During the mid-1970s, the only place you'd see Hal Needham's name in a movie was at the end credits. A stuntman who lived in Burt Reynolds' guesthouse, Needham had worked on dozens of movies but had an idea to make his own. One day he presented his landlord with a script he'd written called "Smokey and the Bandit."
Reynolds' reaction, according to Needham: "I didn't even think you could spell."
Nevertheless, "Smokey and the Bandit," directed by Needham and starring Reynolds as a rascally bootlegger, became one of the top grossers of 1977. It transformed Reynolds from a pulp-action star into an almost family-friendly figure, while the newly minted director would soon become synonymous with stunt-heavy action-comedies. "Like a Hal Needham movie" is a phrase that critics would use with exasperation, but "Smokey and the Bandit" remains a favorite, emblematic of an American era obsessed with muscle cars, truckers and CB radio.
"It was the comedy," Needham, 81, says today, pinpointing the film's success. "We didn't do anything like you see today, with the whaddayacallit, the CGI -- we didn't have any super-spectacular stunts. But the ones we did were funny."
HAL AND BURT Needham, who appears in Huntington Wednesday night to screen "Smokey" and sign copies of "Stuntman!," his new autobiography, first doubled for Reynolds on NBC's Western series "Riverboat" and did so well that he became part of the star's contract. The two also became friends, thanks perhaps to their shared humble origins. The actor was a military brat raised in Michigan, the director a sharecropper's son born in Tennessee.
That may explain the heartland sensibility in "Smokey," whose plot centered on a truckful of Coors (country singer Jerry Reed played the driver) and took place largely in the South. Jackie Gleason played the bloviating sheriff Buford T. Justice, while Sally Field did her best Georgia accent as a small-town beauty who hops into Bandit's Pontiac Trans Am.
"We weren't born with silver spoons in our mouths," Needham says of himself and Reynolds. "And our likes and dislikes were pretty much the same."
They teamed up again for "Hooper" (1978), a "Smokey" sequel (1980) and "The Cannonball Run" (1981), but by the mid-1980s, special effects were edging out Needham's brand of stuntwork. The director moved away from movies and became involved in NASCAR as co-owner of Harry Gant's Skoal Bandit car.
Now that he has finished his memoir, Needham says, he may try writing another book. "I know I'm not going to do any more stunts. I'm too old and too smart."
WHO Hal Needham
WHEN | WHERE Wednesday night at 7 at Cinema Arts Centre, 423 Park Ave., Huntington
INFO $9-$13, 631-423-7611; cinemaartscentre.org