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Remembering Hal Needham And The Birth Of Redneck Cinema

Illustration for article titled Remembering Hal Needham And The Birth Of Redneck Cinema

This here's a good one. From Stephen Rebello writing for Playboy:

From the vantage point of more than 30 years, Needham—who had been Hollywood's highest-paid stuntman, working in signature films directed by Roman Polanski (Chinatown) and Mel Brooks (Blazing Saddles) and as an action double for John Wayne, James Stewart, Kirk Douglas, Steve McQueen and Burt Reynolds—says, "I'd warned Universal about opening the movie at the Music Hall: 'We won't make enough money to pay the damn Rockettes.' " The studio should have listened. Needham not only knew his audience, he also never forgot where he came from. The charismatic Memphis-born sharecropper's son, ex-logger, Korean War paratrooper, billboard cigarette model and sometime actor had cemented his hairy-chested gonzo rep by leaping off a runaway stagecoach and jumping from horse to horse for Little Big Man, driving a car off a dock and landing on a moving ferry 80 feet away for White Lightning and scoring a world record by jumping a boat 138 feet over a swamp for Gator.

Famed also for his four-letter vocabulary and for having lived with his buddy Burt Reynolds for well over a decade, Needham was summoned by the Universal brass to a post–Music Hall postmortem. Recalls Needham, "They started saying stuff like 'Should we cut the movie? Is it too this, too that?' It got drastic. It got heated. I said, 'Wait a minute, folks. I didn't makeSmokey for big-city audiences. I made it for the South, the Midwest and Northwest. Those are my people.' "

As a sop to Needham's people, the same people who composed Reynolds's fan base, Universal booked the flick in a handful of Southern theaters and drive-ins. Needham, Reynolds, country music favorite Reed, Reynolds's friend and protégé Alfie Wise and other celebrities rode tractor-trailers through downtown Atlanta for a down-home-style second "premiere." Says Reynolds, "If you want to know if something's going to be a hit, ask a kid. There were lines of kids around the block. It looked like a riot was going on." Universal played up the movie's huge success in Southern states and reopened it in New York, the rest of the East and the Midwest. Says Needham, "Everywhere it played, it went bananas. All the bad reviews I got, the ones saying Burt walked through the movie and Jackie Gleason was a buffoon? Didn't matter. People told each other how funny the movie was, and word of mouth spread. I finally had to think, Maybe it is a movie for everybody."

By late June the flick had hauled in an impressive $12 million. By year's end, only Star Warstopped it as 1977's biggest moneymaker. Today, Smokey and the Bandit is estimated to have grossed in the neighborhood of $365 million worldwide.


Painting via Motoring Artist.