By Hal Needham, contributor
While shooting Gator in Georgia [in 1976], something small happened that changed my life forever. The driver captain on the movie came to me one day on the set and said he had brought some Coors beer from California, and that he would drop off a couple of cases in my room. At that time you couldn’t buy Coors east of the Mississippi River. I thanked him but didn’t mention that I didn’t drink much beer. Two cases of Coors appeared in my room. I put a few bottles in the fridge and forgot about it. Some days later I noticed that the fridge was empty of Coors, so I restocked it. As days went by, the beer again disappeared. I don’t claim to be a detective, but it was pretty obvious that someone with a passkey had been raiding my fridge. A good guess was a hotel employee; better yet, how about the maid?
One day when I didn’t have to work, I set a trap. I counted the beers in the fridge and went to breakfast, figuring by the time I got back the maid would be there. As I returned, she was making up my room. I left for a few minutes and returned to verify my suspicions. I counted the bottles; there were two missing. I tried to figure out why. How important was it to acquire Coors beer? I had read an article about Coors being transported on Air Force One. The driver captain had bootlegged a number of cases to Georgia. The maid was stealing two bottles at a time. This must be serious stuff. Bootlegging Coors would make a good plotline for a movie.
Over the next several weeks I scribbled out a script that I titled Smokey and the Bandit. What I wrote and what we filmed are worlds apart, but the basic plot remained the same: the Bandit was hired to bootleg a truckload of illegal Coors beer, with the law in hot pursuit. My plan was to try to put together a low-budget film for $1 million and get Jerry Reed, who had played the heavy in Gator, to star in it. I took the script home and asked Burt to read it. He reported back that the idea was good, but the dialogue was horrible. If I could find a writer to polish the dialogue and get a studio to commit to it, he would star in the movie in a six-week window he had in his schedule, and I could direct.
At that time Burt was the No. 1 box office star in the world. This shouldn’t be a hard sell; every studio wanted to be in the Burt Reynolds business. At every studio I approached and asked if they wanted to do a Burt Reynolds movie, the answer was always yes. Then I would drop the hammer: the director was Hal Needham. I got accustomed to the hems and haws before they threw me out.
I got a call from a producer named Mort Engelberg, who worked for Ray Stark, who had produced big hits like The Way We Were. I went in for a meeting with Engelberg and Stark. There were no hems and haws; they knew I was going to direct. We got right down to basics. Would Burt do the movie? Was any money owed on the script? How much would it cost to shoot? I gave them their answers, and they said they would get back to me. The next word I got was: it’s a go. Universal Studios would bankroll Smokey and the Bandit for $5.3 million. Universal figured it was a good risk, even with me directing. After all, Burt and I were good buddies, and Burt had directed two films that he starred in. They figured he would see that I didn’t get on the wrong trail.
I was to be paid a salary plus own 7% of the profits. As deals were made for the actors and producers, the studio wanted to renegotiate my deal. Universal was being asked to give up more percentage points than they were willing to. Every time the studio had to give up more points, I was asked to take less. What’s the old saying — 100% of nothing is nothing? I didn’t have an agent at the time; my business manager, Laura Lizer, was negotiating on my behalf. I told her to hang as tough as she could but not to blow the deal. When the dust settled, I ended up with 3% instead of 7%. I thought she’d made a great deal. I also think my relationship with Burt helped in the negotiations. No, I know it helped. Most first-time directors never get profit participation.
I should have been nervous, but I wasn’t. I figured if this thing went into the toilet, I could always do stunts and direct second unit and make a living. But I had one more obstacle to overcome that I hadn’t anticipated. I had picked all the locations and made a shooting schedule to fit the $5.3 million budget. Two days before we were to start shooting, Universal sent a hatchet man down to Atlanta to inform me that my budget was being cut by $1 million. Wow, what a shock! Burt was getting paid $1 million, so that left me with $3.3 million to make the movie. My assistant director and I spent 30 straight hours revising our shooting schedule.
[When it was shown] in the South the movie went through the roof and, using those box office numbers as a promotional tool, Smokey was released nationwide. The shocking part to me was the staggering business at the box offices in New York, Philly, and San Francisco. I guess it was a movie for everybody. The studio brass estimated that Smokey could make $50 million, but I said I thought it would make more. To date it has grossed over $300 million. That 3% I got turned out to be a good deal. Had my business manager and I demanded the original 7% I was promised, the movie might never have been made. After the success of Smokey, my profit participation only went up on future movies I directed.
While prepping Smokey, I saw a picture in a magazine of a Pontiac Trans Am that gave me a product placement idea. I could picture Burt Reynolds behind the wheel with Jackie Gleason on the chase. I called Pontiac and asked if they would like to have the car in the movie. They asked how many I thought I would need. Knowing the Trans Am was going to take a beating, I asked for six. We negotiated down to four, and I also asked for four Bonnevilles to use as Gleason’s sheriff car and settled for two. The bridge jump in the movie wiped out one Trans Am. Jumping the fence into the ball field took care of the second. Jumping curbs and driving through ditches and down embankments pretty well trashed the other two. Using parts from the cars that would no longer run, we managed to make it to the final day of shooting. When we got ready to shoot the last scene, car number four just flat- out wouldn’t start, so we used another car to push it into the scene. I was surprised the cars lasted as long as they did, considering all the abuse we put them through.
When Smokey was released and became a blockbuster, Trans Am sales went through the roof. If you wanted a black Trans Am, you had to wait a minimum of six months. By the time we were ready to shoot Smokey II, I was on a first-name basis with Pontiac. How many cars would I need? I asked for ten Trans Ams and 55 Bonnevilles: five for Gleason, and fifty for Gleason’s Canadian law enforcement buddies who’d come down to help him catch the Bandit. I wanted 25 painted red and the other 25 painted white. Pontiac’s only questions were where and when. I gave them the start date and the location, Las Vegas, and they said, “No problem.” At the time, I was taken to task by the critics for using real products in my movies. Now product placement in movies has grown into a multimillion-dollar industry.
It was no thanks to the critics that Smokey became a box office smash. They panned it even after it became a hit. They said things like as a first-time director, “Needham had failed miserably.” One Texas critic said that after he saw the movie, he walked out into the lobby and heard someone behind him say, “That’s the best movie I’ve ever seen!” The critic turned around to see a nine-year-old boy, and added, “That’s my review of Smokey and the Bandit.” I saved that one.
The critics gave me bad reviews on every movie I made. In my career I directed ten feature films at a total cost of $110 million that today have grossed $1.4 billion and counting. The only movie to out gross Smokey I the year it came out was Star Wars. If you want the lowdown on a movie, listen to the word of mouth of people who have seen it. Don’t be swayed by what a critic writes. Before the critics were so harsh with their reviews of Smokey and the Bandit, they might have spoken to Alfred Hitchcock. When asked to name his favorite movie — in an answer later verified by his daughter — Hitch answered, “Smokey and the Bandit.”
Stuntman! My Car-Crashing, Plane Jumping, Bone-Breaking, Death-Defying Hollywood Life
, copyright 2011, by Hal Needham, with the permission of Little, Brown and Company.