Celebrities enter into an odd compact with the journalists who interview them. They've got a book, a movie or a TV show to promote, and we've got a story to file. Quid pro quo. Everybody's happy.
But after the events of this week, when actor Burt Reynolds dissolved in a fit of temper during his San Francisco press stop to promote his biography, "My Life," I have to question the wisdom of putting this man on tour at all.In the 20-odd years that I have been in the business of interviewing celebrities, I have never had an experience like the one I had on Wednesday afternoon.
After a 40-minute conversation in his hotel suite, Reynolds grabbed my sheet of questions and crumpled it into a little ball and ripped my reporter's note pad to shreds. Then he took my hand and shook it, squeezing my fingers as hard as he could, and literally shoved me out the door.
The odds, I must say, in this confrontation, were not even.
Reynolds is 6 feet tall and goes at least 185-190. I am 5-foot-1, and weigh in at . . . well, never mind. All I can say is: If I had been a guy, he'd have decked me.
The interview went south even before I'd walked in the door, probably at 10 that morning, when he angrily accused Ronn Owens of KGO Radio of not reading his book.
Reynolds seemed to lose it when Owens admitted that his "homework" had included skimming the book and reading a file of recent tabloid clips about Reynolds' divorce tribulations with Loni An-der-son.
Owens told me later over the phone that during a commercial break, he asked Reynolds how much of the anger he had shown on the air was real and how much was an act. "At which point he gets up and comes around my console, puts his face an inch from mine and says to me: `You think this anger is put on, punk?' "
It had been my intention to have some fun with Reynolds and ask him what I thought were interesting and provocative questions, not the usual puffball stuff he could probably do by rote. Wrong.
The moment I walked in the door he identified me as the enemy.
Reynolds, limply reclining on a couch, seemed enervated and incapable of saying hello, let alone giving an interview. He looked good enough, all gussied up like a Neiman Marcus cowboy.
I asked him about Dinah Shore, not what he got out of their May-December relationship, but what she got out of it. He hated the question. He refused to answer it and gave me his boilerplate response instead. She was, he said, responsible for turning him on to everything fine in his life. Good books, good art. Even plugged him in to his own artistic talent. (He sculpts.)
Then we talked about the "good old boy" image he developed in films like "Cannonball Run" and "Smokey and the Bandit." Seemed like an innocent enough question. And again, he took umbrage.
"Just because I'm from the South, you think I'm a good old boy? Was William Faulkner a good old boy because he was from Mississippi? Was that guy who wrote `In Cold Blood' (Truman Capote) a good old boy because he was from New Orleans? I don't think so."
Meanwhile, the phone was ringing peskily throughout this whole process. Someone who heard him on Owens' show, explained Reynolds. Someone who wanted to kill him.
"There are always these guys who want to go home to their wives and tell them that they faced down Burt Reynolds," he harrumphed.
By now, I was starting to get a little nervous myself. Just where was his handler, Scott Jackson, anyway?
The final blow-up came when I told him that I had a question I had to ask him - one that came from my boss. There was a squib in the paper about his and Anderson's divorce hearing being postponed for a month. Nothing sensational. Just a simple news item. And a follow-up question was in order: "Burt, why is the court postponing your divorce hearing for a month?"
He lost it so fast that I never got a chance to finish my sentence. This had turned into a nightmare.
"Mr. Reynolds," I said, "this interview is not too much fun for you and it certainly is not very much fun for me. Shall we just call it a draw and quit?"
"No, no, no, no. I want to continue," he insisted, intent on making some points. Like: "You don't know me. You haven't read this book. You'd know me if you'd read this book."
Actually, I had finished the book, which I found a quick and pleasant read. But he didn't believe me.
Reynolds proceeded to slide down the couch so that his nose was within inches of mine and started banging on my copy of his book with his index finger. He wanted to emphasize what a self-deprecating and self-aware man he was - not the puffed up bully the press has made him out to be.
I was so flustered by his anger that I dropped my sheet of questions and note pad on the floor. Reynolds quickly retrieved them, which I mistook for a chivalrous gesture.
"You don't need these," he snarled. "You're not going to write about me." He then mangled the sheet and ripped my note pad to shreds, stomping the pieces into the carpet for good measure.
Now, I have done a lot of strange and dangerous things as a reporter. I've driven in a semi over the Donner Pass in a snowstorm with a 90-pound female trucker. I've gotten lost in Nevada's Black Rock Desert. And I've had a horny old goat named Danny Kaye attempt to run his hands up my thighs. But I have never felt as threatened as I did when Reynolds decided that he'd had enough.
After our brief interlude, I learned that Reynolds canceled the rest of his national book tour and flew directly back to his home in Florida. Obviously the man needs a rest.
A long rest.