In 1977, the epic tale of a hero captivated audiences and found huge box office success. No, not Star Wars. We’re talking about Smokey and the Bandit.
The plot of the movie may sound a little strange and dated to modern-day viewers. Two guys make a bet over whether or not the Bandit (Burt Reynolds) can transport 400 cases of Coors beer from Texas to Atlanta, with police and highway patrol on his tail. In the ‘70s, Coors wasn’t the nationally available product it is today. It had no preservatives, and refrigeration technology wasn’t yet sophisticated enough to transport it very far, so it was only available in the Western states. Beyond that, taking it back east was technically a criminal bootlegging offense. (This also explains why the Bandit had such a tight timeline—the beer was going to spoil without refrigeration.)
An article about Coors bootlegging is what inspired Hollywood stuntman (and Burt Reynolds’ stunt double) Hal Needham to write the movie (which he would later direct). He had been living in Burt Reynolds’ pool house for more than a decade when he wrote the first draft of the script on legal pads.
After watching Smokey and the Bandit, lots of people wanted to drive a car just like the Bandit’s: a black Pontiac Trans Am. Sales of the car doubled after the release of the movie. On set, a total of three Trans Ams were used—one of which was totaled during the scene where the car has to jump a bridge.
This relatively low-budget movie (it cost $4.3 million to make, of which $1 million was Reynolds’ salary) was expected to do moderate business, as Burt Reynolds was already a star, headlining hits like Gator and The Longest Yard. But Smokey and the Bandit was a monster hit. In 1977, it made $126 million at the box office—only Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind made more money that year. In 2017 dollars, Smokey and the Bandit made the equivalent of half a billion dollars.
For his role as the always apoplectic Sheriff Buford T. Justice, Jackie Gleason took inspiration from real life—he based his performance on Burt Reynolds’ father, a former police chief of Jupiter, Florida.
The Surprising Fan
Surprisingly, it was one of the favorite movies of legendary director Alfred Hitchcock. Every Wednesday, he’d screen movies in his office, and between 1977 and his death in 1980, more than not, Smokey and the Bandit was playing. It was reportedly among the last films Hitchcock watched he passed away.
The Theme Song
Jerry Reed wrote the movie’s theme song, “Eastbound and Down,” in just two hours.
There are lots of sequels to Smokey and the Bandit, none of which performed as well as the original. Reynolds returned for Smokey and the Bandit II, but only makes a brief cameo in Smokey and the Bandit III, in which Sheriff Buford T. Justice is the one who has to make the big delivery (a stuffed fish going from Florida to Texas). In the ‘90s, writer-director Hal Needham revived the franchise for four made-for-TV movies: Bandit Goes Country, Bandit Bandit, Beauty and the Bandit, and Bandit’s Silver Angel. They didn’t have Burt Reynolds of the Trans Am—an actor named Brian Bloom played the Bandit and he drove a Dodge Stealth.