He was the man who created Burt Reynolds’ most popular movie character, Bo Darville. You might remember his C.B. handle, “Bandit.” Hal Needham broke almost every bone in his body as a Hollywood stuntman. He had the right look and frankly the right swagger to double Reynolds, but that was only the start of their long and fruitful association. Their friendship and the making of their most iconic film are chronicled in Jesse Moss’s The Bandit (clip here), which screens as the closing night film of the 2016 San Francisco International Film Festival.
It was really unprecedented for a stunt performer like Hal Needham to make the transition to directing, even if he was the highest paid stunt double, as he once claimed to be. Of course, nearly anything was possible with a star of Reynolds’ magnitude in his corner. Unless you lived through the 1970s, it is hard to believe just how wildly popular Reynolds was at the time, even though his films were roundly disparaged as the dogs that they were.
Moss captures the tenor of those times quite well. Evidently, when Needham was temporarily at loose ends, he moved into Reynolds’ bachelor pad-mansion and stayed on for years, very much like James Caan in the Playboy Mansion. Of course, Needham and Reynolds were also good old boys at heart. It was that sensibility that led to Smokey and the Bandit.
Given the personalities involved—and they certainly were characters—one would expect the Smokey shoot would be a rather rambunctious one. Indeed, the surviving cast and crew have plenty of satisfactorily colorful anecdotes. However, the strange pleasure of The Bandit is the way it immerses us in a time capsule of an era now deliberately misunderstood and forgotten. Remember when it was nearly impossible to find Coors Beer on the East Coast? Remember when Reynolds was an item with the fifty-two year-old Dinah Shore and then Sally Field (the daughter of a stuntman)?
From the vantage point of 2016, vintage Needham comes across so much cooler than Reynolds at the peak of his fame. The former just seems to exude a natural hipness that will never go out of style, despite his uber-70’s wardrobe. In contrast, Reynolds looks like he is trying to be of his moment. Regardless, the movies they made were a lot of fun. Moss’s doc will definitely give viewers the urge to binge watch the Bandit movies, the Cannonball Run movies, and Hooper, but probably not Stroker Ace, because that was pretty terrible.