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BURT REYNOLDS SHOWCASES HIS LIFE

Dishwasher, bouncer, mailman, stunt man, movie idol, talk-show wag, centerfold model, ladykiller, washed-up actor, born-again TV star - there may be no role in life or show business that Burt Reynolds has not played.

Except perhaps one - confessor, and he's working on it."A lot of people have said to me: `What the . . . are you doing this for? You're not Jimmy Stewart, you're not Henry Fonda,' " says Reynolds, who's touring the country in a new one-man show in which he plays one of his favorite characters: himself.

"But this show isn't a retrospective of my film career. If I were to get up and talk about the best films I've ever made, I'd be out of there in 10 minutes," quips Reynolds, who is starring in "An Evening With Burt" Reynolds: The Laughs, the Loves, the Lies, the Legends, the Lies (Not Necessarily in That Order)."

"But I do have a few things to talk about," adds Reynolds, 55.

"You've got to remember, I was the world's No. 1 box office draw for five years.

"You don't know what it's like to go from No. 1 to No. 83."

Reynolds does not exaggerate. From 1977 to 1982, every major box-office survey put him at the top of the heap. Nobody - not the nascent Tom Cruise, not the pre-"Rambo" Sylvester Stallone - could compete.

A year or so later, Reynolds couldn't get his phone calls returned.

"It was an incredible, extraordinary experience," says Reynolds, who's as forthright in speaking about the defeats of his life as the victories.

"It's almost impossible to explain what it feels like to be that big in the first place.

"I had been signing autographs since my TV days in `Riverboat,' " an NBC-TV Western series that ran from 1959-61, "and I thought I was in show business, but I didn't know what famous is.

"When you're No. 1 in the world, it does mean just that. You go to China and Bali, and you get off a plane, and they know you.

"And they not only know you, but in countries like that, it's kind of like I'm sure it was in America during the '40s and '30s. Because there's no television, your face (on the movie screen) is the size of a building to these audiences.

"So you're like a god to them.

"But there's nowhere to hide, and you have to get your head screwed on real tight, otherwise you're going to end up like Elvis (Presley) and Marilyn (Monroe).

"You're going to find yourself so unhappy, because after you're No. 1, there's only one way to go. You can't stay there, so you're going to drop eventually, and you have to prepare yourself for that.

"But preparing yourself for that is kind of like saying, `Well, here's how you prepare yourself for your parents to die.' Well, you can't. I don't give a damn whether they're sick for 25 years; if you lose one of them, you're catatonic.

"And if you've been No. 1, and then suddenly nobody answers your phone, it's going to be bad."

But how could that happen to someone who brought so much depth to such films as "Deliverance" (1972) and "The Longest Yard" (1974); who directed and starred in one of the most gripping thrillers Hollywood has produced, "Sharky's Machine" (1981); who raked in so much money in "Smokey and the Bandit" (1977), which grossed more than $200 million?

The reason originates with Reynolds himself. Having made roughly two dozen movies, without pause over 12 years, his body virtually gave out. Suddenly, the strapping ex-football player who had broken into TV and movies as a stunt man, found himself bouncing between hospitals, as rumors that he had AIDS bounced from coast to coast.

"I was tired, depressed, hyperventilating, fainting all the time," Reynolds once said.

"Some hysterical things happened. One night, my heart started pounding so hard I thought my chest was caving in. So I called an ambulance. I'm on so many movie-star maps that everybody in Hollywood knows where my house is. Every tourist from Kokomo can find it, but this ambulance couldn't find it.

"They passed three times, so I dragged myself out on the lawn and waved at them and they went by again. So I lay down in the street until they stopped.

"We got to the hospital and they pumped something into my veins and shoved me into a room with three old Jewish guys playing cards.

"I was almost unconscious at this point when suddenly I felt a hand tapping against the intravenous bottle. I looked up and this old guy said, `You play gin rummy?'

"I said, `I'm dying.'

"To which he replied, `We're all dying.'

"So we all ended up in wheelchairs playing cards while the nurse asked me for an autograph."

By the time Reynolds began to regain his health, by the time the rumors that he had AIDS began to fade away, Hollywood had turned its back on a once-bankable star.

Reynolds, who never has lacked for a cunning sense of humor, jokes about it today.

"Suddenly no one was calling, no one was coming by."

"I remember, I hadn't worked in three years, and I couldn't get a job. And Dom DeLuise came by and said, `I just got back from Italy.'

"And I said: `Yeah? How was it?'

"And he said: `You know the guy who dubs your voice? Well he's really (angry) - we're not working,' " says Reynolds, emphasizing the word "we're."

In the long run, Reynolds got the last laugh. His current TV sitcom, CBS' "Evening Shade," is a hit; his stage show has earned warm reviews across the United States.

And, yes, he thinks he knows why he survived the rough spots in a roller-coaster career.

"When you're dropped by everyone the way I was, you need an enormous faith in God or Zen or Buddha or whatever. If you don't have something, you're going to go directly to whatever puts you out of this world, whatever pill, whatever you smoke, whatever you can stick in your arm, whatever you can drink.

"I was able to come out of it with all the gray matter intact because I was extraordinarily lucky in the friends that I had."

"At the height of my career, I was with Dinah Shore, and there never has been anybody in my life who affected me as she did. . . .If I have a penny's worth of class, she gave it to me.

"And I also was with Sally (Field). She hasn't been terribly kind to me in the press, but all I ever say about her . . .is that she's the best actress I ever worked with in my life. And she also is incredibly strong-willed and determined, and I admire that."

Reynolds isn't exactly a wallflower himself, considering all he has endured on his way to the top, the bottom and the top again.

Born Burton Leon Reynolds in Waycross, Ga., he had the world on a string by the time he was 18, having been offered 14 football scholarships and an option with the Baltimore Colts.

While at Florida State University, he got into an auto accident that wrecked his knees and, it seemed, his future. But when a teacher at Palm Beach Junior College nudged him into drama, Reynolds found himself again. And even though he had to wash dishes, bounce drunks and toil for the post office in New York during the early '50s, his good looks and wry way with a line made him a star waiting to be born.

Sure enough, by 1956 he was playing opposite Charlton Heston in "Mister Roberts" at the New York City Center Theater, soon to be tapped by Hollywood.

Not that Tinseltown threw down the red carpet.

"If somebody had to be shoved down the stairs or thrown out the window or set on fire, I got the job," says Reynolds, referring to his early labors as a TV and movie bit player, which eventually got him parts on such vintage TV westerns as "Riverboat" and "Gunsmoke."

But steadily, Reynolds' star rose and, simultaneously, his offstage antics took on the status of legend. Hardly a month went by in the '60s and '70s when the gossip columnists didn't chronicle Reynolds' romantic escapades with younger women (Judy Carne, his first wife), older women (Shore, 17 years his senior), co-stars (Field, Candice Bergen, Cybill Shepherd) and so on.

And what other Hollywood hunk would pose in the altogether, as Reynolds did for Cosmopolitan magazine in 1972?

The man was irrepressible.

"There's a saying in the South that no man is a man until his father tells him he is," says Reynolds, reflecting on his rambunctious years, which apparently ended with his marriage to Loni Anderson in 1988 and their subsequent adoption of a son, Quinton, the same year.

"Well, my father unfortunately didn't tell me until I was 46. So for 46 years I was a little crazy. I was looking for an adult to put his arms around me and say: `You know what, son? You're a grownup; you can start acting differently now.'

"So I took a long time to mature. But when I did, I realized that the things that used to be terribly important to me don't even make the list anymore.

"Plus I've got a family now, although I'll be 108 when my kid's in college."

These are the issues Reynolds wrestles with during the course of his show.

But why not just put all the ideas into a book and save the hassle of working the road?

"I've been offered a lot of money to do a book, but I don't want to do the book they want me to write," says Reynolds. "They can get Shelley Winters to write that kind of book.

"And anyway, it's sort of therapeutic to talk about all this stuff on stage.

"The thing is, I've got all these anecdotes about these incredible stars . . ."