During his heyday as a ’70s Hollywood heartthrob, Burt Reynolds had a love life that was even more torrid and tumultuous than his steamy exploits on screen. He counted models, actresses and A-listers among his exes — but there was only one woman for whom he carried a torch that burned bright until the very end: Sally Field.
The pair met while shooting 1977’s Smokey and the Bandit, and dated for nearly five years. By Reynolds’ own admission, Field was “the one who got away.”
“She was the love of my life,” he told an interviewer in 2015 — more than three decades after their painful split — adding that he continued to miss her terribly. “Even now, it’s hard on me. I don’t know why I was so stupid. Men are like that, you know. You find the perfect person, and then you do everything you can to screw it up.”
Reynolds, then 41, was already taken with the fresh-faced Gidget and Flying Nun star when he fought to get the 31-year-old cast in the good ol’ boy comedy about an illegal beer run. “I wanted her really bad, but the filmmakers said, ‘Well, she’s not sexy,’” he recalled. “And I said, ‘You don’t get it, talent is sexy.’ And she’s got that.”
Once on set, sparks flew fast and furious. “One of the things people say about Smokey is that you watch two people fall in love on the screen, and it’s true,” Reynolds wrote in his 2015 memoir, But Enough About Me. “If ever the old cliché ‘chemistry’ applied … I mean, the sexual tension was bouncing off the walls!”
Hollywood’s sizzling new “It” couple went on to costar in 1978’s Hooper and The End as well as 1980’s Smokey and the Bandit II. “While we were together, I tried to guide Sally’s career,” recalled Reynolds, who said he urged her to take the starring role in 1979’s Norma Rae, which would earn her a Best Actress Oscar.
But behind the scenes, the on-again, off-again romance sputtered. Reynolds proposed several times to Field — who had two young sons from her seven-year marriage to high school boyfriend Steven Craig — and openly longed to start a family with her. “I want a kid so bad that I ache,” the actor once admitted. “And yet I have this incredible fear.”
His fears eventually won out. The couple never moved in together, and Reynolds — who’d divorced his first wife, British actress Judy Carne, in 1965, and walked away from a passionate four-year May-December relationship with talk show host Dinah Shore, who was 20 years his senior — returned to his womanizing ways. Field was devastated.
“He gave me a feeling that I was sexy, and I wanted to be everything he ever wanted,” she recalled. “I dressed for him, looked for him, walked for him. [But] that was terrible because what happened is that I stopped existing.”
In her shocking 2018 memoir, In Pieces, she revealed that she’d felt humiliated as reports on Reynolds’ cheating began circulating, especially when her grandmother started mailing her clippings about his infidelities. “Part of me knew it was all true,” she wrote. “I felt duped and a fool.”
After their split, Field rebounded quickly, marrying producer Alan Greisman in 1984. Four years later, in 1988, Reynolds wed actress Loni Anderson — a doomed union that would eventually implode amid accusations of physical abuse and drug use by him and cheating by both.
While Reynolds made no apologies for sneaking around behind Anderson’s back, he never forgave himself for his shameful behavior with Field.
“After we broke up, I wanted to see her again, but she refused and I fell apart,” he wrote. “I wish I could turn back the clock.”
Indeed, the actor continued to bare his soul and pine over Field during his final years.
“That sense of loss never goes away,” he confessed. “I have no idea what Sally thinks about it. She could pick up the phone and speak to me but she never does … Maybe she’ll phone me one day. I’d love to have that conversation.”
Sadly, they never did. But Field did credit the actor with being “the most important influence” in her life during a formative stage in her career. She was also among the very first people to offer a touching tribute to her ex after news of his passing broke.
“There are times in your life that are so indelible, they never fade away,” she said in a statement. “They stay alive, even 40 years later. My years with Burt never leave my mind. He will be in my history and my heart, for as long as I live.”
And addressing him by his childhood nickname, she bade her onetime love farewell. “Rest, Buddy.”