Hollywood icon Burt Reynolds played against the world’s greatest poker players and lived to tell the tale.
From Gunsmoke to Deliverance, The Longest Yard to Smokey and the Bandit, Cannonball Run to Boogie Nights. In his lifetime, Burt Reynolds may have single-handedly reinvented the leading man persona (not to mention the world’s appreciation for a good mustache). But his greatest challenge yet may have been making his latest film, Deal. In the film, Reynolds went toe to toe against poker players like Antonio Esfandiari, Isabelle Mercier, and Phil Laak. The experience left him humbled but ultimately made him a better poker player. Now if only Jackie Gleason was still around to play one last hand.
Burt, how was it acting with professional poker players? “I was fascinated by how these guys study their opponents, figuring out their tells and using psychology to outsmart them. I was very flattered when some of these young stars said they couldn’t tell if I was bluffing. I don’t think that was true before I started this movie. Before starting this film and studying the WPT DVDs, I was an ok poker player, but not great. I just didn’t see how you could win with no cards. I could never figure out how you “play the player.” But I watched and learned. Poker brings out the actor in me, and I was happy to hear some of these young poker stars say “Damn, you’re hard to read”.
The movie “Deal” is reminiscent of Color of Money. Burt’s character, Tommy Vincent, is an older guy who is a teacher to this young player. “I’ve been away from the game a long time, and this brings me back to it. I play a guy who is incredibly faithful and may actually be the most admirable character I’ve played in my 40 years of film. This film may be making me a better poker player and a better person.”
Anything to say about tells? “You know, my dad was a sheriff, and he always said the greatest tell of all was the eyes. That’s why so many guys wear sunglasses in poker.”
What is your home game experience. Burt: “I play with Charlie (Durning) once a month in this very famous game that (Hollywood superagent) Norby Walters hosts. He casts it like he casts a film. Norby says, “I need two leading men, two leading ladies, one comic, and three character actors.”"
If I’m there, then Tom Selleck isn’t invited. I don’t want anybody taller or more handsome than me, so that narrows it down. Among the women, Angie Dickinson is often there. She’s a terrific poker player and has a great laugh. She’s kind of bawdy, fun, and wonderful. You could say anything in front of her and she’d throw it right back.
One of the guys I’ve played a lot with is Jimmy Woods. He is a very skilled actor at the poker table and one of the brightest guys around. You know he went to MIT. He’s very subtle. He has a way of making other players feel as if they are holding up the game. He glares at you, as if to say, “What the hell’s the matter with you?”
I love playing with my old friend Jim Garner. I’ve known him forever. He’s good fun; we have great camaraderie. We kid each other that we’re not the ingenues. We’re getting to be “resident old character actors” now, but we don’t want to admit it.
For many years, Norby included Milton Berle in the game. He was great, but you had to watch him closely. He was the master of the double shuffle. Having done vaudeville all those years on the road, he learned just about every card game and every card trick. It got so that we just bypassed him every time the deal came around. Did it bother him? You bet, he cursed like the dickens.
Jackie Gleason was sensational at cards. I never met a vaudeville player who wasn’t. They could play 50 different card games. Playing cards on the vaudeville circuit, you could make some money.
When I was cast in the film Deal, I went back to watch Cincinnati Kid. Steve McQueen and I were good friends. I wanted to see again how he played his role. It was a really well-done performance. Knowing Steve as I did, I’m convinced he played poker a bit and became a student of the game before he took the film on. Watching those closing scenes, I know he just wanted to kill Edward G. Robinson. Robinson was beautifully contained. He just didn’t sweat.
Does being an actor make you a better poker player? Burt: “It’s supposed to. You’re not supposed to be able to read tells on a player’s face, and as an actor you should be able to hide tells. All those things an actor should be able to do should help you as a poker player. But real poker players, someone who makes a living at it, are truly amazing for what they don’t do. Things like giving you false tells.”
How was your downtime spent with the pro players? Burt: “I find them fascinating to be around. They can’t stand it just to be hanging around. They just have to be betting $23,000 on whether that girl is going to come over here or go right by us. It’s constant action.”
Is the competitive drive in sports the same as in cards? Burt: “Very good comparison. They have to keep athletes away from gambling because the very nature of being an athlete is to stay in there until you win. That can be very dangerous in gambling.”
What about your own poker game? Burt: “It sucks. Everybody is giving me tips on the set, thank God. But I’ve learned on this picture to at least look like I know what the hell I’m doing. ”
You think you know these guys. I got on the elevator the other night with the guy everybody loves to hate (Phil Hellmuth), and he said to me, “I love your work.” I said, “Shit! I wish you hadn’t said that.” He said, “You want to hate me, don’t you?” I said, “Yeah. You really do that well.” He said, “It’s just the role I play.” I guess it’s a little like wrestling; you play a role. He is so frigging arrogant, he just buries his opponents. “You don’t belong in this room, you don’t belong in this country!” You know that guy who talks all the time (Mike Matusow)? I wouldn’t last two seconds with him.
Is football a little like poker? Burt: “The closest thing you can say is you have to get up off the ground, dust yourself off, and go on. There’s no self-pity allowed in football. You can’t cry. It’s the no-cry league.”
I really appreciate the entertainment value of some of these guys. Actors can be really boring off camera because someone else gives us the clever lines. These guys have their own. Nobody writes them. I have certain guys I really like. There’s one guy with the cowboy hat (Hoyt Corkins) who is such a gentleman. “Well, thank you, sir. I was proud to lose to you.”
Do you have a poker face? Burt: “Funny, yesterday I was playing with one of the poker pros, and he said, “I can’t read you at all.” And I said I had a problem with that in acting at first, and that’s not good. You have to be able to read something in the actor’s face.”