Director Hal Needham was going to make a low budget movie with a million dollar budget and Jerry Reed as the Bandit, but his friend Burt Reynolds looked over his first draft of the script, scribbled on yellow legal pads, and declared it one of the worst he’d ever read. Yet there was something there and he wanted to be the star, with Reed moving to the role of sidekick Snowman.
Buford T. Justice, played by Jackie Gleason,, was the name of a real Florida Highway Patrolman who was friends with Reynolds’ father and who was once Police Chief of Riviera Beach, Florida. Reynold’s dad also inspired the frequent usage of the phrase sumbitch, but Gleason was also given carte blanche to pretty much do whatever he wanted.
The results? A $300 million worldwide gross on a $4.3 million dollar budget, putting it in second place for all movies made in 1977. Yep, this little movie, made by someone that Hollywood only saw as a stuntman, was only beat by Star Wars.
Wealthy Texans Big Enos Burdette and his son Little Enos (comedian Pat McCormick and renaissance man Paul Williams) have bet every trucker around that they can’t get him Coors beer in 28 hours. Even the best have been busted. Yep, it might seem strange today, but there was a time when Coors was forbidden fruit and unavailable for sale east of Oklahoma.
The type of beer in this movie — Coors Banquet Beer — was often sought it out because of its lack of stabilizers and preservatives. That also explains the 28-hour deadline the Burdettes place upon it. All manner of famous people bootlegged Coors, accoriding to a 1974 article in Time magaine: Vice President Gerald Ford hid it in his luggage, President Dwight D. Eisenhower would have it airlifted via Air Force One and baseball great Carl Yastrzemski would stash it in his team’s equipment trunks. Often, it was sold in the south for four times its original value.
Big Enos has sponsored a racer and wants to celebrate in style when he wins, so they hired legend Bo “Bandit” Darville (Reynolds) and make him a deal: $80,000 to pick up 400 cases of Coors from the closest legal place they can buy it — Texarkana, home of the Phantom Killer — and bring it back to Atlanta. That adds up to $8.33 a can, which if we adjust for inflation, is $35.20 a can. Obviously, people really loved Coors back n 1977.
Needham was inspired by Coors when he worked on Reynolds’ Gator. The driver captain on the set brought some Coors beer from California and stored them in Needham’s room. The maid kept stealing them and he thought that bootleg running coors would make a great movie.
The Burdette boys also buy Bandit a black Pontiac Trans Am to use as a blocker to divert attention from his tractor trailer, which will be driven by his friend Snowman (Reed). Needham had seen an ad for the 1977 Pontiac Trans Am and knew right away that it would be another character in the movie. That’s right — not just a vehicle, but a character.
Pontiac sent four of the 1976 model cars with the changed 1977 front ends and nearly all of them were destroyed by the end of filming. The epic bridge leap scene had an Evel Knievel-style rocket booster installed and Needham himself pulled off that stunt.
Burt Reynolds even claimed that a Pontiac senior executive bet him a free Trans-Am if the movie was a success. It was and the 1977 T-Top Trans-Am became the hottest car around. Yet Burt never got his car. He didn’t want to be a Hollywood phony begging for a handout, but one day, he called Pontiac and learned that the executive had retire and his replacement refused to honor the bet.
After getting to Texarkana an hour early, the way back gets rough. Bandit meets a runaway bride named Carrie (Sally Field, who producers did not think was attractive enough to be in the film; Reynolds disagreed and they began dating). This makes Bandit the target of Sheriff Justice (Gleason), whose son Junior (former NFL player and Tarzan actor Mike Henry).
Hijinks ensure, with police cars, motorcyles and helicopters chasing the Bandit and Snowman as they race the clock. Despite the help of everyone within the reach of a CB, Bandit is ready to give up when Snowman passes him and smashes through a police roadblock, allowing the boys to make it with ten minutes to spare. That said, they decide to go double or nothing with teh dare of bringing back Bostin chowder in 18 hours.
Before they leave, Bandit reveals himself to Justice and allows him to chase him again in a show of respect, However, his car has been absolutely destroyed. Don’t worry — the chase would continue through two sequels that we’ll definitely be covering. And people still love this movie, four two years later, even celebrating it with an annual race, The Bandit Run.
There were also four TV movies — Bandit Goes Country, Bandit Bandit, Beauty and the Bandit and Bandit’s Silver Angel — that ran on Universal TV with Brian Bloom playing Bandit in his younger days. Plus, the popularity of this film helped The Dukes of Hazzard on TV. Several of its stars appear here — “Cooter” Ben Jones, John Schneider and Sonny Shroyer (who played a police officer here and Enos on Dukes). Reynolds would later play Boss Hogg in the 2005 movie version.
I really can’t explain what a big deal this movie was or how many times my grandfather delighted to it. It rivals only The Car for the most watched movie of my childhood. Rewatching it, it hasn’t lost any of its energy and fun.
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My only issue with it is that damned song “we gotta long way to goooo” -they play it so much and it’s just like damn, just let us hear the wheels screeching once in awhile. But the whole thing with Fields and Burt is really great. I love that scene where he’s off in the woods just kind of looking around with this weird hesitant glow in his eyes, and you can tell he’s really falling in love with this broad, and not used to it, and it’s that kind of sincerity and love of strong women, that sets Burt above 90% of the other good old boy yahoos on the screen. That ability to feel strengthened as a man via a strong, assertive woman, rather than belittled, was actually more common then, in the looser freer 70s, than today, where the battle lines are sharply drawn between ‘perfect’ hunks with doe eyes who remember your birthday, and self-absorbed man children, and nothing in between.
It’s amazing that Coors was worth all that trouble. And yeah, it feels like such an eye opening movie now yet was as mainstream as it got then. I can watch it at any time.