'Smokey and the Bandit' Turns 40: Paul Williams Looks Back on His Role In the Comedy Classic
He's written hits for Barbra Streisand, The Carpenters, and Three Dog Night among others, but Paul Williams will tell you that fans who encounter him today will invariably bring up another chapter in his career.
"There have been highs and lows in my career," Williams tells Billboard. "There were the salad days of when you are just trying to make it, then all of a sudden you are doing ok, you're doing The Tonight Show all the time, and then there's the '80s, when I kind of disappeared for a time. I'm 27 years sober, so that tells you why I disappeared for those years. In all those highs and lows, there is one thing I noticed -- especially in the South -- when I walk through an airport, it's almost inevitable that somebody will come up and say 'Oh, my God! It's Little Enos Burdette,'" he says in reference to his role in the Smokey and the Bandit trilogy (1977, 1980, and 1983). Williams, now president of ASCAP, says he still gets a kick out of that recognition. "It's really wonderful because when we made the movie, those films were made almost against all odds. All of Burt's friends supposedly begged him not to do it. The production costs were cut, and it was originally going to be released only in the South. It's amazing to see that forty years later, it's still resonating with people."
TCM is in the midst of celebrating the 40th anniversary of the original film with a re-release that started Sunday, May 21, and will happen again on Wednesday, May 24. Williams has nothing but fond memories of his time spent playing the son of Georgia businessman "Big Enos" Burdette, played by close friend Pat McCormick.
"The beginning of it happened at The Tonight Show," Williams recalls. "I had met Burt, and had been a revolving co-host on The Dinah Shore Show – myself and three other guys, Don Meredith, Fernando Lamas, and Charles Nelson Reilly. I'm not sure of the exact timeline, but I had met Burt, and he saw Pat and I backstage at The Tonight Show. Pat and I were actually drinking buddies. He had the funniest line ever the first time he saw me in the daylight. He was standing over me, and said 'You know what, little guy? You look like an aerial photograph of a human being.'" We were great buddies and always hanging together. Pat was a comedy writer for Johnny Carson for years. He looked at the two of us and said he had something that would be great for us.
"It was a great stroke of luck," Williams says of the first film. "The later movies were not the piece of art the first one was, but it's been a lovely part of my past that has been a great surprise that has remained in people's hearts all these years."
Of course, the mastermind behind the movie was its director and writer, Hal Needham. Some might remember Jackie Gleason's magnificent portrayal of Texas lawman Buford T. Justice, while others might recall the chemistry between Reynolds and co-star Sally Field. But Williams asserts that Needham made the film memorable for the stunts in the film – but also the friendship displayed between Reynolds and Jerry Reed, which mirrored Needham's own relationship with the movie star. "It was incredible stunt work, but I think he brought something else to the picture. He brought the camaraderie of his friendship with Burt, and it showed up on the screen with Jerry Reed and Burt. You got the sense that these two were great pals, with the insider look at their friendship. It might seem like an unmanly thing to say, but I think that perhaps was what was most touching about the picture – getting to be a part of that friendship."
Williams says that with Jerry Reed – one of the 2017 inductees into the Country Music Hall of Fame -- what you saw was exactly what you got. "He was such a great songwriter, and a really nice man. It's wonderful when you meet someone that you've admired for a long time that is real and authentic, and there's no bull. It was a joy to spend time with him."
The first night the cast was together, Williams also met Gleason, and it proved to be an interesting meeting.
"The first night on the set, before the first day of shooting, we were in Atlanta. Pat and I were invited to have dinner with Jackie. I had never met him, so I went to his place at the Peachtree. There's $100 bills on the table, and he and Jerry Reed are playing cards. I walk in, and said 'What are you guys doing? Let me in on this.' Gleason looks up at me and says 'Mr. Williams, let me tell you right now. I'm going to teach you that you never gamble with The Great One.' I pulled out a hundred dollar bill, and he said 'We're not going to waste our time with any game beyond cutting the cards. I said 'That's fine.' I cut the cards, and I draw a seven. He stands up and starts laughing. He reaches over, cuts the cards, and draws a three. He closes his eyes and says very slowly 'Of course, we always cut three times.' All of a sudden, he heard a door slam. He opened up his eyes, and I'm told later by the gentleman who was working for him, he thought I had just gone to the bathroom. I was gone, and so was the $200. It pissed him off. He hated it. I'm told he kept going over to bang on the door. He thought it was totally rude that I would take $200 rather than spend the evening with The Great One. All three movies, whenever he would see me he would say 'Ok, a gentleman gives another gentleman a chance to win their money back.' I said 'No, sir. I was told by The Great One not to ever gamble with The Great One. When he teaches you something, it sticks.' The last day of shooting of Smokey 3 – the last time I ever saw him – we cut the cards again, and he got his $100 back. Cutting the cards was the beginning and the ending of a friendship," he said with a laugh. "He was a remarkable person to work with."
Despite his and Reed both having successful music careers, Williams admits there wasn't a lot of talk about it on the set. "We talked about some of the people that we loved and admired, like Waylon, Merle, and the like, but almost all of our time on the set was work. Music was our day job. This was a vacation!"
Williams himself would enjoy a taste of country success in 1998, when Diamond Rio recorded his composition "You're Gone." He says it helped him rekindle his love of writing. "I got sober in 1990, and felt very disconnected from the music business. I wrote the words and music to The Muppet Christmas Carol, but what I hadn't done in a long time was sit down with another human being and written a song. I went to Nashville in the mid 1990s for Tin Pan South. There's something in the water there. I think it had to do with the way that I was treated and the respect I was shown. All of a sudden, I wanted to write songs again. All of a sudden, I felt that old itch. I had never met Jon Vezner, but I loved his work. He wrote 'Where've You Been' for Kathy Mattea, his wife. I went to his house to write….I got scared, so I decided I would go in his bathroom and pray. When I get scared, I go to the Big Amigo. This was the first time I sat down to write a song with somebody in many years. I had written alone, but not with another collaborator. On the wall of his bathroom, I saw The Serenity Prayer. For those of us in recovery, that's an important prayer. So we found out that both of us were in recovery, and had gotten sober because of a young lady. The good news is I'm better for the time we spent together, but the bad news is you're gone. We wrote the song, and about two years later Diamond Rio delivered a beautiful recording of it."
For more information concerning the locations of the 40th anniversary screening of Smokey and the Bandit, head here.