Paul Thomas Anderson’s love letter to a version of the adult film industry that ceased to exist several decades ago, 1997’s Boogie Nights is ostensibly about a sweet, somewhat dimwitted kid (Mark Wahlberg’s Dirk Diggler) who escapes a troubled home and becomes one of American pornography’s brightest stars before sweet lady cocaine comes a-callin’. However, like many Anderson films it’s really about family, in this case a surrogate family forever bonded by their experiences working in an industry which is shunned by society.
In this family structure, Burt Reynolds’ veteran director character Jack Horner looms large as the central father figure, a man who doesn’t think he is exploiting anyone but is instead helping them find the one thing that can help make them a star. Most directly based on Bob Chinn, Jack stands in for all of the adult film directors of the 1970s who truly believed they were making legit movies that happened to feature sex, and Burt Reynolds’ performance in the role brought him a Golden Globe (see his acceptance speech below) and an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor (he lost to Robin Williams for Good Will Hunting):
Prior to that point, it had been a long dry spell for Reynolds, a man who was once arguably the biggest film star of his era, never as critically acclaimed as others but more universally popular in a way that women, men, kids and people generally of all ages seemed to love him. I am personally a bit too young to truly remember that. To me, Burt Reynolds was just the funny guy in the Cannonball Run movies who did the main voice in All Dogs Go to Heaven, was married to that busty girl on WKRP in Cincinnati, and then seemed to disappear until his broadly comic turn in Demi Moore’s Striptease in ‘96 and then Boogie Nights in ’97. He’d actually been working in TV in the interim, starring in the family sitcom Out of This World from ’87 to ’91 and small town football comedy Evening Shade from ’90 to ’94. Boogie Nights was supposed to be for him what Pulp Fiction was for John Travolta, but instead of a near decade of sustained A-list status Reynolds followed up Boogie with a string of mostly forgettable B movies with an occasional Mystery, Alaska mixed in there. Cut to today and there are all sorts of reports that Reynolds is broke, a claim he vehemently denies.
When he was making Boogie Nights, Reynolds didn’t even know he was working in a good movie. He thought it was a total piece of trash, firing his agents and talent managers as a result. It also just so happened to only be Paul Thomas Anderson’s second movie, and Reynolds was far from their first choice to play Jack Horner. They offered the role to Harvey Keitel, Sydney Pollack, Warren Beatty, Bill Murray, and Albert Brooks. All of them turned it down due to the sexual content. Well, not Beatty. He turned it down because he realized what he really wanted to play was Dirk Diggler, and he was a couple decades too old for that. Burt was finally the guy who said yes, and he quickly wished he’d simply said no. Tensions built on the set between Reynolds and Anderson until, well, GrantLand’s fantastic oral history of Boogie Nights pretty much covers it:
Daniel Lupi (Producer): There was a time at the house, at Jack’s house, where Paul and Burt got into it a little bit.
John Wildermuth (first assistant director): Burt was frustrated because Paul was not allowing him to do free takes, you know, a sense of going off the page. There was also a bit of jealousy about the attention that Mark was getting as Dirk Diggler, a part that Burt probably would have loved to have played when he was younger.
John Lyons (Producer): Burt did not think Paul was respecting him. And you know Burt — respect is extremely important to him. Like many actors, he is frail in terms of his ego, and Paul didn’t really understand that. He probably understands it much better now.
John Wildermuth (first assistant director): Burt got so frustrated he pulled Paul outside into the backyard and started yelling at him, like a father, you know? “You fuckin’ little punk kid, don’t tell me what to do. You let all the other actors do free takes and you’re not letting me do any.” He read him the riot act. Paul stood there and took it in and then argued back with him. And then when they walked back into the house, Paul had his sly little smirk on his face.
Tom Lenk (played Floyd’s Kid): All of a sudden we saw fists flying. We saw some fists flying from Burt Reynolds. I hope I don’t get in trouble for saying this. But it was like he was trying to punch our director in the face.
John Lyons (Producer): I had to pull Burt’s arm back when it was cocked. I was in the middle of it. Burt was getting ready to slug him and I was like, “Burt, Burt, no, no, don’t, don’t do it.” And then I had to take Burt back to the trailer. And I spent a lot of time in Burt’s trailer. A lot. I love Burt. I thought he was incredible. He was old Hollywood; there were a lot of people on that set that just didn’t really have the time or the interest in it.
David Ansen (Film Critic, Newsweek): Reynolds thought he was in a dirty movie and wanted out and wasn’t happy.
JoAnne Sellar (Producer): He was absolutely perfect for Jack Horner, but I don’t think he understood what he was getting involved with at the time.
Tom Lenk (Floyd’s Kid): I just remember somebody on the crew saying, “Yeah, well, Burt’s got a thing in his contract that if he punches the director in the face, he can’t get fired because he’s got a temper. It’s just known that it’s gonna happen.”
John Lyons (Producer): In that particular case, Paul bit off a little more than he could chew. Burt scared the shit out of him that day. I don’t think Paul was smirking. I think he was literally shaken by it.
Could Paul Thomas Anderson have let all of this happen on purpose?
John Wildermuth (first assistant director): The reason I [think] that Paul baited Burt is that the next day we shot the scene in the backyard by the pool where Jack tells Dirk to do the scene and Dirk says, “It’s my big cock, I wanna do whatever the fuck I want,” and the two of them get into a shoving match. And all of that energy between those characters was real energy that had been building and manifesting over the weeks prior. And then it exploded all in that scene on camera.
Eh, probably not:
John Lyons (Producer): Paul was directing this big, sprawling movie. And I just think for whatever reason he was like, “I don’t have the mental or emotional space to give Burt what he needs from me.” By the time we got to that moment, Burt was just like a tinderbox and Paul provoked him slightly and he fuckin’ blew. I think Paul was physically afraid that day.
In Reynolds’ defense, after nearly punching Paul Thomas Anderson he only had one other physical altercation with someone on set, this time it being Thomas Jane and he apologized with a nice bottle of wine the next day. Plus, when Reynolds wasn’t stewing in “I used to be the star of stars, now I’m ‘Father knows best’ in this nothing dirty movie directed by this pipsqueak?” anger he was regaling the younger actors with colorful stories from his many years in Hollywood.
And that’s the story of the time Burt Reynolds almost punched the director on the set of Boogie Nights.