Burt Reynolds Wanted One Country Icon to Play in ‘Smokey and the Bandit’

by Joe Rutland

When putting together a cast for the legendary movie Smokey and the Bandit, actor Burt Reynolds wanted a country music icon to be in it.

Who was he talking about? None other than Merle Haggard. Let’s get a little more information about this with help from Saving Country Music.

Haggard was Reynolds’ choice to play “The Snowman” in the movie. Of course, Jerry Reed ended up playing that character and Jackie Gleason played Sheriff Buford T. Justice.

‘Smokey and the Bandit’ Star Thought Merle Haggard Would Be Good Pick in 1973

But back in 1973, Haggard agreed to appear on a Reynolds NBC special taped at the United States Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas. Haggard also had top-hit songs about prisoners like Sing Me Back Home and Mama Tried.”

The Smokey and the Bandit star got these specials from being a popular guest on  The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. Reynolds admired Haggard a lot and did ask him to appear on that Leavenworth special.

But Haggard was more private and also an ex-convict that was known for his stern personality. Reynolds loved to make jokes and have a good time. Not on the same wavelength as Merle indeed.

TV Special for Reynolds Almost Bombed Except For Country Legend’s Appearance

Reynolds’ bit didn’t help much yet Haggard came out. Everyone there gave him a standing ovation and people said it was Merle Haggard who saved the show. Because of that, Reynolds offered Haggard the role of “The Snowman” in Smokey and the Bandit.

“He offered it to me the night after we did Fort Leavenworth,” Haggard said once in an interview. “What happened [there] was kind of sideways with me. Reynolds went [onstage] and wiggled his ass at the convicts. They started whistlin’ and booin’ at the same time.

“I don’t know why he did that and they were ready to eat him alive … When I came out they gave me a standing ovation. So I never even replied to the offer on the films.”

Reynolds might not have had the pull to make that offer. It was in 1973 but the movie didn’t come out until 1977. Hollywood stuntman Hal Needham was the originator and director of the film. He envisioned Reed, who had hits like Amos Moses and When You’re Hot, Your Hot, playing The Bandit.

So, that version of the movie just wasn’t getting traction. Here comes Reynolds. He gets involved, helps find some professional screenwriters, and funding for it. Reed, with his mutton chops and bell-bottoms, went from possibly playing The Bandit to The Snowman. Reynolds became The Bandit, and the rest is history. Aside from Star Wars, Smokey and the Bandit was the highest-grossing film in 1977.