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A very amateur performance - ​Nick Newman

Blog | By ​Nick Newman | Jun 03, 2022

Imelda Staunton, Alistair Petrie, Burt and Derek Jacobi

Nick Newman was thrilled to sign Burt Reynolds for his film. If only Burt had remembered his lines and hadn’t spent so much on wigs

When we saw the giant ‘idiot boards’, we knew there was trouble.

Arriving on the set of our small British movie A Bunch of Amateurs, we had been warned that our star, Hollywood legend Burt Reynolds, had ‘problems’.

That morning, he had demanded that the stunt co-ordinator be fired. There were problems with Burt’s wigs – of which more later. But the most pressing issue for us as writers was that our leading man couldn’t remember his lines. This did not bode well for the scenes in which he had to perform long speeches from King Lear.

A Bunch of Amateurs was filmed on the Isle of Man in February 2008. My co-writer Ian Hislop and I had rewritten a script about a Hollywood has-been who arrives in England imagining he is playing King Lear at Stratford, only to discover it’s not on Avon, but Stratford St John in Suffolk – an amateur dramatic production to save the local theatre.

Shakespearean tragedy: Burt Reynolds as King Lear

Hilarity ensues as our antihero, Jefferson Steel, behaves badly, forgets his lines and is embarrassed by the am-dram cast. With Burt on board and the film greenlit, a stellar British cast was assembled around him – including Sir Derek Jacobi, Samantha Bond and Imelda Staunton. What could possibly go wrong?

Life began to imitate art at an alarming pace. When Burt was being courted for the role, he had said, ‘If there’s one movie I make before I die, it’s this one.’

When the 72-year-old arrived, his first words were ‘Why, when you had a perfectly good script, did you f***k it up?’

Not a word had been changed – other than to reduce the Shakespeare, as Mr Reynolds had requested. Yet still we were hopeful.

At the meet-and-greet drinks party, Burt was delightful and twinkly – albeit worryingly frail for such a legendary Hollywood hunk. Up close, his skin was taut through multiple botched plastic-surgery procedures.

But he was still sparky. He recounted how John Wayne had performed Julius Caesar. When the Duke mumbled his way through the lines, the audience started booing. At which point, Wayne stopped the play and said to the audience, ‘Look, I agree with you, but I didn’t write this shit!’

I was much cheered by our star’s reminiscence – a reminder of the Hollywood history Reynolds brought to the role.

Back in the 1970s, he was one of the top five Hollywood box-office draws. His breakthrough role in the classic hillbilly thriller Deliverance was followed by crowd-pleasing romps such as Smokey and the Bandit and The Cannonball Run.

He was almost as famous for the films he turned down as for those he accepted. James Bond, Star Wars, Die Hard, Terms of Endearment, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Pretty Woman and The Godfather were all allegedly offered to the actor once described as the ‘standard of hirsute masculinity’.

Later, he was nominated for an Oscar for Boogie Nights (1997) and now here he was, in our £5-million romcom. As he left the party to assume his role of ill-behaved actor, I joked to Burt, ‘I do hope you’re going to behave spectacularly badly on set.’ He replied, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll keep ’em on their toes.’

He was true to his word. Inability to remember lines led to his own frustration that our Brit cast knew Shakespeare inside out. Confronted with a page-long meltdown scene, Burt said, ‘I can do it with a look.’

Such was the problem with lines that, in a scene with his character’s agent (played by Burt’s old pal Charles Durning – who had similar script-learning issues), it was hard to position the camera to avoid glimpses of the copious, handwritten prompts.

Drastic measures were employed to feed Burt dialogue – idiot boards weren’t enough, nor was the earpiece used under his wig. In one scene, in which he ranted at his agent from a public phone box, lines were fed through the phone receiver. At the end of the scene, the receiver told him, ‘Put the phone down, Burt.’ Burt solemnly said to the camera, ‘Put the phone down, Burt.’

When we writers arrived on set, he was charm itself. But there was a looming problem – Burt’s fabled hairpiece. His rug was a miracle of technology, glued on, he said, by the stuff NASA used ‘to hold rockets together’.

Unfortunately, like dilapidated satellites, Burt’s wigs started to disintegrate – so a stand-in wig had to be sent for from LA. The make-up team were beginning to pull their own hair out when Burt’s wig man belatedly dispatched a rug.

The vital box was collected from Gatwick. On its arrival on the Isle of Man, there was found:

1 Subway sandwich

1 bundle of receipts

1 wig – the wig-maker’s own.

Burt’s wig-maker had accidentally sent on a 6,000 mile voyage his own wig – and lunch.

In the meantime, Burt’s wig budget had spiralled from $6,000 to $26,000 – considerably more than we were getting paid as writers.

When I next visited the set, relations with Burt had deteriorated further. He had tried to punch our unflappable producer, David Parfitt, and was no longer on speaking terms with Andy Cadiff, the director. That morning, he had stormed off set yet again.

Burt clearly wasn’t well – the Isle of Man cold had taken its toll on the ex-stuntman who had broken most of the bones in his body. As well as rattling with prescription pills, he was convinced he was being stalked by the media (he wasn’t) and kept awake at night by ‘that woman’ in the hotel room next door. By ‘that woman’, Burt meant an imaginary Vanessa Redgrave, who wasn’t even there.

Insurers were called in to discuss shutting the production down. But, using every possible scrap of footage available, Cadiff pieced together a complete movie.

Newman, Reynolds, Staunton and Ian Hislop

My favourite scene, set in a hospital corridor, featured Burt’s character running beside a gurney timing his lines perfectly – and clearly! Except the figure on screen was Burt’s double, and the lines were voiced over by the actor John Sessions.

The film had many redeeming features but at its centre was a slow, mumbly actor who was supposed to be playing an erstwhile action hero. The rom had been edited out of the com, and we were left asking, ‘What might have been?’

To our amazement, the film was chosen to be 2008’s Royal Film Performance première. Burt did not appear. We had our moment on the red carpet, met the Queen and were astounded when it was reported that Her Majesty enjoyed it so much that she requested that the film be screened for staff at Christmas. Otherwise, the film sank without trace.

Burt Reynolds died in 2018, aged 82. In the ensuing obituaries, A Bunch of Amateurs was barely mentioned. This was better than his 2015 autobiography, in which it didn’t feature at all. In his final film, The Last Movie Star (2017), he seemingly played the same character all over again. Perhaps he’d forgotten he’d ever made A Bunch of Amateurs.

For us, though, the experience was unforgettable. When asked to turn the film into a stage play, we reinserted all the lines Burt couldn’t remember and rewrote the character of the Hollywood has-been to mirror the star we had met in the tautly honed flesh.

The play has proved surprisingly popular with am-dram companies. Before lockdown, it was about to embark on a national, professional tour.

With luck, it will return next year. So Burt will live on for ever – on stage and in our nightmares.