each of the three networks" (CBS, ABC and NBC).
But the sweet smell of success seemed to finally be wafting Burt's way. He had just wrapped on the film version of James Dickey's powerful novel Deliverance. Burt was heavily counting on this major release (co-starring Academy Award nominee Jon Voight) to finally put him over into "grade A" films and roles. He knew he had done his finest acting to date in Deliverance.
Burt Reynolds was also by this time gaining a reputation as "a personality." He enjoyed making the rounds of the TV talk shows, especially The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.
Unlike many good-looking actors, Burt displayed a quick wit and a very keen sense of humor. Because he was so naturally funny and quick on his feet, Burt became the first non-comedian Johnny Carson ever asked to host The Tonight Show in his absence.
One night early in 1972, after he had finished filming Deliverance and was awaiting its release, he was hosting The Tonight Show. Appearing with him on the show was Helen Gurley Brown, editor of the popular women's magazine Cosmopolitan and author of the best-selling book Sex and the Single Girl. On the show, he and Helen started bantering back and forth.
At one point, Burt sarcastically quipped that "Men only read Playboy magazine for the articles." During their semi-heated conversation, Helen asked Burt: "Are you a sexist?" Burt's icy response: "I bet in ten years that word will be very tired and so dated that you'll sound like a (expletive deleted) to ask."
Intrigued by Burt's flippancy, during the commercial break, Helen asked him point-blank: "How would you like to be the nude centerfold in Cosmopolitan?" The very glib and verbose Burt was taken aback and, very un-customarily, was speechless for a moment. He finally managed to get out a simple question: "Why?"
Helen, honing in like a shark, answered Burt's question: "Because you're the only one who could do it with a twinkle in your eye."
Helen Gurley Brown remembered Burt Reynolds from that night: "He was handsome, humorous, wonderful body, frisky." Female nude centerfolds had been around since the early 1950's, when Hugh Hefner's first issue of Playboy featured the immortal Marilyn Monroe in her legendary nude calendar photo. And although by 1972 nude women in magazines were as common as Frisbees, Slinkys, or McDonald's hamburgers, no man had ever appeared nude in a magazine before.
Helen Gurley Brown was both a revolutionary and a visionary. She believed that women had the same "visual appetites" as men. Men enjoyed viewing the female form in all its splendor and she wanted the same prerogative for women and the male physique.
After Burt had a chance to mull over Helen's offer, he was both flattered and intrigued. Helen may or may not have mentioned to him that her original choice, Paul Newman, had turned down her offer. And Paul was not alone- Joe Namath, Dustin Hoffman, Warren Beatty, Clint Eastwood, Tony Curtis, Elliot Gould, Frank Langella, and Robert Redford had all also reputedly given Helen the thumbs down in response to her request
According to Burt: "I wish I could say I wanted to show my support for women's rights, but I just thought it would be fun. I said yes before we came back on the air." ("I may or may not have had several cocktails in the green room before the show.")
Burt said everyone he respected warned him against doing it. Both his friends and relations tried to talk him out of it. His agent warned him that it would cancel out whatever Deliverance might do to establish him as a serious actor.
But Burt stuck to his guns- "I did it anyway. I thought it was a big joke. I wanted to do it as a takeoff on the Playmate of the Month. On the back of the photo, I'd list my hobbies and favorite colors, there'd be a black and white shot of me pushing a supermarket cart, and a quote: 'I love sunsets and hate mean people'." (this satirical touch was never included and Burt claimed "I got screwed.")
On March 14, 1972, Burt was driven to the photo session by his P.R. representative. He stopped at a liquor store for two quarts of vodka on the way to the studio on the historic day. By the time he arrived at the studio he'd already finished one of the bottles. After meeting photographer Francesco Scavullo and a few of his assistants, Burt asked for a glass and went to his dressing room to polish off the remaining vodka bottle.
Burt remembered: "The only rules I had was... I wanted a lot of drinks before. I have to be truthful, I was totally zonkered when I did the picture. That stupid smile. That's what it is, you know"
Burt undressed completely. Hairpiece in place and splenectomy scar clearly visible, he lay down on his side and posed in all his masculine virility on a bearskin rug, seeing the humor in such a setting. He gripped a cigarillo in his teeth.
Although Burt was, indeed, nude, he covered the part of his anatomy women were most curious about with a free hand. (Shots were also taken with a dog in front of it and with a hat in front of it.) "Fabulous. Fabulous. Like that," Scavullo encouraged his subject, as he snapped away.
According to Burt, he knew exactly when the right shot was taken. "I always know. I don't have to do forty shots to know I've got the one I want."
It was Burt who not only chose the final shot, but also got custody of all the negatives. Bored after a while, he wrestled with the bearskin rug and posed for some comical "naughty" shots. He didn't care about looking foolish or ridiculous because he knew he got to keep all the negatives of the session.
The historic issue of Cosmopolitan was released in April of 1972. Reaction came swiftly. Congresswoman Bella Abzug was mentioned on the cover of the issue, but it was the words in the right bottom corner of the magazine that set off an alarm with women all over America: "Cosmo's famous extra bonus takeoff! At last a male nude centerfold. The Naked Truth About Guess Who?"
Three months before Deliverance opened, the April '72 Cosmo quickly sold out all of its 1.5 million issues. Women everywhere taped copies of the centerfold to their refrigerators, over their bathtubs and above their beds. College girls displayed it on the walls of their dorms and sororities.
Burt couldn't go anywhere without being asked by women to sign their copies. Every time he got on a plane, Burt was greeted with women whistling at him.
Burt was actually performing onstage in the play The Rainmaker in Chicago at the time of the magazine's release. The audiences were very rowdy. They greeted Burt as walked onstage with catcalls and hoots, instead of applause.
Burt said: "While most of the mail was positive and polite, I also got some of the filthiest letters I've ever seen, many of which included Polaroids."
Happy women flooded Helen Gurley Brown's office with letters of appreciation.
When Burt was in Denmark promoting Deliverance, he saw the cover of a Danish porno magazine with him fooling around on the bearskin rug. The magazine had somehow gotten hold of one of the outtakes from the photo session. The Catholic church actually condemned Burt. "And I got, 'Hey! I didn't recognize you with your clothes on' fifty times a day," recalled Burt.
A cottage industry sprang up. Burt's unclothed image appeared on posters, t-shirts, panties, coasters, floor mats, and key chains. "The low point was when I checked into a hotel room and found myself imprinted on the sheets," recalled Burt. The manager told him he'd bought them at Macy's.
Burt was not paid for either the photos or for any sort of merchandising rights. One has to assume if he had been, it would have taken some of the embarrassment and sting out of the whole experience.
Burt now rues that fateful day he chatted with Helen Gurley Brown on The Tonight Show. He even believes his Cosmopolitan centerfold prevented Deliverance from being given its rightful Academy Award status that year. For the record, Deliverance did receive three Oscar nominations, for Best Picture, Best Director (John Boorman) and Best Film Editing (Tom Priestly). It lost all three.
"It was a total fiasco," recalls Burt, "I thought people would be able to separate the fun-loving side of me from the serious actor, but I was wrong."
"I'm still embarrassed by it and I sorely regret doing it. It's been called one of the greatest publicity stunts of all time, but it was one of the biggest mistakes I've ever made. And I'm convinced it cost Deliverance the recognition it deserved."
"I thought it was a hoot. A clever take-off," opined Hugh Hefner.
The Cosmo centerfold catapulted Burt Reynolds into the superstar category. He was now a Celebrity with a capital "C." Although he was not nominated for an Oscar for his acting in Deliverance, he did receive rave reviews.
He started getting offers to do movies from every corner. He became one of the most popular movie stars in America. From 1978 to 1982, Burt tied a still-standing record by being the top box office movie star five years in a row. Only Bing Crosby had ever previously accomplished this feat.
Although his popularity did eventually begin to wane by the mid-'80's, Burt finally garnered his long sought-after Academy Award nomination for his role in the 1997 film Boogie Nights. He lost the Best Supporting Actor award to Robin Williams, who won for Good Will Hunting.
When asked to sum himself up, Burt has described himself as "Overrated as a personality, underrated as an actor."