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Life Lessons from The Movie Stars - #5

by Patricia Fripp, CSP, CPAE

You never know where your big break is coming from.

Burt Reynolds is a great raconteur on talk shows. When he first left Florida to try a show business career, he was an apprentice at the Hyde Park Theater in upstate New York. Apprentices are not supposed to hobnob with the stars, but Burt didn’t know that. "I wouldn’t have cared anyway," he says. He promptly introduced himself to the leading lady, a luscious blonde who turned out to be Joanne Woodward. She was dating another young actor at the time, Paul Newman, but, as Burt says, "Hey, he was out of town."

Joanne was very nice to Burt and introduced him to someone who became his agent. She also convinced a director at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York to hire Burt for the lead in Tea and Sympathy, although another actor had already been cast and had to be paid off. Burt’s reviews were great. One reported, "He stole the scenes, he got the laughs, and a new star is on the horizon."

Fast-forward to Hollywood. Burt had made ten films when director John Bormann cast him in Deliverance. Burt asked Bormann, "Which of my films impressed you so you gave me this terrific part?" "None of them," said Bormann. "I saw you guest-host on the Tonight Show, and I liked the way you were able to control five guests. The guy in Deliverance has to control three people in a stressful situation." Which leads us to the next point:

At that time, Johnny Carson was the king of late-night television. If you appeared on the Tonight Show and Johnny laughed, America laughed. If Johnny loved you, America loved you. Before Burt went on Johnny’s show for the first time, he studied Johnny Carson intensely, figuring out all the ways he could set him up. Burt developed a character for the talk-show Burt Reynolds -- a super cocky, wisecracking, devil-may-care womanizer -- and Johnny absolutely loved him. Burt’s TV persona was not the kind of guy you would want to live with, but it made great television. Their routines would go something like this. Johnny would ask, "What are you going to do after the show?" and Burt would say, "Oh, walk up and down Broadway and try to get recognized." Then he’d wink at the camera as if to say, "I’m having a good time, and being rich and famous ain’t bad either."

Burt had strict instructions not to talk to Johnny during commercials, so he was chatting with Ed McMahon when Johnny suddenly leaned over and asked, "How would you like to guest-host while I’m on vacation?" No actor had ever been invited to guest-host before, only comedians.

For Burt’s first Tonight Show, the staff asked what guests he’d like to interview. "Book my ex-wife, Judy Carne," he said. Everyone was astonished, even Judy Carne. They hadn’t spoken in six years. She called him the night before the show and asked, "Why do you want to book me?" They still had unresolved marital issues and a lot of animosity.

But Burt Reynolds knew what my pal, copy-writing genius David Garfinkel, is always telling me: "People love conflict. They love to see people fighting whom, deep down, share affection and attraction." (Another speaker and I make use of this principal with our co-seminars called "The Odd Couple," describing them as "contentious, conflicting, controversial -- see them agree and disagree on subjects that mean the most to you.")

So Judy Carne came on the show, sat down and said, "Hmm, you look good." Burt said, "I hate to tell you, but so do you." She asked, "What have you been doing?"

"Oh, hanging around street corners trying to sell Burt-and-Judy towels," he quipped. "They are tough to get rid of." She admitted that she and her current husband were having problems. Burt said, "Well, I’ve grown up since we were married." The audience clearly was hoping they’d kiss and make up and get back together. Superb theater.

You never know where your big break is coming from. That means you have to do everything well. Early in the career of TV host Joan Lunden, Barbara Walters told her, "Take every crumb they throw you and handle them magnificently."


Patricia Fripp CSP, CPAE is a San Francisco-based executive speech coach and professional speaker on Change, Customer Service, Promoting Business, and Communication Skills. She is the author of Get What You Want!, Make It So You Don’t Have to Fake It and Past-President of the National Speakers Association.

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