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He's back, and he's got a new toupee

In the Seventies he ruled Hollywood, in the Eighties he fell into B-movie, chatshow hell, and now, finally, Burt Reynolds is back, as the slimy porn merchant in the hit disco nostalgia fest `Boogie Nights'. Nick Hasted charts his recovery.

"I've made films where there are a few laughs and everybody gets in there and fucks their brains out," says the veteran. "That's fine. But now I'm on to something else." The speaker is Jack Horner, a porn- maker with a yen for more, setting down his creed in Paul Thomas Anderson's 1970s porn epic Boogie Nights. But the lines were written by the actor playing him, Burt Reynolds. It's a request for a second chance. When he materialised on British TV screens last year, in an ad for spectacles, it must have surprised some that he was still alive. Others wondered why he bothered, having sunk so far. But Reynolds has hit worse lows than that in recent years. Before Boogie Nights, he was in a form of hell. The film is his shot at redemption.

The old Burt Reynolds would never have countenanced such talk. When from 1977 to 1982 he was Hollywood's king, a good ol' boy grin was never far from his lips. He was always capable of acting, as in the film that made him a star, John Boorman's brutal Deliverance (1972). But as the decade wore on, fast cars and pretty girls got the better of him, in Smokey and the Bandit and others.

Reynolds' fame had had a superficial edge even before that. He had made his name as a chat show guest, and as a male centrefold. He periodically tried to break free from what he called the "mink-lined rut" of his image. But when he did, no one noticed his excellence, he was left frozen out by Hollywood snobbery. So he kept crashing cars, until people stopped watching. By the mid-Eighties, cut-price Burts such as Tom Selleck were on TV every week. Weakened by the after-effects of the smashing of his jaw on the set of City Heat (1985), the collapse of a career based on emptiness was swift. Paul Thomas Anderson thought of Reynolds as he wrote Boogie Nights, in part about the death of the Seventies. It's easy to see why.

But Reynolds was too big a name to simply vanish. Instead, he was banished to post-fame purgatory, showbiz's bitter outer circle. It's here that his heart was laid bare. Scan the cuttings of the work he did then, and the films anyone's seen are few. But the chat shows are constant. His bravest, most solitary appearance may have been when the wound of his decline was still raw. The damage to his jaw had made him weak, dizzy; he was on TV to tell America he didn't have AIDS. But the sniff of illness had already damned him in Hollywood. It may have been the real reason his stardom's eclipse was so swift.

And yet, it was from this low that redemption grew. When he had been powerful, Reynolds' niceness was all he bothered to show in his work. But in his time in the wilderness, he was forced to discover what else he had inside him. Burt Reynolds may be a basically decent man. But he has also seen his country's darkest corners. Born in the bayou to a Native American sheriff, at his peak he walked with four Presidents, and saw what they did; and then there was the tacky tinsel of his fall. The films that have made people look at him again use all of that.

His first step on to new ground was in The Maddening (1995), as a Southern child-killer. Then came Striptease, with Demi Moore. Reynolds was so desperate for his role, he threw his toupee at the wall in audition. As an amiable, utterly corrupt Miami senator, memorably smothered at one point in Vaseline, all the better to "make love" to a pair of Moore's panties, Reynolds looked to his past, to the local politics his father had been a part of, and the things he'd seen himself, in the shadows of the White House. "I know what he's like," he said simply.

He said the same thing about Boogie Nights' Jack Horner. Horner keeps his dignity when he's a success, dreaming of legitimacy. But on the way down, he lashes out. It's a part which is great only because Burt Reynolds plays it. It's his experiences which hold Horner together. People are calling it his comeback. It's not hard to imagine Tarantino knocking on his door, one day soon. But Reynolds doesn't need him. "Success is Burt Reynolds' only handicap," Orson Welles once commented. He overcame that long ago. Now, he's just living his life, at fame's strange edge. And sometimes making films which do it justice.

Ryan Gilbey on Boogie Nights: page 8